Debate Over More Middle School Seats Heats Up
By Megan Bungeroth
Upper West Side parents are usually clamoring for more public school space, and now the conversation has turned toward the impending demand for middle school seats. At a joint Community Education Council (CEC) and President's Council meeting last week for District 3, concerned parents and board members hashed out the issues facing the district's number of middle school seats; some insisting that there is an imminent shortage approaching, while others viewed the prediction with skepticism.
Even those who agree that the district should ask for more seats were divided over how the request to the Department of Education (DOE) should be worded and where a new school would be located.
"No one can argue that we need more middle school seats," said Community Board 7 chair Mark Diller, confirming that the board is supportive of the push. "The very next issue is, of course, where?" Diller emphasized the need for the CEC to use data to back up their requests.
Stefan Koster, parent of a middle-school-aged daughter who recently went through the process of finding a school, presented data to the board showing what he and a group of other parent volunteers had determined regarding future middle school space in the district. They insist that the DOE is not taking into account an upcoming influx of middle-school-aged students and that there will be a severe shortage of seats by 2013.
"More and more young families like mine have decided it's kind of cool to raise a child in the city," as opposed to moving out to the suburbs, said Koster after the meeting. "If the DOE does not hear the community scream out in its need for more school seats, I fear that we're going to reverse that whole aspect of people coming into and staying in the city to raise kids. How long can the Upper West Side stay a cool place if nothing happens?"
Analyzing data from the DOE, Koster's group concluded that an increasing number of students are remaining in District 3 for middle school based on the fact that in 2011 there were 765 "first choice" applicants for 480 middle school seats in the district, which they say points to a demand that will only continue to grow.
While many agreed with their premise, the question of how to successfully convince the DOE that the seats are eminently needed was still unanswered. Some advocated just requesting any available district space for middle school seats before deciding specifics about a new school.
"If we don't take the space, Eva's going to get it," said Stefanie Goldblatt, the treasurer of the President's Council, referring to the CEO of the Success Academy Network charter schools, Eva Moskowitz. "Let's just grab space and figure out what goes there later."
Goldblatt touched on a nerve that reverberated throughout the meeting: the fear that if the CEC doesn't determine what they need quickly enough, that the DOE will allocate more public space to charter schools.
Others raised the issue of ensuring an equitable location that would serve the entire district, including the neighborhoods in the northern section that are composed largely of minority communities.
"The northern part gets charter schools; the southern part gets new schools," said Camille Goodridge, a CEC member and co-chair of the middle school committee. "We need just as many quality schools as everybody else. Minority students need the same as everybody else."
Some members were cautious about jumping to conclusions and asking the DOE for a new school without further consideration of the data and the potential possibilities.
"I don't question whether or not we need middle school seats," said council member Noah Gotbaum in an interview later. "But I want to make sure as a CEC member that it's done by consensus, that it's very much representative of the entire district."
As the CEC continues to determine the best course of action, parents are rallying behind Koster and his group's petition, hosted at MiddleSchoolBabyBoom.com, a name that speaks for itself. So far, 644 parents have signed on in support of explicitly asking the DOE to create a brand-new, separate middle school.
But some think that there are still more factors to explore before that should happen.
"We could potentially take high school seats and use them for middle school seats," Gotbaum said. "We have to have everyone in the conversation. We can't allow the DOE to set us against each other. There's no planning going on at the top. That's part of what we have to watch out for."
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