March 21, 2011
By Fernanda Santos
The Department of Education announced on Monday that it would open an elementary school inside its headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse behind City Hall, a move that could chip away at the longstanding problem of school overcrowding in Lower Manhattan.
To open the school, the department had to engage in a chess game of sorts. The basement at Tweed has doubled as an incubator for several new schools; it currently houses the Spruce Street School, which will move into its own building in September, where it will expand into second grade and eventually grow into eighth grade.
A charter middle school, Innovate Manhattan, will take over the space and stay for a year before it goes into a private building, a move that mollified many of the parents and community leaders who had pushed to have the space at Tweed devoted to a neighborhood schoo
“They have retreated and decided to give us an elementary school, which is where the need is,” said Julie Menin, chairwoman of Community Board 1, which represents Lower Manhattan. The new elementary school, which does not yet have a name, would open with 50 kindergarten students in September 2012 and stay at Tweed for three years; it would then have to move into a permanent location.
For months, the city has negotiated to buy the Peck Slip Post Office, a four story building nearby that would give the new school 476 seats. The sale has not yet been finalized and cuts to the Education Department’s capital budget pushed back construction plans by a year. Still, officials say they are committed to finding permanent space for the school, there or elsewhere, if the sale falls through.
“We have funding for one more elementary school building in the downtown area, and we know we need it,” said an Education Department spokesman, Jack Zarin Rosenfeld.
Lower Manhattan has experienced a residential boom since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It is now one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the city and a destination for young families, who have had to deal with crowded schools and waiting lists for kindergarten classes.
Community Board 1 mobilized dozens of volunteers, who went door to door to arrive at a count of the number of families who lived in the area; that data was used to make a case to the city. In January, Schools Chancellor Cathleen P. Black attended a meeting of the school overcrowding task force led by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, where she jokingly suggested that birth control could be a solution to school overcrowding.
On Monday, State Senator Daniel L. Squadron, praised Ms. Black, saying, “She came, she listened, she responded, and that’s a good sign.” He cautioned, however, that the new school would not solve all of the area’s overcrowding issues. “I hope it’s a beginning of a collaboration that will continue,” Mr. Squadron said. The new school would be the third elementary school to open in Lower Manhattan in four years; the Spruce Street School and Public School 276, in Battery Park City, opened in 2009.
Preliminary data from the Education Department showed that at the beginning of March, 12 elementary schools in District 2, which serves the area, had waiting lists. The data showed that only one school, P.S. 234 in Tribeca, would have a waiting list in 2012.