The District 13 CEC held a Working Session meeting this past Tuesday night. Several items were on the agenda but the merits of the P.S. 8 and P.S. 307 re-zoning proposal was by far the longest and most multi-faceted debate of the evening. First, members approved a special session for the re-zoning vote. The vote will take place on January 5th, 2016 at P.S. 56, 170 Gates Avenue (meetings generally convene at 6:30 pm).
The re-zoning vote is ten days prior to the close of Kindergarten Admissions and will enable parents to revise their applications should they be re-zoned (or their preferences change based on school tours, etc). Online Kindergarten admissions opened on December 7th and concludes on January 15th. Superintendent Barbara Freeman offered that her office is looking to schedule meetings with the Presidents of both the P.S. 307 and P.S. 8 PTA’s “to support the work that needs to be done regardless of which way the vote goes.” She also stated the Office of Admissions would work closely with any families affected by a re-zone to assist with the completion of their applications.
The conversation that followed was open-ended and marked the first time some members spoke publicly on the matter. Members did not find consensus, though that was not the objective. P.S./M.S. 8 representative Amy Shire opened with an attempt to crystallize the issues in member’s minds, “What are the consequences if we vote ‘no?’ What are the consequences if we vote ‘yes?’…I think that there are going to be some things that we’re not ever going to be sure of before we vote. Like, how many families will end up going to 307 in fact if it’s re-zoned? Or, how much of a wait-list there will be at 8 if it’s not re-zoned…we’re just kind of going to have to accept that we’re not going to know exactly.”
Throughout the night, CEC members lamented the DOE’s continually changing narrative with each revision to the proposal. Ben Greene challenged CEC President David Goldsmith, “What do YOU think this re-zone will satisfy?” Citing P.S. 8’s 143% capacity and last year’s wait-list along with P.S. 307’s small zone, Goldsmith responded in part, “We have one [zone] that’s too small and one that’s too big. I think we have to solve that problem.”
The larger issues of race, socio-economics and equality were, as ever front and center. Middle School proponent Rob Underwood remarked on the addition of the FRL admissions set asides to the final proposal. “I think we absolutely need to protect diversity in this district…But, it seems weird that we’re taking a school that is 90% students of color and 60, 65% FRL and THAT’s the one we want to put FRL set-asides. Why are we not talking about FRL [set-asides] for P.S. 8, 321 or 29?” He called the effort a “Goldielocks Solution” one that euphemistically that sends the message “we want more affluent white parents [at P.S. 307] but not too many.” Adding, “we seem to have implicitly made the decision that…P.S. 8 is ‘too far gone’ [to create diversity at that school.]”
Citing the recent Jehovah’s Witness’ announcement to sell three additional properties, CEC member and P.S. 307 PTA Co-President Ben Greene posited the FRL admissions set-asides are necessary because the onslaught of proposed development in Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo would cause any freshly drawn zone lines to quickly be overrun, forcing a new debate within two to three years. “The 50% set aside was to try to make sure that [P.S. 307] stays [diverse] as long as possible while we are infusing this big zone into that school.”
CEC President David Goldsmith remarked, “I think planning for diversity in one school while not looking at other schools is a HUGE mistake…the whole idea of disenfranchisement, that 307 is serving a population that is currently typically and historically under-served in our district, absolutely it is. But the solution to that isn’t just protecting a small group of people that can go there….We have to build great schools for every child in this district across the district.”
The FRL admission set-asides came about in response to the “307 Action Plan,” a list of five requests made by a coalition of stakeholders including the P.S. 307 PTA, The Church of the Open Door and the Farragut Houses communities. FRL set-asides were included in the final re-zoning proposal on the heels of a DOE announced of an admissions pilot program aimed at creating more diversity at seven public elementary schools including District 13’s P.S. 146, The Brooklyn New School and Arts & Letters in Fort Greene. Those proposals had been under consideration since 2014.
Representing P.S. 9, middle school proponent Maggie Spillane posited, “One point to make too is that there ARE diverse schools zones within district 13…and I don’t know why the conversation hasn’t gone outside the 307/8 community to look at what’s going on in those [schools] and actually take some counsel from cautionary tales…I haven’t seen any efforts from the DOE or the PS8 community – which is strongly advocating for this plan – to understand what’s going on in those zones and to address the potential problems that you know may arise in that kind of situation but also to learn what is working in those zones.”
One sore point was the perceived shunning of P.S. 307 by wait-listed parents last year. Ed Brown, who represents P.S. 287 asked, “Please somebody explain to me how is this re-zoning issue going to benefit the district…Who is it benefiting? Because it’s not going to alleviate the overcrowding [at P.S. 8]. It’s going to alleviate the wait-list but…parents who are on the wait-list were offered a seat at 307…which they declined.” Adding, “307 is a Magnet school. You can walk in with the lines being the way they are.”
