Three Schools and Safety Division
Fight for Space on Lower East Side
At the same time that Mayor Bloomberg is declaring school safety an important means of improving New York City public-school education, Lower East Side parents are trying to kick school-safety officers out of their schools.
Parents of elementary- and middle-school kids at Public School 64, the Earth School and Tompkins Square Middle School (the latter two are public, “nontraditional curricula” schools) are angry that after a year, their children are still fighting for space with the officers of the New York Police Department’s School Safety Division, with whom they share a single building at 600 East Sixth Street.
Parents say their kids are packed together like sardines, and that valuable programs like the Professional Development Academy and Head Start are threatened by the lack of space.
After having had to wait until the waning weeks of summer to learn whether or not the schools would have enough room to house their children this year, parents have lost patience with city and school administrators and have (as they did a year ago) taken their concerns directly to the community. Dozens of parents showed up at Community Board 3′s public meeting on Sept. 24 to complain about the cramped quarters. “There’s not enough room,” lamented Ilyse Kazar, whose daughter attends the Earth School. “These schools are withering on the vine.”
By the end of the meeting, the board passed a resolution supporting relocation of the NYPD. The resolution was not unlike the one they passed on the issue last year, when the problem first came to a head. At that time, the newly created Tompkins Square Middle School had just moved into the three-story Robert Simon Educational Complex, which had been home to the School Safety Division since the 1980′s (when the division was run by the Board of Education). Suddenly, two schools-which share a recess yard, library, cafeteria and gymnasium -ballooned into three schools sharing the facilities. As the schools continue to expand (the middle school added an entire grade this year), space is becoming increasingly scarce.
Meanwhile, the NYPD’s School Safety Division is itself expanding under the “Safe Streets, Safe City” program. Parents say the NYPD, which recently took over the division from the Board of Education, hasn’t fulfilled its promise to vacate the crowded building. As a result, among other things, the students are forced to share classrooms and a police parking lot encroaches upon the recess yard.
Additionally, parents say the physical constraints have prevented the schools from taking advantage of a $400,000 grant from the offices of City Council members Margarita Lopez and Alan Gerson. The schools want to use the money to pay for new computers and Internet access, but they haven’t even obtained the hardware because there’s no room to store the machines, according to Deborah Tidwell, whose daughter attends the Earth School.
Lt. Brian Burke, anNYPD spokesman, said that the problem, in fact, is being dealt with. He told The Observer that half of the officers who worked at the Sixth Street office have alreadybeen movedtothe Board of Education building at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn. Margie Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Board of Education, told The Observer that it will take three more months to relocate the rest of the division.
Despite the partial move and further assurances, parents are skeptical that the remaining officers will move out anytime soon. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” Don Holley, who has two sons at the Earth School, told The Observer .
In the meantime, friction is growing between parents, teachers and administrators from the three schools, which are pitted against one another in their struggle for space. Shifting demographics and tougher education standards have exacerbated the tension, especially between P.S. 64, a traditional, largely low-income school that only recently lifted itself up off the state’s list of failing schools, and the Earth and Tompkins Square schools, whose students are mostly from middle-class families.
“There is animosity in the air,” said Mr. Holley, who called the schools’ relationship “awkward and angst-ridden.”
Despite the board’s resolution, it’s ultimately up to school administrators and the Police Department to work out a solution. Meanwhile, kids at these three schools are learning firsthand about the dark underbelly of the competition for resources.
“We have three schools duking it out for space,” Elizabeth Herring, the P.T.A. president of P.S. 64, said to The Observer . “Whenever another classroom is made available, we all have to fight it out. We’re to the boiling point.”
Coffee Vendor Seeks
Since 1996, for five days a week, Sharifullah Akrami, a 43-year-old Afghan man, has been leaving his Bayside, Queens, home at 2 a.m. for his coffee and doughnut cart on the southwest corner of First Avenue and 56th Street. Each day he works from 4 a.m. until noon, pouring coffee and serving breakfast to the city’s masses. He knows many people’s orders by heart.
“I like the neighborhood, and everyone likes me, and everyone knows me there,” he said. Nonetheless, he needs a change of pace. “I’m getting older and I have to do something else, because the coffee stand is really tiring,” he told The Observer recently. So, in the spirit of American entrepreneurship, Mr. Akrami decided to join the ranks of the borough’s 246 newsstand operators by opening a kiosk on the corner where he’s become a neighborhood fixture.
And in July, when Community Board 6′s government and business committee voted in favor of the kiosk, Mr. Akrami thought his American dream was finally coming true. However, when the full board reconvened on Sept. 18 (after a two-month break for the summer), members of the community said that the government and business committee had jumped the gun on the vote. They asked the full board to reassess and vote on the issue.
The neighborhood may love Mr. Akrami and his coffee, but he soon discovered that this doesn’t exempt him from scrutiny when a possible change in the landscape-no matter how small-is at issue.
During the public-hearing session, one of the people to come out against the kiosk was an associate of Cardinal Edward Egan. The proposed newsstand abuts the headquarters of the Archdiocese of New York, on First Avenue between 55th and 56th streets. “Newsstands are notorious for people buying things and then dropping litter. Gum, candy-all those types of things will end up on the sidewalk, making the center of the archdiocese a site for constant cleanup,” said David Brown, the director of real estate for the archdiocese. “In addition, on 55th Street there is the Evangelist Church, which holds five Masses a day, and we don’t think that the juxtaposition of the newsstand with the Catholic center is in the best interest of the safety of the archdiocese, or the people in the neighborhood.”
Mary Claire Bergin, president of the Sutton Area Community Group, was also skeptical about the kiosk. She presented the board with 740 signatures that she and her husband, Fred Specht, the president of the St. John the Evangelist parish council, collected from residents opposing Mr. Akrami’s venture. Ms. Bergin told the assembly that there is already an adequate number of stores and stands in the immediate neighborhood selling newspapers, magazines, candy and cigarettes. And she worries the kiosk will ruin the “look” of the block, which recently was planted with four trees. “My fantasy has always been that these trees, which are very symmetrical, would add to the beauty of the block,” she said, adding that she feared Mr. Akrami’s stand would “ruin it aesthetically.” Lastly, she expressed concern that the kiosk would be bad for the students of the nearby Cathedral High School for girls. “Today, even Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue are illicit-looking!” Ms. Bergin told The Observer. “That’s not good for the girls! It’ll be right in their face, right on the corner. House and Garden would be O.K.,” she added, “and maybe Home or Martha Stewart. But they’re not going to sell that stuff.”
The board agreed that it voted prematurely, and it’s set to reconvene on the issue in a committee meeting next month, assuming that Mr. Akrami files his application with the Department of Consumer Affairs by then.
Mr. Akrami told The Observer that he intends to file sometime in October. He insisted that he would not peddle pornography at his kiosk; nor would he sell tobacco to underage customers. He’s still hopeful that his dream will eventually be realized, though he is disillusioned by the bureaucracy that stands in his way. “I love it here,” he said. “It’s my second country. I raised my children here. It’s a free country. You work hard for your living and you make money, and you should be able to do what you want.”
-Anna Jane Grossman
October 2: Board 4, Saint Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center, 1000 10th Avenue, 6 p.m. 736-4536; Board 10, State Office Building, 163 West 125th Street, second floor, 6 p.m., 749-3105.