Best-Laid Plans At Risk in Sunset Park

Empty shelves wait to be filled in the Sunset Park High School library. (Photo by Jason Alcorn) On a recent Thursday afternoon, Principal Corinne...

Empty shelves wait to be filled in the Sunset Park High School library. (Photo by Jason Alcorn)

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Principal Corinne Vinal showed off one of the three dedicated science labs in Sunset Park High School, where the lesson of the day was photosynthesis. A shipment of microscopes had just arrived and was waiting to be unpacked. The school, which opened in September 2009, is still filling its supply closets as it adds around 300 students each year. “Science at a school like this is much more hands-on,” Vinal says.” We’re able to do much more elaborate experiments.”

But just outside the science classroom door, a group of middle schoolers tossed a basketball back and forth in the hallway. Others gathered in groups on the floor. The students, from the Brooklyn Prospect Charter Schools, are a side effect of being in a new building, one that may derail the high school’s plans.

“We share the building,” says Vinal. Since there is no outdoor space at the school, the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School students get free time in the hallways as part of a co-location arrangement that was supposed to last only two years. But in mid-April, the Department of Education announced that Brooklyn Prospect would remain in the building an extra year.

If the Panel for Education Policy approves the plan at its May 18 meeting, next September 1,400 middle and high school students will fill a building designed to hold 1,326. Both schools will add a new grade starting in the fall, and a District 75 school that serves special needs students will continue to operate on a separate floor of the building. The Department of Education does not expect the expansion and continued co-location to affect students at either school, according to an April 15 educational impact statement, but school officials and community leaders strongly disagree. From their perspective, this overcrowding will make it impossible to continue with the academic program the Department of Education approved just two years ago.

Before Sunset Park High School, Community Board 7 in Brooklyn was one of only two community districts in the city without a local high school.

“Local students were zoned to a school with a 28 percent graduation rate,” says Julie Stein Brockway, who as co-director of the Center for Family Life has been an advocate in Sunset Park since 1982. School overcrowding was a significant community concern. “We were deeply concerned that kids were zoned for failure,” Brockway says. The city had announced and then shelved building plans three times, disappointing residents, who saw few educational opportunities for their children once they got to high school.

When it finally opened, the high school was the first in New York City in more than six years designed to enroll more than 600 students. In the last decade, following a small schools model, the School Construction Authority has built dozens of new schools, and, since 2004, added nearly 50,000 new seats to the city’s school system. The construction spree was at once a response to overcrowding and to the perceived failure of large high schools to educate students. That plan was supposed to have continued through 2014, with 56 new schools slated for construction, from District 24 in Queens to District 31 on Staten Island and dozens of neighborhoods in between. The state budget approved in March derailed those ambitions; the city announced $1.3 billion in cuts to the 2009-2014 capital plan and halved the number of planned construction projects.

The cuts are significant because overcrowding is still a problem across New York City, not just in Sunset Park. Seventy-eight percent of large high schools in Queens are overcrowded, as are 63 percent of those in Brooklyn, according to an August 2010 report by the Independent Budget Office.

But what is unfolding in Sunset Park also helps to explain why the city continues to push new school construction in the face of budget cuts, despite the obvious expense, and why neighborhoods are clamoring for it. “It exceeds my wildest dreams in terms of quality,” says Brockway, the Center for Family Life co-director, as she rattles off a litany of marks of the school’s success, things like daily attendance and credit accumulation. (The school won’t receive its first official report card until next year, when two years of test results are available.) “We’re making exceptional progress because of the design of the school and the school leadership.”

That design started with the Department of Education and architecture firm Hillier New York, now part of RMJM. Residents and community-based organizations added their input. By the time Vinal, the principal, was hired, all the big decisions had already been made, and most of the small ones, too. “In terms of my decisions with regard to the building, I got to decide what the shape of the desks are and what the material is on the covering of the office chairs,” says Vinal. But she appreciates what a new building can offer. Central air conditioning, she says, makes summer school more bearable for students.

Laura Schneider, who teaches ninth- grade English, adds, “It’s an adult environment. There’s no need to have kids in 95- degree weather taking the Regents.”

The library is still being stocked, and its collection is growing along with the first class of ninth graders who will graduate in 2013. “It’s a benefit of new space,” says Beth St. John, the library media specialist. St. John recalls weeding out books from the 1950s with titles like, “Why the Chinese Are the Way They Are” when she and Vinal worked the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics before transferring to Sunset Park, she recalls. “We had two copies,” St. John says. At Sunset Park High School, she met with Brockway and the Center for Family Life staff to pick out a new collection. “It was great, really trying to think of the population we would have here,” she says, “projecting what kind of books we would need, how much in English, in Spanish.”

Both Vinal and Brockway cite being able to build a school community and academic plan from the ground up as the most important opportunity that a new school offers educators and their students. “It isn’t really about the four walls,” Brockway says. “I don’t want to mislead anybody into thinking a new facility leads to good outcomes.” Instead, the new facility works because it goes hand in hand with the school proposal that Vinal and her leadership team presented to the Department of Education in December 2008. It was accepted a month later.

“It’s a chance to build an atmosphere right from the beginning where everyone’s on board about what a classroom should look like,” Vinal says. Last year, for example, she invited ninth grade students to help plan this year’s arts classes. With their input, a rhythm and movement class was created that fit student interests with the dance studio and music rooms in the building. The floor plan, until now, has also allowed each cohort of students to take all their classes on the same floor.

“When you don’t have the limitations of space, you can actually make more informed decisions about instruction,” says Schneider, the ninth grade teacher. “The time of day that certain classes take place, who is taking what at what time, you wouldn’t intuitively think that.”

All that planning will be for naught if the co-location plan for next year goes forward, Brockway says with frustration. “The very design we’ve fought so hard to have won’t have the footprint to function the way it’s designed.” She points out the changes that will have to be made: community rooms like the arts community’s black box theater will have to be used as instructional spaces, a plan to have eleventh graders co-lead advising groups for the ninth grade class will have to be scrapped because of new scheduling conflicts, and each small learning community will have less time together.

The Department of Education argues that total enrollment at the two schools next year won’t be more than Sunset Park High School will enroll at full capacity in two years, an argument that Brockway dismisses. It’s a matter of physical space, not the number of seats, she says: “Three hundred 12th graders you can put together in physical education classes, chorus, electives. You can’t do that with a school that has nothing to do with you.”

A public hearing on the Department of Education co-location plan is scheduled for Tuesday, followed by the Panel for Education Reform vote next week, but no one expects anything but more crowded hallways next September.

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