Friday, February 02, 2007

Pre-school daze

The school is close, which means that we're running behind. Today we're off to have a look at PS 89 in general and their Pre-K program in particular. The Boy has been enjoying and doing very well in a Montessori preschool program, but PS 89 is a public school (what the "PS" stands for, in NYC lingo) and would cost significantly less. Which is to say it would cost nothing. And PS 89, housing up to 5th graders, is known as one of the better public schools in a city more infamous than famous for its public education. It also happens to be about a five-minute walk from our building; we wouldn't even need to cross the highway or brave the brutal winds off the Hudson like we do now.

Our nanny, A, is on time as always, and we leave her to wrestle Q & The Boy into their clothes and their toothbrushes into their mouths. After pumping up the wheels on the stroller and stopping by the free coffee machine downstairs, my Lovely Wife and I head out only a few minutes later than we wanted to.

The security guard points us to the lunchroom, and we join quite a few other parents waiting for the tour, the last of many given over the past month or so. The long, low tables are standard issue--just like the ones I sat my plastic tray of tacos and chili and milk on 25+ years ago; we squeeze in, joking about the tight fit with those sitting next to us. Though institutional--all tile and cement and lousy acoustics--the capacious room looks out onto a hallway and then through a glass-block wall onto a modest playground, and it feels surprisingly light and airy. Workers in the back loudly begin making lunch (I'm guessing, though it's only 9 a.m.). In a few moments, the principal arrives, and she clusters us all at one end much like she would her students. She’s a bit soft spoken, and we have a little trouble hearing her over the business behind us.

The meeting certainly is instructive. It’s all a bit complicated, but the building actually houses two separate schools, PS 89 and IS 89 (“IS” stands for “Independent School”). If you live in 89’s particular district (which we do), your kids automatically gain entrance to PS 89 up to the 5th grade. If we’re here when The Boy reaches kindergarten age, then, he gets to go, no tests and no tuition. When he reaches middle school age, though, we get to apply for entrance to IS 89--the same building as PS 89--but admission isn’t guaranteed. You select a set of schools and compete with others for limited space at your selections. (And there’s a further level of complexity known as variance admission--namely, you can apply for admission at a public school despite not living in the relevant district, and your child may be admitted if room remains after all the district children are accommodated. Such admissions are rare, though.)

We split into two groups and take the elevator up to the fifth floor and work our way down. We walk through classrooms for all grades including the Pre-K; we peek into the unexpectedly large gym and generous auditorium; we pass lines of kids of all sizes flowing from one activity to another like fidgety fish riding currents. I found the halls wide and the rooms comfortable and well kept. Students sit at communal tables regardless of grade; no individual desks anywhere. We see mockups of Central Park, smiling papier mâché founding fathers, bulletin boards proudly displaying earnest essays on the Yankees (the baseball team) or describing singing with friends. Despite having trouble projecting myself and The Boy--not to mention Q--into a first-or-second-grade-future, I caught myself feeling impressed overall by the school. I wouldn't mind him going here.

There’s some reason to worry, though. After describing the PS/IS distinction and how things work, the principal asks how many parents have children for second grade or higher. I can’t remember any hands going up. She then asks how many people are here to learn about the Pre-K program, and several people do respond this time (including us). Most people here, then, have fairly young children, which probably means that the enrollment at 89 will only increase. It turns out that 89 was originally constructed in 1998 to relieve overcrowding at PS 234, another widely celebrated school a block away or so. The principal was in fact a teacher at 234 before she was promoted, and she mentions several times that 89 owes its existence to parents who pushed for it. They formed a group, she said, and literally went door-to-door to gather statistics to present to the City showing that the growing neighborhood would push 234 from crowded to unsustainable. Originally, the principal tells us, city planners thought that no one would really want to live downtown in our area and in the Financial District (Wall Street, etc.), and those who do will just send their kids to private school anyway. This thinking became entrenched, she tells us, particularly after the 9/11 attacks. As a result, space for schools wasn’t set aside; plans and funds weren’t even considered.

Our neighborhood has certainly arrived, with more buildings and more families on the way. The gargantuan River House, for example, has just been topped off and will no doubt sell out even its four bedroom luxury apartments. Five brand new 250+ unit apartment buildings have gone up within a three-block radius of PS 89 since we've moved in three years ago, and two more are planned to fill the remaining footprints starting this spring. Even before the new developments, though, families began moving to our neighborhood from other parts of New York City to qualify for PS 234 and 89. We've heard stories of those who sell their apartments Uptown just to rent in our Downtown districts.

Predictably, like 234, 89 has become a victim of its own reputation and the neighborhood's, too. Throughout the tour, the principal and her assistant who shepherds our group not-so-subtly recommend that we become activists on behalf of our children and this school. In the past few years they’ve already had to convert the locker rooms to classrooms, and we’re told that the dedicated art and music rooms will probably also have to be repurposed soon for general use--and that’s just to keep the student-teacher ratio at a troubling 35:1 per class. A new facility is to be built on the east side of city hall, but no one really knows when that will happen or how the new districts will be drawn.

We leave the tour a little early for the subway uptown and for work. And we leave puzzled. Our neighborhood has blossomed into one of the best in the city for families, complete with luscious parks and playgrounds and a strong commitment to green living. City planning no doubt involves handling a galaxy of concerns and interests and budgets, but that there should be more commitment to schooling the influx of kids downtown is something like obvious. We've always expected that we'd be involved parents--helping with long division or piecing together the solar system out of styrofoam or raising funds for basketball and band. We knew--and want--in other words, to help make our children's public school better if we could.

We didn't think, however, that we'd have to help make our children's public school exist. I guess we still have much to learn.

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