Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Coalition calls for M.S. OneBrooklyn, dedicated "quality" middle school at Atlantic Yards site, with arts/science focus; CB 8 on board, not CB 2; need trumps location concerns

In a show of significant but hardly complete unity, a coalition of neighborhood groups, parent groups, and elected officials held a press conference in Prospect Heights yesterday reiterating a request made last month at a public hearing: that the 616-seat public school planned for the Atlantic Yards complex be a middle school--a school long sought by neighborhood advocates--rather than a dedicated elementary/intermediate hybrid.

They began lobbying city officials to accomplish that goal and launched a petition (as of publication, there were 139 signatures) and a web site.

The working name, M.S. OneBrooklyn, echoes--though does not specifically mention--the rhetoric of Borough President Eric Adams, who uses the term for his publication and several initiatives.

District 13 map via Brooklyn Eagle
Adams was not present, but the effort was supported by Council Member Laurie Cumbo (and Council Member Brad Lander, who wasn't there), Assemblymembers Walter Mosley and Jo Anne Simon, state Senator Jesse Hamilton, and Public Advocate Letitia James, who lives in District 13 and was Cumbo's predecessor.

Community Board 8, which has long advocated for such a school in Prospect Heights, endorsed the plan, with Sharon Wedderburn, who chairs the Education Committee, saying, "I personally have lost friends going to other communities because they sought an appropriate middle-school education for their children."

Nearby District 15 is known for high-quality standalone middle schools, while many middle schools in District 13 share space with elementary schools and thus lack full services for such older students.

Notably, the proposed school would engage arts groups and science organizations, and also pursue dual language learning--all signifiers for higher-quality schooling than in some other area schools. (The press release even claimed that M.S. OneBrooklyn would have a "unique location within Brooklyn’s cultural district," rather than near that district.)

Community Board 2, which will contain at least seven of the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park buildings and a majority of the population, was not present. It has questioned the location, suggesting the school be moved to the southeast block of the project, and said "the decision on whether the school be designed for elementary or middle school students, or both, should be deferred in order to respond to the needs at the time the school opens."

From B5, where school was previously planned,  to B15
Asked at the press conference if the organizers had spoken with CB 2, Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council responded, "We have spoken with other stakeholders, and will continue to do so." After my follow-up query, he clarified to say that they had not yet spoken with CB 2.

Why wasn't this announced during the period when the School Construction Authority was soliciting comments? Such efforts take time to put together, Veconi said afterward.

What about the location?

Apparently the need for the school trumps concerns about the its placement.

At the press conference, only James publicly acknowledged that the school's site, Building 15 (east of Sixth Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets),  "is very challenging... I do have concerns... Nonetheless, I think we should go forward and demand a freestanding middle school, with all the bells and whistles that our children deserve."

Indeed, the 27-story tower, which otherwise will contain luxury rentals, has no open space of its own, is across the street from a fire station and one block from a police station. Moreover, if and when B1 is built over the arena plaza, one entrance to the arena will shift to the east side of the arena block, opposite the school.

A high-quality, standalone school

As Dave Goldsmith, president of the Community Education Council for District 13, put it in a press release (below), "CEC 13 and many others have long identified increasing access to high quality, diverse District middle schools as a top priority for District 13. Prospect Heights has no District middle school, and the M.S. OneBrooklyn vision that we announce today would be an important step in addressing local and District-wide needs."

As I wrote last week, they're not arguing that District 13 itself lacks middle school seats, just "quality" ones, and a location in Prospect Heights.

While that reflects longstanding area needs, it does not necessarily reflect the rationale for the school in Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, which, according to the Second Amended Memorandum of Environmental Commitments, is "mitigation for the projected significant adverse impact to the supply of elementary and intermediate school seats" caused by the construction of project apartments.

CEC 13 has argued that there would be elementary school capacity in area schools, "especially when consideration is made to the significant percentage of out-of-district 13 students some of these schools presently serve." (Does that mean kicking them out? Updated and corrected: it means limiting future entrants.)

And while District 13 lacks a freestanding middle school, given that M.S. 113 in Fort Greene is now colocated with a charter elementary school and a special ed program, M.S 113 still has significant capacity. (According to Compass Charter School, "With all schools at full scale in five years, the building’s projected utilization rate is 72%-79%.")