Underwood stated earlier in the evening, “I can’t get my head around the flipping risk as being the pre-eminent risk..I’m just SUPER concerned that the data and the track record so far is that we have for whatever reason, 307 has not attracted parents who are wait-listed to P.S. 8 to come to 307 and now we’re going to re-draw the line and all of a sudden we think this wave of parents is going to come. Maybe it won’t.”
Maggie Spillane attempted to objectively square the “pro” re-zoning arguments yet remained skeptical of most if not all of the potential reasons to vote ‘yes.’ She criticized what she called the “walkability argument,” stating that most families in her end of D13 choose schools that are not within walking distance of their homes. Notably, she went on to say, “I don’t know why the families who are zoned out [of P.S. 8] would be any more likely to go to 307 than families who were wait-listed this year or the families who will be wait-listed next year. IF there are things that we need to be doing to increase the attractiveness of 307 and schools like 307 to the families who the district is losing to charters [or private school], we should be focused on doing those things and not necessarily moving zone-lines just to consolidate entitlements to certain people to go to certain schools.”
During the public comment, Michelle, a self-identified District 13 parent of a child entering Kindergarten in 2016 (who is not a resident of Dumbo), offered her observation of the wait-listed parents’ decision-making, “When you have kids that are wait-listed and you ask [parents] to think about a school where they would be the “only” anything-and I think you would think about this for your kid-its very different taking a group of children and being thoughtful in how you do that…[Re-zoning] is an immediate solution that is not a complete solution but I hope it can be part of the bigger picture conversation on all of the issues that I’ve heard many of you thoughtfully discuss from a lot of different perspectives.”
PERFECT IS THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD:
Throughout the evening, David Goldsmith cautioned the members against expecting re-zoning proposal to solve all the complex problems within District 13, “If our expectation is that this re-zone will solve the lack of long-term planning in the district in terms of housing and residential and all the things that are going on, it will never do that. I think if we’re looking for us to talk about how we rebuild our middle schools with the re-zone of 307 and 8, it will not do that. I think if we’re looking to meeting the challenge of inequality and unequal access to academic excellence throughout the district, this re-zone will not do that…I keep hearing our members asking this re-zone to do that.”
Rob Underwood expressed frustration, “We have basically spent the last more or less 6 months on this and nothing but this…How much have we talked about the schools in Bedford Stuyvesant?…I just want us to focus on the fact that we are spending a ton of time, six months of many meetings, often multiple meetings per week, focused on the P.S. 8’s wait-list for what is – and I know that people don’t like when I say it – a pretty affluent privileged community in Brooklyn Heights.”
Amy Shire fired back, “It is really easy to throw darts. We could do that for each community. I just would hope that we would stop doing that and start just looking at what are the benefits of doing this…I am also reminded of that phrase “don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. I don’t even know if this re-zone is good enough but I’m getting a sense that it could be workable if people want it to be workable.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
1) Whether you are ‘nay’ or ‘yay’ on the re-zoning, send comments to the CEC via their online form.
2) Make your voice heard at the next CEC meeting.
Tuesday, December 15th, 6:30 – 8:30 pm
M.S. 113, 300 Adelphi St., in Fort Greene
(Check the CEC website prior to the meeting to confirm this location).
3) For families applying for Kindergarten, Downtown Brooklyn School Solutions offers an excellent primer on District 13, choice, charter and private schools.
4) Also for families applying to Kindergarten, attend school open houses. P.S. 8 is hosting it’s next open house January 13th from 9-10:30 am. P.Ss 307 is holding them on Thursday December 17th from 9:30-10:30 am, Thursday January 7th from 9:30-10:00 am and Monday, January 11th from 6-7:00 pm.
As part of his President’s Report, David Goldsmith read the CEC’s letter sent to Success Academy’s President Eva Moskowitz in reaction to Fort Greene school’s “Got to Go List” spotlighted in the New York Times. The panel heard from three mothers who testified their children were targeted for nominal transgressions such as wearing the wrong shoes, having to use the rest room or sitting the “wrong way.” The mothers explained they were subjected to unrelenting phone calls, forced meetings with school administrators and threats of suspension. One parent lost her job because of what she described as “constant harassment” from Success Academy. Ms. Moskowitz was invited to the proceedings but sent an email statement just hours before the meeting instead. The missive was read out loud but not immediately available at press time. It is expected to be posted to the CEC website shortly.