Concerned Brooklyn residents gathered in the auditorium at PS 307 in Vinegar Hill last night to voice their opposition to a newly-finalized proposal to rezone two public elementary schools. Serving swaths of Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO and Vinegar Hill, the schools are currently divided along racial and socioeconomic lines.
The rezoning would require predominantly white, upper-middle-class, bursting-at-the-seams PS 8 to move DUMBO and Vinegar Hill students to PS 307—a school that is currently under capacity, and predominantly serves African-American residents of the NYCHA-run Farragut Houses. The proposal could go into effect as soon as the 2016-2017 school year.
"This is a bad plan," said Reverend Mark Taylor of The Church of the Open Door. A pastor in the Farragut community for 25 years, he says he was not informed of the rezoning proposal until three weeks ago.
"This plan omits obvious racial tensions," Taylor said. "We do not overcome, we do not reach diversity by playing like everything is alright. I suggest a period of no less than two years to develop a better plan to serve both of these communities."
"To say that race and class are not issues, and that... everyone is going to automatically flow together, is just naive at best, and dishonest at worst," he added.
Black and Hispanic students currently represent 34% of PS 8's student body, while PS 307 is 95% minority. Under the proposed rezoning these percentages are expected to shift to 25-35% and 55-65% respectively.
Of primary concern to the Farragut community—which made up the vast majority of last night's crowd, standing and cheering for sympathetic testimony—is the impact of adding 100 new students per grade once rezoning is at scale: a process that the Office of District Planning (ODP) predicts would take about five years.
"There was no real effort to reach out to the 307 community, and that should have happened back in May," said Councilmember Steve Levin in his remarks. "It's totally reasonable that the 307 community should feel blindsided."
Programming at PS 307 is rich, in part, because the school benefits from Title 1 funding—additional funding for schools where at least 60% of the students qualify for free lunch. Thanks to Title 1, Pre-K and Kindergarten students at PS 307 are learning Mandarin, and third graders take violin lessons.
Meanwhile, overcrowding has been an issue at PS 8 for years, and—thanks to robust real estate development in downtown Brooklyn—shows no sign of slowing down. According to the ODP, the school is currently at 135% capacity. This year, it had a waiting list of 50 students. The school cut its Pre-K program in 2013, and elementary school students have no language option.
"Parents at PS 8 might be able to afford to let their kids take language classes on the weekends, or join a chess club," said PS 307 graduate Shyah Dickerson. "For some of the parents at the Farragut Houses, that's not a priority because they work a little bit harder to stretch their money. So the school should still be able to provide these things."
While DOE representatives tried to assure the crowd that additional students would bring additional funding to the school, parents were skeptical, demanding to see the money "up front."
Other benefits of the current arrangement are less quantifiable. Cornelia Harris lives in the Farragut Houses, and graduated from PS 307 in the late 1990s. She has fond memories of performing with the school's award-winning cheerleading squad. "A lot of people you see sitting here are basketball coaches and mentors to the kids," she said. "Everyone knows one another, so we watch each other and make sure we're safe."
Community Education Council 13 (CEC 13) member Ed Brown expressed doubts that forced community integration would be successful, even if the PS 307 community was predominantly enthusiastic.
"You cannot force [white] parents... to send their children to schools that have leadership of color," said Brown. "We've seen this since the 1960s, with Brown v. Board of Education. You can change all of the laws you want, but when people's hearts are hardened and made up those laws are not going to be anything."
"It's really sad to see that we're still having this education conversation here in 2015," he added. "It's really sad to see that we haven't worked this thing out yet. We have to think about what we're teaching our children."
The ODP's proposed rezoning. Black lines represent proposed zones. Blue is current PS 8, salmon is current 307. (via)
On the heels of two Town Hall meetings in September, members of the ODP last night announced the formation of a community task force to smooth the proposed transition.
The ODP also confirmed a controversial pillar of the rezoning proposal—in order to accommodate the influx of new students at PS 307, the DOE would relocate Satellite West Middle School, currently located on the third floor of PS 307, to the brand new, all-glass Dock Street Building at 60 Water Street in Dumbo.
"A new glass building is wonderful, but it's not going to be down the street in this community," said Pastor Taylor, to loud applause. "We need the time to assess and address that."
PS 8's PTA, however, gave the rezoning plan its full endorsement. "The PTA voted last night to ask the CEC to approve this proposal," said a spokeswoman for the group. "It is the only proposal on the table that will move us forward."
A tipster within the PS 8 community—who agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity—told us that PS 8 parents voted on Tuesday to collectively refuse interviews with the press, in an effort to not come across as racially biased. According to this parent, the PTA has conceded that the rezoning plan will likely go through. However, due to a grandfathering system that will insure PS 8 seats for the younger siblings of current students, it is, as the parent put it, "not their problem." The PS 8 PTA has since denied these allegations.
This spring, 64.1% of PS 8 students passed the state's English Language Arts exam, compared to just 11.7% at PS 307. "Why is redrawing a few lines on a map [a stand-in] for fixing a severely underperforming school?" asked one DUMBO parent at a DOE Town Hall meeting last week. "Because that's what the numbers show for 307."
Matt and Sylvia Harris moved to DUMBO from the Upper West Side five years ago, when Sylvia was pregnant with her first child. Their two children, ages 4 and 1, would be rezoned to PS 307.
"We knew that PS 8 was a high-performing school, and it was part of the reason we moved to DUMBO," said Matt. "We didn't know anything about PS 307 until about 3 weeks ago. I mean, test scores don't matter, but that's all I know."
PS 307 PTA Co-President Faraji Hannah-Jones was incredulous when he learned of the PS 8 PTA endorsement.
"Had someone come to me before August and said, 'Hey, Faraji, I’m a member of the PTA, we're discussing rezoning and we’d like you to come into the forum to have a conversation,' I would have said a-okay," he told us. "But if you’re trying to rush this through based on the input from one community, that is not productive."
Farragut resident Roy Ratliff started circulating a petition against the rezoning proposal on Tuesday. He graduated from PS 8 in 1996, well before the development wave gentrified DUMBO and brought PS 8 over capacity.
Ratliff says he gathered 300 signatures in one day—from current students at PS 307 and Satellite West, as well as alumni and community members.
"It just says 'stop the rezoning of 307,' straight and to the point," he explained. "This is something that we put together to let everyone have a voice who's afraid to come speak, and who's not really knowledgeable about what's going on."
"It's a last minute plan that they're presenting us, and we think everyone should have a choice."
CEC 13 now has 45 days to consider the proposal before a vote is cast. If it can't come to an agreement, the ODP will be sent back to the drawing board, and the cycle will start all over again. Asked to comment on the Farragut community's concerns, DOE spokeswoman Devora Kaye stated:
These zones were created decades ago and no longer reflect the needs of Downtown Brooklyn families. We've proposed a solution that will address overcrowding and under-enrollment to create better schools for our students. We worked closely with the CEC, members of both school communities and engaged parents to collect feedback before the final proposal was submitted to best serve the community.