P.S. 20 Parents Oppose Arts & Letters Expansion

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Eliza Ronalds-Hannon, CUNY J-School
(Publishers Note: This article first appeared October 28) Tensions ran high at Tuesday night’s crowded District 13 schools meeting, as parents continued to fume over news they got at last week’s P.S. 20 PTA meeting, which featured screaming and an allusion to overcrowded slave ships.
Many parents found out last week that an application to expand the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts & Letters – a middle school in the same building as P.S. 20, an elementary school – had advanced further than they had realized. The proposal would expand Arts & Letters, which currently serves grades 6 through 8, into a Kindergarten-through-8th-grade school.
Topping the list of P.S. 20 parent concerns was a shortage of space in the building at 225 Adelphi Street that houses both schools. As of October 15, 309 students were enrolled at Arts & Letters and 342 were enrolled at P.S. 20, which serves children from pre-kindergarten through 5th grade.
“They’re already overcrowding classrooms,” said Joanne C., a P.S. 20 parent, who was one of several who gave the Local accounts of last week’s PTA meeting. She noted that students have to eat lunch in shifts, some as early as 10:30 a.m., because of the cafeteria’s limited capacity.
“They’re saying if it becomes too crowded they’ll look at other options,” she said. “Why not start with another option?”
But space isn’t the only issue. Some P.S. 20 parents said they worry that their children will become second-class students alongside a better-funded and more stable school in the same building.
“Arts & Letters has a long history of foundation support, has bake sales, will have classes capped at 25,” said Derek Stroup, a P.S. 20 parent. “This school will have hand-picked faculty.” He pointed out that P.S. 20, on the other hand, has lost funding and staff in recent years.
“That looks like separate and unequal public accommodations,” Mr. Stroup said. “It’s like a scientific experiment.”
P.S. 20 parents also worry that children who are not in the new Arts & Letters elementary school may lose the opportunity to attend middle school at Arts & Letters.
“It kind of takes Arts & Letters off the table completely for kids in the district,” said Mr. Stroup. “If you don’t get in starting at Kindergarten, it’s pretty much not going to happen.”
The Academy of Arts & Letters is one of a crop of specialized public schools run as a partnership between the Department of Education and The Urban Assembly, a nonprofit organization supported by corporate partners like The Gates Foundation and Time Warner, as well as individual donors. The Urban Assembly’s schools are heavily focused on college preparation, and up until now have been limited to high schools and middle schools. The Arts and Letters expansion would represent The Urban Assembly’s first foray into primary education.
“The desire to create a K-through-8 school came out of a desire to have more time with our students and their families,” said Allison Gaines Pell, the principal at Arts & Letters.
This proposal comes at a shaky time in P.S. 20’s history, as the school has only recently begun to regain momentum after losing its principal and a chunk of its students at the end of the 2008-2009 school year. P.S. 20’s new principal, Lena Barbera, declined to comment.
Eliza Ronalds-Hannon Parents and students packed Tuesday night’s District 13 schools meeting.
The PTA meeting on October 20 was the first to bring together P.S. 20 parents and faculty with representatives from the Department of Education. Also present were officials from the President’s Council and the Community Education Council for District 13. Courtney McNally, from the DOE’s Office of Portfolio Planning, announced that the outline had reached “stage two” in the planning process, according to parents present at the meeting. Ms. McNally told parents that studies indicate the building is large enough to accommodate both schools.
Some parents were skeptical, and expressed it at the meeting.
“We are all familiar with the very famous ‘blueprint’ of the hull of a slave ship, that says it can fit bodies packed on top of each other,” said P.S. 20 parent Jylani Brown, who was present at the meeting and said she made the same comparison there. “That doesn’t mean it’s right.”
Reached by phone, Joyce Szuflita, who runs NYC School Help and guides Brooklyn parents through school choice, didn’t go that far. But she did say that the DOE is famously liberal in its evaluation of capacity. “It’s kind of the equivalent of counting a closet in the square footage,” she said.
Ms. McNally invited parents to voice their concerns and provided email addresses and fax numbers to do so, but many parents called that an empty gesture.
“It became transparent to everyone there that it was sort of Robert Moses-style planning. You get it all rigged up and then once it’s a done deal you have this meaningless public exchange,” said Stroup.
DOE spokesperson Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld said yesterday that the opinion of parents would be considered and that the expansion is not a done deal.
“If there is, eventually, a formal proposal, then we would have a joint public hearing at the school,” he said. “We’ll continue to solicit feedback before we post a formal proposal.”
Although many Arts & Letters parents supported the application submitted in July, the concern over space isn’t limited to the P.S. 20 community.
“I really admire Ms. Pell for what she’s thinking, philosophy-wise,” said Vasilla Caldeira, who has had children in both P.S. 20 and Arts & Letters. “But Arts & Letters doesn’t even have room for lockers. They carry their bags on their backs, their coats in the wintertime, everything, from class to class.”
“I would love if Arts & Letters were to expand,” Ms. Caldeira said. “But expand in another location that gives them the opportunity to have that great science lab, that great dance studio, that great gym.”

Revised date, time and place of joint public hearings for expansion proposal.
December 8, 2010 at 6:00 p.m.
P.S. 20/Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters
225 Adelphi Street, Brooklyn, NY, 11205
Speaker sign-up will begin 30 minutes before the hearing and will close 15 minutes after the start.

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