M.S. 113, however, has discipline problems and declining enrollment, according to an Inside Schools review. (Also, though the district is indeed integrated, the school has just 2% white students. The coalition yesterday was integrated.)

Asked whether 113 could help solve some of the capacity problems, Goldsmith said, "We tried to defend M.S. 113 as our only freestanding middle school. It was co-located by the previous administration. We think it was a big mistake. It's not a mystery how to make a good middle school. We need that kind of offering. District 13, like District 15 and other successful districts, needs a freestanding middle school with a larger school population. This will address that. Finally, we don't see M.S. 113 or any of our other middle schools as islands. We want to create a vision for the entire district... There's a big plan for 113. It's about to receive a $1.2 million grant.. to promote socioeconomic integration.... we're going going to having a big conversation about diversity in our district and equity in our district."

What do city and developer say?

I have suggested that developer Greenland Forest City Partners would prefer a primary/intermediate school as planned, since it would be a selling point for new residents. (Then again, if it were ensured that nearby P.S. 9 accepted all elementary students for the project, maybe they wouldn't mind.) I didn't get much of a clue either way.

“We believe a school at Pacific Park will contribute greatly to community we are developing," spokesman Joe DePlasco responded. "We are proud to build out the space according to School Construction Authority and the Department of Education specifications.”

Department of Education officials told DNAinfo, "We welcome feedback from stakeholders throughout the community and we are engaged in an ongoing dialogue on how to best meet the needs of families. Plans for this school are under review."

Here's coverage in DNAinfo (Parents Form Lobbying Group to Push for Middle School at Atlantic Yards) and the Brooklyn Paper (Tween spirit: Locals demand middle school in Atlantic Yards). Other than a community person, I was the only person to ask questions during the Q&A period of the press conference.

At the press conference

At the press conference (below), Goldsmith noted that many elementary schools in District 13 "have transformed themselves" and are in high demand. "The next big frontier for us," he said, "is our middle schools." He cited the vision to link the school to "high-quality arts education, high-quality STEM curriculum."

Maggie Spillane: an incoming CEC 13 member and a P.S. 9 parent, noted (below) that "Prospect Heights has a longstanding need for a middle school," citing a "district-wide need for more seats at high quality middle schools."

By planning from the start, she said, "it would not be afterword, not be an awkward add-on."

CB 8 and Council Member

As noted in the video below, CB 8's Wedderburn said "having a middle school in Prospect Heights is something that was planned organically" by stakeholders.

Added Council Member Cumbo, "If we don't provide a quality middle school choice, we're going to lose residents to other neighborhoods." Cumbo, founder of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), said she was " extremely excited" about incorporating arts, as well as science education.

Public Advocate James

As noted in the video below, James said that, as a Council Member almost six years ago, she organized a middle school task force, but the Department of Education "informed me that this district did not need a middle-school... i informed them that a freestanding middle-school was desperately needed." She then acknowledged the challenges of the location.

Hamilton and Simon

At one point during his remarks, state Senator Hamilton observed, "What's more important, eminent domain for a stadium, or eminent domain for a school?" That was somewhat ironic, because the "eminent domain for a school"--though he was speaking generally--in this case also meant
"eminent domain for luxury housing."

Assemblymember Simon said "this school was an afterthought...  it was a mitigation. I look forward to the day when our schools are not mitigations for someone else's plan." I'd say it's not merely an "afterthought" but a bit of a plaything, since it's been moved around by the developer.

Next steps and questions

Veconi, as noted in the video below, said the next step was to engage city officials. He then answered by question about CB 2.

About M.S. 113

In the video below, Goldsmith answered my question about M.S. 113, and also said, "We have many small middle schools that exist as an afterthought. They don't have middle school libraries, they don't have middle school gyms... don't have programs... that middle schoolers need.. it's been a real challenge for us to have all these little tiny middle schools stuck on top of elementary schools."

