Arts & Letters Expansion Gets Go-Ahead

This article was first published in the New York Times’ “The Local.

The Department of Education’s Panel for Education Policy approved a controversial grade expansion at the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts & Letters on Tuesday, in a vote that followed a rambunctious public comment session at Brooklyn Technical High School.

The panel’s vote, unanimous save for two abstentions, will allow Arts & Letters to begin an expansion next year that will gradually turn that middle school into a K-8 school. Arts & Letters, a public middle school created by the non-profit Urban Assembly, shares a building at 225 Adelphi Street with P.S. 20, a zoned public elementary school.

Some parents who hope to start their children at Arts & Letters, a highly regarded school, next fall welcomed the decision.

“It’s been proven to be a great school,” said District 13 parent Po Kutchins, whose 4-year-old daughter is beginning the kindergarten admissions process this winter. “It’s working with the same demographic as all the other schools and it’s achieving more.”

Some parents of P.S. 20 students have opposed this expansion since it was first floated in May of last year, citing concerns over space, resources, and a fear that it will cause a reduction in local middle school options for neighborhood children.

“Currently, with the school not even at capacity, we’re having space issues when it comes to the bathrooms, the cafeteria, the auditorium, the yard, all the shared spaces,” said Jylani Brown, a P.S. 20 parent. “The space is not available for two elementary schools to coexist without somebody having to eventually suffer.”

But advocates of the Arts & Letters expansion said there is room for its growth without crowding out P.S. 20. An Arts & Letters Parent supporter, Bliss Broyard, brought a bar graph that she had created, based on her own research, to the meeting on Tuesday. The graph showed that the building housing P.S. 20 and Arts & Letters has more space to spare than any other neighborhood school building.

“It’s hard, once you’ve had the opportunity to spread out, to lose those extra classrooms,” Ms. Broyard said of P.S. 20 parents’ complaints about space. But, she said, her research and the D.O.E.’s guidelines “both indicate that P.S. 20 will have plenty of room to thrive.”

A P.S. 20 parent, Derek Stroup, expressed a common concern among those protesting the expansion. Noting that Arts & Letters has an impressive commitment to diversity, he said he worries that the plan to use a lottery to determine admission will result in Arts & Letters becoming more white and privileged.

“This new proposal will strip [Arts & Letters Principal Allison] Gaines Pell of her discretion,” Mr. Stroup said.

The expansion will begin with the addition of two sections of kindergarten and two sections of first grade in the 2011-12 school year. The total number of students in the building will increase by 100. As the school adds grades, future fifth graders enrolled at Arts & Letters will have priority admission to remain at Arts & Letters for sixth grade — a sticking point for those who oppose the expansion on the grounds that it will shut other neighborhood children out of the school’s sought-after middle school program.
P.S. 20 / Arts and Letters expansionEliza Ronalds-Hannon At an Oct. 26 District 13 meeting, parents and children from P.S. 20 protested plans to expand the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts & Letters to a K-8 school.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the Panel for Educational Policy, whose members are appointed by the mayor and borough presidents, ignored a proposal floated last week to postpone this contentious decision. The postponement, suggested by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz at a public hearing on Dec. 8, had the support of Council Member Letitia James, though she and Mr. Markowitz both also expressed support for the Arts & Letters expansion.

Since Arts & Letters first revealed plans to expand in May of last year, conflict has ensnared the process. When a D.O.E. spokesperson announced at a community meeting in October that plans had progressed despite opposition from P.S. 20 parents, protest began in earnest.

The discussion has grown ever more tense. At the start of last week’s meeting, Ms. James took the floor to denounce the hostility the debate has engendered. She said the principals of both schools involved have received death threats and racist emails, and have even had office space vandalized.

“I know as a community we can do better than that,” Ms. James said.

Some parents voiced suspicions that the proposal to postpone the decision was meant to prevent the expansion from moving forward next year — which they said they feared would have resulted in Arts & Letters’ flight from District 13. That is because New York City’s kindergarten admissions process launches in January for the 2011-2012. Any delay could have caused Arts & Letters to be shut out of that process, said a spokesperson for the Department of Education.

At the same time, parents said, preventing it from expanding in its current building could have forced administrators to seek space elsewhere. And since it has no obligation to stay in District 13, a denial of expansion could have prompted Arts & Letters to relocate outside the district’s boundaries.

The scarcity of local middle school options — what many call the District 13 “middle school crisis” — has worried parents on both sides of the Arts & Letters expansion debate.

Those who oppose the Arts & Letters expansion said they worry that the expansion could mean fewer middle school seats at Arts & Letters if the school winds up reducing the size of its grades 6-8 to make room for kindergarten through sixth-grade classes.

But Ms. Kutchins and others believe that Arts & Letters’ expansion will help keep local students in neighborhood schools.

“We have a lot of people leaving the district for choices that don’t exist here, and I want to keep those kids here.” Ms. Kutchins said. “I think that the more choices we have, the more we’ll keep people in district.”

Ms. Kutchins emphasized that she and other advocates of the Arts & Letters expansion are also supportive of the P.S. 20 community and that school’s goals.

“Everyone I know that supported it was heartbroken about it being us against them,” she said of the clash that surrounded the proposal. “We want to see that school thrive.”

About Eliza Ronalds-Hannon