Pulling Kids Out of P.S. 163

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:16

As the community continues its fight against the JHL nursing home, some parents are yanking kids from a nearby school

Upper West Side Parents have pulled their children from P.S. 163 for the current school year due to Jewish Home Lifecare's looming plan to build a nursing home adjacent to the school on W. 97th Street.

Rene Kathawala, chair of the P.S. 163 Task Force, said he estimates about 20 students have been removed by their parents -- including his own daughter, who is in second grade and now attends the School at Columbia.

P.S. 163 is a kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school with about 600 enrolled students. Over the past several years, parents at the school and the larger community, including city council members on the Upper West Side, have mounted a campaign to stop JHL's bid to build a 20-story nursing home right next to the school.

Critics of the plan say the work will introduce harmful toxins into the air and the accompanying noise will make it impossible for students to learn. Mounting a crane next to a school, they say, is dangerous, and the work will create unsafe and congestive traffic issues around a major corridor that's already seen several pedestrian fatalities this year. Critics also blasted the state Dept. of Health for what they believe is a faulty draft environmental review that panders to JHL's needs at the expense of the community.

JHL did not respond to requests for comment on this story but has previously said they will use mitigation efforts like sound suppression and will safely remove toxins at the site. The community has so far resisted their overtures, but parents removing their kids from P.S. 163 is the first sign that some in the community are preparing for the project to be approved.

"We know for a fact that the lawyers representing the nursing home are in direct communication with the Dept. of Health and are actually writing the document that will be released that will allow the project to go forward," said Kathawala. "There's not much hope it's going to be denied."

But he also said the fight is far from over, and that parents who have pulled their children out of P.S. 163 are doing so this year to spare their children the pain of removing them later on - if construction goes forward - when they have put down deeper roots in the school.

"I think it's the belief by some that they want to take preventive measures in advance of a possible decision that the construction would be allowed to go forward," said Kathawala.

Kathawala said he believes the final environmental impact statement will be released in mid-October, and that if approved by the Dept. of Health, a lawsuit from parents at the school will likely follow.

A Dept. of Education spokesperson said it's too early in the school year to have accurate enrollment figures for P.S. 163. The principal, Donny Lopez, did not return requests for comment.

However, The West Side Spirit spoke with two other parents who have removed their children from P.S. 163.

"With the threat of construction moving in, we decided to move to New Rochelle in Westchester," said Adina Berrios Brooks, a former P.S. 163 parent who has a daughter heading into second grade. "If you're a New York City parent you often debate the cost of living in New York, but this is the thing that absolutely tipped us over."

Berrios Brooks has lived in New York for 20 years and her husband was born in Queens and is a lifelong New Yorker.

"We just decided that it would be better to move her at a relatively young age so she would have a chance to make new friends and kind of get reestablished rather than potentially have three years of her elementary school career disturbed by pretty major construction," she said. "She was obviously sad to leave her friends and our home, where we planned to live for a long time, but she kind of understood."

Berrios Brooks, a former co-chair of the P.S. 163 Task Force with Kathawala, agreed with his assessment that about 20 kids had been removed from the school because of JHL's plans. "I know a number of kids in her class have left that I know of," she said of her daughter.

Avery Brandon, another former P.S. 163 parent who withdrew her second-grade daughter from the school this year, said of course there were other factors that contributed to that decision, but that the JHL construction issue was one of the main reasons.

"I don't think anything is ever one thing, it was a very, very big factor though," said Brandon.

Brandon said her decision was based on her feeling that she had put so much time into fighting the JHL plan that it was cutting into her relationship with her family.

"I've worked on this for so long and so hard that it wasn't in the best interest of my family to stay there because I couldn't be at the school and not continue the fight at a hundred percent," said Brandon. "I've been at this for three years."

Avery lived on 97th Street and Amsterdam Avenue on the other side of the school from where the construction would take place. She now lives with her parents and her daughter goes to P.S. 166 on West 89th Street.

Councilman Mark Levine, who is opposed to the project, said he believes that at the earliest, construction wouldn't start until next summer, and wondered if parents were getting a bit ahead of themselves.

"I think it's important to stress that this fight continues both to block the project and if it goes forward, to minimize its impact in every way possible on the kids and the school," said Levine.

Nevertheless, he said he understands the notion of withdrawing a student now as opposed to possibly having to withdraw them in the middle or end of their elementary school career, and that having to make such a decision is "brutal."

He recently introduced legislation that would require construction projects to comply with the School Construction Authority's standard that says any project within 75 yards of a school must be under 45 decibels. The bill has five co-sponsors in addition to Levine according to the city council's website.

"This is far from over," said Levine, who is a member of the council's education committee.

Levine said the bill wasn't written to just apply to the JHL project. "This was written to protect schools anywhere in the city in which a construction project is happening right next door," he said.

For those parents that have withdrawn their kids, the possibility that JHL will be allowed to proceed wasn't a risk they were willing to take, a risk that might have resulted with them removing their kids at the end of their elementary school careers in fourth- or fifth-grade.

"I pulled her out knowing that if the construction was allowed she would be squarely in the school for the entire process," said Kathawala, who also has a fourth-grade daughter at P.S. 163 whom he believes will escape unscathed even if the project proceeds.

"We would be thrilled for our friends and fellow parents if the proposed legislation or a lawsuit was able to successfully block the project," said Berrios Brooks. "The uncertainty, and possibility of construction starting mid-way through the school year, was for us too big a risk to take."

Brandon said she wouldn't regret her decision even if the project is ultimately blocked because she gets to spend more time with her daughter, and she feels fortunate to have the opportunity to enroll her daughter into a different school.

"It's a hard move now, and she's in second grade and she feels it," said Brandon of her daughter. "And we're scrambling around her trying to make it as seamless as possible. I don't think I could do that with her in fourth grade. I had an out and I took it. There are a lot of families that don't have that option."