A school under strain on the Lower East Side

| 16 Feb 2015 | 11:01

    A proposal to co-locate at University Neighborhood, despite parent complaints

    As it is, the building that houses the University Neighborhood High School on the Lower East Side is far from ideal.

    The basement of the school - at 200 Monroe Street - floods whenever it rains. The electrical system is so out of date it can't support new air conditioners, which now sit unused. A space on the first floor of the building is used as a combination auditorium, cafeteria, gymnasium and lobby. UNHS only has two sets of bathrooms and one science lab. Because it was originally designed as an elementary school, its hallways are narrow and its classrooms small.

    Given all of this, the Department of Education's proposal, recently approved by the Panel for Educational Policy, to co-locate an early college program in the UNHS building has not gone down well with school parents and local leaders, who say the building is too small and beleaguered to accommodate another program.

    "The way they did all this was a disaster," said Haydee Felix, president of the parents association at University Neighborhood High School on the Lower East Side.

    In New York's cash-strapped school system, co-locations -- in which two and sometimes more schools are combined in the same building -- are becoming more common. But they also are straining the system, as UNHS shows.

    The DOE said the school was targeted as a co-location site because, according to department standards, it could fit more students. It currently has a little over 300 enrolled while the department's target capacity for the building is 700 students. The early-college program would add 75 to 85 students beginning next school year, continuing until the 2019-20 school year, by which time it will have added approximately 500 new students to the building. The department said programs like these are in high demand across the city and the one at UNHS offers students interested in advertising careers a chance to earn an associate's degree at no cost to them or their families.

    City Councilwoman Margaret Chin came out against the proposal at a rally with parents in August and gave testimony condemning the plan at a recent PEP hearing. After the co-location vote, Chin said she's disappointed the panel decided to ignore the concerns and needs of the UNHS community.

    "Together, students, parents, teachers and staff proved time and time again that UNHS has neither the space nor resources to support a co-location without sacrificing the quality of education that our students deserve," said Chin. "Although the vote on October 15 was a setback, we will continue to fight this misguided proposal through every platform possible."

    Opponents believe the co-location at UNHS will lead to increased class size and overcrowding in the school, which will negatively affect the quality of education students receive. Felix said her daughter is a senior this year, and so won't be affected by the co-location at UNHS, but that she's continuing to oppose the proposal for the other students and parents.

    "Because [the students] are very concerned about this," said Felix. "They know they're not going to get the same quality time with the teachers in order to improve."

    Felix said the DOE hasn't communicated to UNHS principal Elizabeth Collins which floors and classrooms they'll need for their new students. Collins could not be reached for comment.

    "I'm in the dark as well," said Felix. "They haven't presented anything at all to us."

    Of the extra classrooms that do exist at UNHS, Community Education Council acting chairwoman Lisa Donlan said they're used for one-on-one counseling with special needs students and that's there's not enough of them to accommodate another high school. The lack of space, according to Donlan, Felix and others who oppose the plan, along with the building's infrastructure issues, make the DOE's choice seem unwise in their eyes. She said despite these concerns, she's not surprised the PEP voted to co-locate at UNHS.

    "The PEP, everyone knows, is a rubber stamp. Although that's not fair to rubber stamps because even rubber stamps leave an impression," said Donlan. "The PEP doesn't even acknowledge really that there's any problems?these things get handed down and they get passed without any scratching below the surface."

    Donlan said UNHS is really starting to take off, referring to their most recent DOE grade of a B, up from a D rating in 2011. UNHS anticipates scoring an A for the 2013-14 school year.

    "They've been able to really wrap their arms around what they need to do in order to get more and more students to achieve," said Donlan. "So this is a school that's really doing more with less, and you wonder then how are they going to continue with even less, and that's really the concern. And that's what the DOE hasn't been able to make clear to us."

    The unanimous vote to co-locate at UNHS, along with the approval of 22 other co-location proposals, came at an Oct. 15 PEP meeting at Prospect Heights Campus in Brooklyn. At the meeting, Democratic nominee for Public Advocate Letitia James promised to take legal action against the panel - which has never rejected a city proposal - over their decisions once in office.

    "I urge all of you in anticipation of litigation to save your emails," said James, addressing the panel amid raucous applause from other attendees. "This is a legal notice to all of you that there will be litigation, I can promise you that as the next Public Advocate."

    Mayoral hopeful Bill De Blasio has also indicated he'd consider overturning or re-examining decisions made by the PEP under the Bloomberg administration.

    Email requests to tour UNHS were not returned by the DOE. The PEP did not return a request for comment.

    "We don't see room for 500 more students," said Donlan. "Basically, the UNHS building is inadequate for the needs of the students who are there now. How are you going to go from just over 300 to almost 800 students? What is that going to look like? How is that space going to get used? And [the DOE] hasn't really said anything, and that's where our concerns are."