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A Tale of Three Schools in Two Buildings

Silver, Connor and Gerson in front of the shrouded PS 134

Both Marisol Rosas's children were held back, she says, because of the tense school situation
by Yori Yanover

The renovations to enhance the structure of Henrietta Szold PS 134, at 293 East Broadway, the corner of Grand Street, are very exciting, contends Councilmember Alan J. Gerson, who participated in a three-way press conference held last Friday, September 1, across the street from the school, with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator Martin Connor. “There’s a new dance floor, two new science labs, and other significant improvements that will allow for better education. Our concern is with the health and safety of the kids.”

Local parents were a great deal less philosophical. “You want me to go in there? I caught asthma in there,” yelled Marisol Rosas, who was the first parent of PS 137 children to arrive at the scene of the press conference.

“Both my children struggled and were left back because of the tensions between PS 137, 134 and 184,” complained Rosas. “It affects my children emotionally that I’m taking them out of a school that was fine – to this. Where are you putting my children?”

The press conference revealed a quagmire of Dept. of Education planning that is both hard to understand and hard to forgive.

At the root of the affair stands the new Shuang Wen School, P.S. 184, which was established in 1998 as a dual language and dual culture, Mandarin Chinese and English public elementary school. From a humble beginning, the school has grown to the point where it was burgeoning out of its temporary quarters at PS 134. The City then decided to move PS 184 to the building of PS 137, at Cherry and Montgomery Streets, and to move the students from PS 137 to… PS 134.

Over the summer we began to hear rumblings from local PS 137 teachers, distraught by the second-class citizen treatment they were receiving from the management at PS 134. Their biggest problem was that, on top of the move to an unfamiliar place, their access to the building was sharply restricted, because of the renovations. One teacher told me she was only allowed into the building – for the first time – last Thursday, and then was given an option of coming in for five hours either on Saturday or Sunday, to prepare for the first day of school, Tuesday, 9/5.

To the parents of PS 137 there was more than a hint of racism involved in the treatment they received, as compared to the Shuang Wen folks.

“Where are you leaving the minority children?” asked Rosas. “In PS 137 they were mixed – Whites, Puerto Ricans, Hispanics – How can you take a school that was for everyone and make it only for Asians? And, by the way, they want a $300 donation when you register, and it’s supposed to be public.”

Shuang Wen is not an exercise in racism, but in the environment of scarce resources in New York City, the issue of unequal treatment will come up, inevitably. Shuang Wen “provides, in a public school setting, language and cultural literacy in both Mandarin Chinese and English,” says the school’s official literature. “The school is based on the premise that linguistic and cultural literacy in both Chinese and English provide its students with a solid education, and a multicultural base for successful personal and professional development.”

“A dual-language school is an outstanding idea,” says Councilmember Gerson, “It should happen in multiple languages, but certainly in Chinese, which is a very important world language. The intent, I believe, is not at all to limit access to anyone of any background.”

But in practice, as one public official who asked to remain anonymous told me, when a non-Chinese candidate wishes to apply, application forms become scarce, dates become unavailable – a soft kind of discrimination is wielded.

When you mix soft racism with broken renovation promises to the parents of the largely Black and Hispanic students, plus allegations of an unsafe air quality and a shrouded facade which Assembly Speaker Silver compared to the Deutsche Bank building downtown after 9/11, plus a Con-Ed power failure which forced the contractors to bring in two diesel-powered generators – the result is very unhappy.

“It shows there was no planning and no consideration for the students, the teachers and the parents,” said Silver. “Turn around and look at the building, look at what’s here – can you really expect children to walk into a learning environment in this setup?”

The speaker was wondering what the city was doing with the $11 billion allocated by the legislature for constructing new schools in New York. Why must the Dept. of Education move students from one school to another, instead of building new schools?

“And who knows how long they contemplate this to exist?” Silver continued. “The sign says Completion expected November 2006. I’ve seen buildings with signs like that a year after the completion date. But even November of 2006 is unacceptable.”

The press conference concluded with the three local officials calling on the Dept. of Education to complete the project by Tuesday, 9/5, or to provide an alternative place for the children. I actually asked the workmen, off the record, if they would be able to complete the work, working round the clock. They said they could, but not if the work is constantly halted by their bosses, because the politicians are coming.

Saturday morning, on the way to shul, I asked one of the workmen the same question. He got on the phone with his foreman and said, “There’s a guy here asking if we’ll be done Tuesday.” Then he nodded, hung up and said, “No.”


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