The press release, verbatim

Community organizations, parents and elected officials announce vision for dedicated middle school at Atlantic Yards
BROOKLYN, NY, July 7, 2015: Today, a coalition including Community Education Council 13; Brooklyn Community Board 8; the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC); leaders of the parent-teacher organizations of Brooklyn public schools P.S. 9, P.S. 11, P.S. 20, P.S. 133, and P.S. 282; and elected officials announced M.S. OneBrooklyn, a community vision for a new public middle school to serve District 13. M.S. OneBrooklyn would be located in the school facility being created at the Atlantic Yards project expected to open in September 2018, and would help meet a significant local need for a dedicated intermediate school accessible to all District 13 students.

M.S. OneBrooklyn’s unique location within Brooklyn’s cultural district will enable it to offer a curriculum that recognizes the intrinsic value of the arts and culture while also using them as a critical lens through which students learn to see themselves, the communities around them, and the role of the arts and culture in society. Reflecting the many technology start-ups that now call this part of Brooklyn home, M.S. OneBrooklyn will offer a comprehensive science, technology, engineering and math (“STEM”) curriculum. Subjects like software engineering and robotics will complement a rigorous math and science foundation, preparing students for the challenges of high school, college and future careers. M.S. OneBrooklyn will offer dual language studies, in order to provide continuity in the bilingual and bicultural educations of the students in six District 13 dual language elementary school programs while providing deep support for English language learning students.

David Goldsmith, president of the Community Education Council for District 13, said, "CEC 13 and many others have long identified increasing access to high quality, diverse District middle schools as a top priority for District 13. Prospect Heights has no District middle school, and the M.S. OneBrooklyn vision that we announce today would be an important step in addressing local and District-wide needs. We join with others in proposing M.S. OneBrooklyn as a dedicated middle school located in the heart of Brooklyn—a school devoted to academic excellence rooted in diversity, and of the right size to sustain the variety of programs that our middle schoolers deserve. CEC 13 is keenly aware of the short- and long-term elementary and middle school capacity needs given the residential development across the District, and we look forward to working collaboratively with the DOE and other stakeholders to identify solutions to provide excellent learning conditions for all of our students."

“For years, we’ve recognized the need for a dedicated District 13 middle school to serve the communities in northwest Brooklyn and beyond,” agreed Sharon Wedderburn, chair of Brooklyn Community Board 8’s Education Committee. “The construction of a new school at Atlantic Yards is the opportunity."

“As our beloved downtown Brooklyn expands both horizontally and vertically, its residential footprint also swells, leaving schools that once accommodated our children comfortably now challenged by a growing population. The need for a stand-alone middle school, zoned for school District 13, is now, more than ever, evidently clear,” said City Council Member Laurie A. Cumbo, who represents the 35th New York City Council District, including the neighborhoods of downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights and parts of Bedford Stuyvesant. “All children, regardless of background or socioeconomic status, should be equally entitled to the finest quality education. As a community, we have a shared responsibility to provide our children with the fullest range of opportunities to succeed in school, work, and in life. The Pacific Park/Atlantic Yards school, which sits in the heart of Brooklyn, is an ideal location to meet the needs of our families. Over the past year, I have heard numerous accounts of families leaving the district just for the opportunity to attend a middle school that fulfilled their curriculum preferences. It is essential that our families have the ability to remain in our community where we can continue to invest both in our children, our neighborhood schools and our institutions. The M.S. OneBrooklyn vision ensures that our families and their children will benefit from our world’s premier centers of culture and innovation, as well as a robust well-rounded curriculum.”

“I commend the forward thinking and planning of the M.S. OneBrooklyn proposal. Likewise, I want to acknowledge the efforts of Community Board 8 and local community groups for their added vision and recommendations towards this matter,” said Assembly Member Walter Mosley, whose 57th Assembly District includes District 13 students in Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene. “Though the issues of utilization and capacity projections, along with quality control concerns need to be addressed on an ongoing and real time basis, the prerequisite to tackle one of the most immediate pedagogical concerns must not be ignored as we seek to undertake pressing local academic needs and opportunities.”

“There aren’t enough promising options for rising middle schoolers at P.S. 9, and that means we see many families leaving our school in upper grades—or even earlier—just to lock in middle school options,” said Alicia Nosenzo, Co-President of the P.S. 9 PTO in Prospect Heights. “A dedicated middle school in our District will not only provide needed additional middle school seats, but it will increase the diversity and stability of our elementary schools, too.”

