Small Schools Show Concern Over Proposal to Swap Land
Elissa Gootman | New York Times | June. 28, 2006
NEW YORK -- On the outside, the Julia Richman Education Complex looks like a typical large high school in any American city. But behind the anonymous red brick facade, a transformation has taken place that could herald a revolution in urban education.
The Julia Richman Education Complex, a massive brick building on East 67th Street, is a veritable pilgrimage site.
It is here that they come — delegations from Stanford University, from the Baltimore City Public School System, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — to see the country's premier example of a large, failing urban high school turned into a peaceful campus of successful small schools.
But now, the city is considering a plan to hand the Julia Richman building over to Hunter College in exchange for a larger parcel of land that the college owns more than 40 blocks south. Since word of the proposal slipped out in recent weeks, principals, teachers and parents at the small schools have mobilized against it, saying it would destroy a delicate educational ecosystem and a potent, phoenixlike symbol of possibility.
"You wouldn't take Carnegie Hall and move it to Queens," said Ann Cook, co-director of Urban Academy, one of the small schools in the Julia Richman complex. "We're not widgets."
Jamie Smarr, an assistant to the deputy chancellor for finance and administration for the city school system, said Hunter first approached the city last summer about trading Julia Richman for its Brookdale campus, on East 25th Street and First Avenue. He said that the discussions were still preliminary, but that the small schools would benefit from the arrangement because Hunter, which hopes to build a science and health center near its main campus on East 68th Street, would construct a modern building for the small schools downtown.
"This is an opportunity to get a brand-new, state-of-the-art building," Mr. Smarr said. "I think a lot of the concerns are about fear of change."
Administrators, parents and residents of nearby apartment buildings say their fears are justified. Neighbors say that the area needs more public schools, not fewer, and that the proposed science center could be a hulking tower that would cast a shadow over their apartments and nearby St. Catherine's Park. Parents say uprooting Julia Richman would send a discouraging signal to the dozens of small schools that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has created in recent years, using Julia Richman as the model.
And a growing chorus of critics say Hunter should be ashamed of even considering uprooting a crop of successful schools, noting that it would never displace its own publicly financed elementary and high school, on East 94th Street.
"The news is spreading like wildfire," said Elizabeth Rose, who lives in an ivy-covered building across the street from Julia Richman. "When you see what the city is doing to other schools, you get very concerned about what they might do to your child's school."
Julia Richman opened more than 80 years ago, and was for many years a prestigious high school for girls. It fell apart during the 1970's fiscal crisis, when the city laid off thousands of teachers. By the early 1990's, the school was called "Julia Rikers," as in Island, and had a 37 percent graduation rate, the lowest in Manhattan. School lore has it that unruly students were kept in cages until the police arrived.
School officials hatched a plan to replace Julia Richman with a collection of small schools, and by 1996, six new schools had supplanted the old one. Sharing the building now are the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade Ella Baker School, where some parents who work in the neighborhood send their children, along with a program for autistic children known as P226M, and four high schools. They are Talented Unlimited, a performing arts school; Urban Academy, known for working wonders with students who have not succeeded at other high schools; Vanguard High School, which like Urban Academy avoids traditional standardized tests and where the principal has painted his office bright purple; and Manhattan International High School, for recent immigrants.
"It's got real roots in the community now," said Sherry Jacobs, who lived blocks away from Julia Richman for a quarter-century and remembered crossing the street to avoid walking too close to the old school. Mrs. Jacobs and her husband raised $110,000 to build the small schools a library, the destruction of which would be "heartbreaking," she said.
More than 1,000 Julia Richman parents and staff members have signed a letter calling for the school to stay put.
"As all close observers know, a school is never just a physical structure, there's a culture to every educational setting," the letter says. "How can the Department of Education consider uprooting an exemplary educational complex, one of the true gems of the system, which has received nationwide recognition and won numerous awards?"
Some Julia Richman supporters are directing their fury at Hunter and its president, Jennifer J. Raab, who was chairwoman of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
"It's very disturbing to me that Hunter College would dislocate young children in order to accommodate a program for themselves," said Jacqueline Ancess, co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching at Columbia University's Teachers College.
Ms. Raab's office referred calls to Meredith Halpern, a Hunter spokeswoman, who said many of the details would be worked out at a meeting in the next month or so attended by Hunter and city officials. She described the plan as "one of the best things to happen to the Hunter community."
Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York, said that it would be "fabulous for Hunter" if things worked out, but that a lot would depend on the finances involved.
Asked if the proposed science center would be 16 stories or taller, as some in the neighborhood say they have heard, Dr. Goldstein responded, "Oh, no no no," adding, "This is so speculative."
City officials said the plan hinged on whether Hunter can come up with enough money to build both its new science center and a new building for the Julia Richman schools, which Mr. Smarr said would cost at least $100 million. Mr. Smarr said parents, students and staff members would be involved in designing the new school, which would not open before September 2011.
Dr. Ancess, who has studied the Julia Richman complex, said the small schools would suffer if moved, no matter how posh their new quarters.
"You feel very deeply connected to your home, you have a sense of safety, you know the place, you make an investment in it, you decorate it," Dr. Ancess said. "They've designed that building, they put their blood, sweat and tears into it, and they're just supposed to walk away like they didn't?"
Michelle Fine, a distinguished professor of psychology at the CUNY graduate center who has also studied Julia Richman, said demolishing the building would be "dispiriting" to Mr. Bloomberg's newer small schools and would set back their efforts to weave themselves into the fabric of their own neighborhoods.
"The Julia Richman complex epitomizes what the mayor hopes to create citywide, that is a building that was once producing enormously adverse educational outcomes that has now been resurrected intellectually, spiritually, morally, aesthetically," she said.
Critics also deride the secrecy they say has shrouded the plan. School officials say that they learned of it from local politicians, not Hunter or the school system, and that Mr. Smarr met with them only after they requested more information.
"I have no confidence from all the secrecy that's gone on that they even think parents and teachers and students could be involved in the design" of a new building, said Herb Mack, the principal at Urban Academy.
Mr. Smarr said that officials were not being secretive about what he described as "an opportunity to do something very special."
"It's a free school," he said.
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