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The unedited classwork of a student journalist at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, currently focusing on the issues concerning the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Every silver lining has its cloud: The new middle school

This month the city allocated the Highbridge section of the Bronx its first middle school since the last one closed 1973, but celebrations are tempered. The proposed school, residents say, falls short of what they need.

For the past two years parent leaders have met with the education department, making their case for a middle school with an up to 1,000 child capacity to be built in the neighborhood. On a map, they argued, middle schools appear nearby. But Highbridge's unique geography tells a different story, says area education organizer Chauncy Young.

Highbridge is bounded by the Cross Bronx and Major Deegan expressways and accessible mostly by "step streets", or alleys with hundreds of steep stairs. To drive home this point, Young says, The United Parents of Highbridge, a community advocacy group, toured members of the School Construction Authority, the branch of the Department of Education responsible for building new schools, through their neighborhood. The DOE seemed to have gotten the message: The 2010-2014 Capital Plan, released last month, included a "small school" for Highbridge's middle schoolers, citing the area's "geographic constraints."

Parents were thrilled with the news says Young, until they were informed last week that "small" boiled down to 389 seats, less than half of what they hoped for. The school will encompass fourth through eight grades, roughly 97 seats per grade. "When I figured this out," says Young, "I was like, 'What is this?'"

The "massive hills and step streets", says State Senator Jose M. Serrano, make it "inappropriate to expect children from Highbridge to commute." To get to middle school, says Young, area elementary school graduates -- some as young as ten -- must travel from Highbridge to schools like Intermediate School 219 on Third Avenue and Public School/Intermediate School 218, on Gerard Avenue. Some go farther, facing up to an hour's commute that requires taking up to three buses, through areas with some of the city's highest crime rates. The education department's decision, says Sen. Serrano, still "speaks to a lack of understanding about the unique geography of Highbridge."

Bakary Camera, a Highbridge resident for 20 years and father of six children under the age of 14, sent his 8- and 10-year-old sons to the private Sacred Heart School on 168th Street between Nelson and Woodycrest avenues in Highbridge to avoid this. When he could no longer afford their combined $700 per month tuition, he sent them to boarding school in his native Gambia. "I didn't want them to get caught up on the street trying to travel long distances by themselves," he says.

Jose Gonzalez a parent and documentary film maker who produced films about the situation in Highbridge to put pressure on the education department, was among the many unhappy with the news. With so few seats, he says, “The other children are left traveling outside of the community. We want a real middle school that can hold all the children."

But, the department of education does not feel Highbridge is being underserved, says their spokeswoman Margie Feinberg. "The school is just part of the plan," she says. The new capital plan will bring 1,890 seats to District 9, on top of the 1,350 the last plan created. However, these new seats are spread across elementary, middle and high school, and most are outside of Highbridge.

The education department "missed the mark," says Sen. Serrano. The need for at least a thousand middle school seats is warranted." This year, the five elementary schools in Highbridge combined will graduate 595 students to middle school level. Broken down, 265 fourth graders, 231 fifth graders and 125 graders will seek middle school spots in 2009, a number that is expected to rise in the future.

Community organizers and representatives from Highbridge's five elementary schools met at Public School 11 to discuss their plans to challenge the education department's decision. When told that the proposed school had a 395 seat capacity several people in attendance gasped. A woman, who identified herself only as a member of the Community Education Council for District 9, said that since the district permits "school choice" which allows parents to choose which school they send their kids to rather than be limited just to schools near where they live, "there will be more than 1,000 kids applying. "

"It's a great concept and it would be nice to have," says Young, "Who wouldn't want to have your kid in a 400-seat school? The only issue is that we have 2000 kids whose parents would like them to be in that 400-seat middle school."

"The community is growing," says Jesse Mojica, director of education and youth for Bronx Borough President Adolfo CarriĆ³n Jr. If a 389-seat school is too small now, "let's talk about what's going to happen in 2014." According the the US Census, the population of the Bronx is the city's youngest. Brian Levinson, an aide to Sen. Serrano, says that means the need for more school spaces will only keep growing. "We think they have not just a high number of young children right now, they have a high number of really young families," he says. "Let's invest in a school that's going to work for a community for decades."

But there may not be funds to make that kind of investment right now, given the current economic climate. "The state of the economy played a role in the decision of what gets proposed," says Feinberg. This year's capital plan, at 11.1 billion dollars, is nearly two billion less than the plan five years ago. "I rekognize that there is a limited amount of money," says Sen. Serrano, but "Poor communities suffer at a disproportionate level when the chips are down. When you're dealing with children's' futures, we should aim big."

The bleak economic outlook has some advocates weighing how they want to tackle the proposed school. "If the community were to say that we did not want a school that small, we could derail the project," Young says. Others say these considerations, haven't diminished their resolve. To them, the stakes are too high. The 167th Street location, says Camera, is one of the only available large plots in the community of 40,000. "Once you build it small," he says, "there will be no way to increase the size of that school again. You'll have to look for another space." Camera, who was part of the team that scouted the current proposed location, says there aren't any others. In the end, Young does not feel settling fro the small school is a viable option for a growing community. "Once you get a school, will you ever get a bigger school?" he says. "Are they ever going to expand it, or are they going to say, 'You got your school what’s your problem?'"

Says Levinson, "Why don't we build a school that's big enough now, rather than put Band-Aids on later?"