University Neighborhood High School saved by de Blasio's stance on charter schools
Last year, students and parents of University Neighborhood High School were told that the Dept. of Education had plans to phase in 500 additional students as part of a new technical high school to be co-located in their building. The UNHS community rallied to halt the proposed location, but up until recently it looked as if the plan would go ahead.
Then the DOE announced two weeks ago that it decided to pull the plug on that plan, a move that's due in large part to Mayor Bill de Blasio's stance on charter schools, according to those familiar with the situation.
De Blasio announced recently that he was halting the co-location of several Success Academy elementary charter schools, one of which was slated to share space with Murry Bergtraum High School, which sits at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge in Lower Manhattan.
After the announcement, the DOE said the tech school headed for UNHS would now be co-located with Murry Bergtraum, and has released an educational impact statement in anticipation of the move.
Lisa Donlan, chair of the Community Education Council in District 1 and a critic of the DOE's plan to co-locate at UNHS, thinks the reprieve originated with de Blasio's support of public schools over charter schools.
"This probably would not have happened if there were not another space," said Donlan. "It seems to have been a necessary condition."
Shino Tanikawa, president of the Community Education Council in District 2, agrees with that assessment. "The new [tech school] would not have been moved to Murry Bergtraum unless the mayor was willing to rescind Bloomberg's offer of the space to Success Academy, even though the solution as it stands now makes a heck of a lot more sense than the original proposals," said Tanikawa.
But parent Haydee Felix said de Blasio's stance on charter schools had nothing to do with the co-location being cancelled. She believes the DOE would have seen how misguided their plan to co-locate at UNHS was by the second year of the 500-student implementation; the DOE planned to add 75-85 tech school students per year up through the 2019-20 school year.
"It has nothing to do with that," said Felix of de Blasio blocking Success Academy from co-locating in Murry Bergtraum. "The DOE would have eventually seen that University Neighborhood High School is just too small."
Regardless of why the DOE changed its mind, supporters of UNHS are pleased with the results. They spent the last six months marshalling opposition by attending rallies, testifying at DOE hearings, and telling anyone who would listen that the school building, with its aging infrastructure, would not be able to accommodate another high school.
"It's a victory for parents and students across New York City," said Donlan. "Not only does UNHS get to keep the integrity of its programs, and maybe even have the capacity to grow and expand its features, but the students that will be attending [the tech school] are going to be much, much better off. Their commute to [Murry Bergtraum]...will be a piece of cake whereas it would have been near impossible coming from the Lower East Side."
Donlan and others in the community previously told Our Town Downtown that the UNHS building was originally designed as an elementary school with narrow hallways and small classrooms. The building only has two sets of bathrooms, and the lobby currently functions as a gym, cafeteria and auditorium for UNHS students.
"The infrastructure of the UNHS building just did not permit either school to be even comfortable. I'm not talking about thriving, growing or reaching potential," said Donlan. "I mean comfortable."
Another reason the UNHS community fought the co-location of their building is that in the last four years the school has gone from a D to an A grade with the DOE, progress that those opposed to the plan - including Councilwoman Margaret Chin - said would be erased if the co-location went forward.
Chin applauded the DOE's decision to pull the plug on co-locating University Neighborhood High School, and called it a win for both UNHS and Murry Bergtraum.
"Over the past several months, we rallied, testified at hearings, and wrote several letters expressing our serious concerns about the proposed co-locations in University Neighborhood High School and Murry Bergtraum High School," said Chin in a statement. "I am pleased that the Dept. of Education heard the voices of the parents, students and educators who understand firsthand educational needs of our community."
Chin was opposed to Success Academy's plan to move in with Murry Bergtraum, and her office is currently reviewing the educational impact statement that the DOE released in connection with their plan to co-locate the tech school with Murry Bergtraum.
But UNHS and Murry Bergtraum aren't necessarily out of the woods yet; Eva Moskowitz, head of the Success Academy empire, enjoys a tremendous amount of influence at the local and state level - Gov. Andrew Cuomo came out in support of her at a recent charter school rally in Albany ? and has vowed to fight de Blasio's decision to block three of her Success Academies from co-locating in public schools.
"Anything can happen in the courts," said CEC 1 chair Donlan. "She has deep reach, she is closely associated with very monied, very powerful sources...I know she's going to follow through on her threat. Until the actual school is open, anything is possible. And even then, the courts can linger."