Petition Push for New Uptown Middle School

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Parents and politicians are clashing with the Department of Education (DOE) in a war of numbers and need on the Upper East Side. While residents insist that they must have another middle school and soon in the neighborhood, the DOE is holding parents at bay, pointing to data they say indicates that elementary school seats are in far higher demand. The flashpoint of the debate currently rests in the hallways of the Bayard Taylor School, P.S. 158, on York Avenue between East 77th and 78th streets. That building's annex most recently held the first classes of the newly opened East Side Elementary, P.S. 267, which will be moving to its permanent home on East 63rd Street this fall. The annex was also home to East Side Middle School several years ago, a fact that parents cite as evidence that another new middle school could easily coexist in the building again. Assembly Member Micah Kellner has been pounding the pavement outside elementary schools for weeks, gathering signatures-at last count almost 2,000-for his petition to urge the DOE to open a new middle school as soon as possible. "This chancellor has said middle schools are the key to people's success, and my [dstrict's] parents want better middle school options-they want more middle school options," said Kellner. He has accused the DOE of playing games with the data and driving families out of the neighborhood when they feel their children's middle school options are limited. He said he has heard from parents who, when their child isn't placed in one of the coveted middle schools in the neighborhood, feel that their only choice is private school or moving to the suburbs. "I'm not advocating for one middle school option over another-that's for the DOE and the parents to decide," Kellner said. "The more the DOE drags their feet, the more they're harming our kids." The discrepancy between what parents and the Community Education Council want and what the DOE is willing to provide lies partly in the geography of the school district. District 2 encompasses the Upper East Side as well as all of Midtown and Downtown. In theory, a student could live in the East 90s and attend a middle school in the Financial District, but most parents would prefer their young kids take a short walk or bus ride to a nearby school, rather than commute by subway for half an hour each way. What this means for DOE data is that while the numbers show an overall excess of 1,500 middle school seats in the district, those empty seats aren't broken down by neighborhood, and parents say open seats in other neighborhoods aren't what they have in mind. "The DOE says there are plenty of seats for middle school, but that's if you want to send your kids to Chinatown or the lower West Side. That's ridiculous if you want a neighborhood school," said Todd Helmrich, the parent of a daughter entering 1st grade and a son starting kindergarten at P.S. 158 this fall. He said he's been alarmed by the travails of stressed-out parents of older students trying to get their kids into middle school, which is why he's stepping in now. Helmich said the two main options in the neighborhood aren't viable for everyone-East Side Middle is very difficult to get into and Robert Wagner is quite large for a middle school, which makes some parents look for options elsewhere. "The thought of having to put a 6th grader on a subway during rush hour to go all the way downtown is terrible to me," Helmrich said. At a recent press conference to hail the opening of a new elementary school in the Our Lady of Good Counsel building on East 91st Street, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the DOE will heed their data but will also listen to parents. "We have to be sensitive to what the data actually says. At the same time, we're going to be conscious of hearing what the parents have to say, and they're going to have to be able to justify where they think that need is and why," Walcott said. He called the process an "ongoing discussion" and said that the DOE has been trying to determine targeted needs for each district and neighborhood. Kellner insisted that the data the DOE cites is disingenuous. "They really make up the numbers to meet whatever decisions they've already made," he said. "Elementary school kids turn into middle school kids. It's literally biology. Unless Dennis Walcott is spending all that money on consultants developing a freeze ray, we're going to need a new middle school."

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