Cynthia McKnight, Co-President of the P.S. 11 PTA in Clinton Hill, stated: "Our children deserve the opportunity to continue their first-rate elementary school education, which includes arts enrichment and real-world application of their math and science learning. The M.S. OneBrooklyn vision offers that, in a middle school community that prioritizes diversity, safety, strong relationships and the important social and emotional needs of young adolescents."

Andrew Marshall, Co-President of the P.S./M.S. 282 PTO in Park Slope, agreed and added, “We need more middle school seats in District 13—especially at high quality schools like M.S. OneBrooklyn promises to be. The establishment of quality middle schools in the area is long overdue."

"As parents and public school advocates, we believe that there is an urgent need for additional middle school seats in District 13. Our elementary schools are producing diverse, accomplished graduates, and our neighborhoods need more middle schools that are devoted to ensuring that our students reach their full potential,” said Carlos Saavedra, vice president of community involvement for P.S. 133’s PTA. "We believe that the new Atlantic Yards School as a mid-sized, dedicated middle school is an ideal way to address this need.”

Diane Stephen, former Secretary of the P.S.133 PTA and former CEC13 member, added, "District 13 is lacking quality middle school choices. Parents at P.S. 133 and other schools in this area of the District are especially underserved, and they look outside the District for other options. In addition to continuing to improve the middle schools in this District, it is imperative that this proposed Atlantic Yards school be a free standing middle school for District 13.”

“By committing now to use the space being made available at the Atlantic Yards site as a dedicated middle school, the Department of Education can create an optimal learning environment for the District’s intermediate school students that ensures they get the most from this important public asset,” said Gib Veconi, chair of PHNDC.

Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon’s 52nd Assembly District covers parts of downtown Brooklyn, Park Slope, and Prospect Heights. “District 13 needs a middle school in a modern facility that offers the variety of courses, electives and extracurricular activities students need to be college and career ready, and in so doing, strengthen our communities, our city and our state,” she said. “I strongly support the M.S. OneBrooklyn vision.”

Brooklyn arts organizations were quick to endorse the M.S. OneBrooklyn vision for a school integrating a cultural component into its curriculum. Organizers announced BRIC, Roulette, 651 ARTS and Theater for a New Audience have already expressed support, with additional institutions expected to follow shortly.

“By offering students exposure to contemporary, relevant and vital creative work being produced and presented today in Brooklyn, we look forward not only to developing a new generation with appreciation for the role of art in society, but also to helping extend students’ ability to think critically about the world around them,” said Shay Wafer, Executive Director of 651 ARTS.

New York’s technology community also praised the M.S. OneBrooklyn vision as timely and well-aligned with the goal of ensuring that all of the borough’s public school students have access to an education that will prepare them for a place in the economy of the future.

“New York City must make a significant investment in updated and expanding access to computer science and software engineering in order to prepare students for twenty-first century jobs, a significant percentage of which will be in the tech industry—the economy’s fastest growing sector,” said Michael Preston, Executive Director of the New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education (CSNYC), a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding access to computer science education in public schools citywide.

"I am pleased to support the M.S. OneBrooklyn vision for a new District 13 middle school that brings students from our communities together with a focus on the arts, technology, and foreign languages, in partnership with a wide range of arts, technology, business, and community organizations, to help all kids succeed," said City Council Member Brad Lander, whose 39th City Council District includes District 13 students in north Park Slope.

“M.S. OneBrooklyn is a vision for a middle school that reflects the diversity of Brooklyn, from a community-based coalition promoting quality education,” said State Senator Jesse Hamilton, whose 20th State Senate District includes District 13 families in Prospect Heights and Park Slope. “It represents a goal worthy of this community of parents and educators, and I enthusiastically join this effort. Together, we can create a new district public school that celebrates the diversity of Brooklynites, and respects education and educators.”

"District 13 needs a new middle school—especially one that utilizes the unique cultural assets in Brooklyn,” said New York City Public Advocate Letitia James. “The vision for M.S. OneBrooklyn shows what we can accomplish when we listen to the needs of the local community, and I hope this proposal will be a serious part of the conversation."

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