FiDi Parents Wage Fight to Keep Their Promised Middle School

Some of the parents, with their children, who want to see the middle school open as planned. From left: Shab Boettle with Natalie, Sonia Jacobson with Jonah, Caitlin Miesen with Leopoldo, and Ashley Duncan with Olin. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jun. 20, 2014

UPDATE 6/24/14: Spruce Street School Principal Nancy Harris informed school parents today that she was told by education officials that the promised middle school will go forward. In an eleventh-hour campaign to save the school, parents had gathered 380 online signatures and 700 paper signatures, calling on the Department of Education to keep its commitment. Below, in part, is Harris's letter to parents.

Recent weeks have shed increased uncertainty over the fate of our middle school.  I have shared your frustration over the lack of clarity and unwillingness to commit to a path for our school’s growth.  Many of you have mobilized to share your frustration and to reaffirm your commitment to Spruce Street for the greater good of Lower Manhattan.

I spoke earlier today with Mariano Guzman, our Superintendent, and Drew Patterson from the DOE’s Office of Portfolio.  They have confirmed to me that Spruce Street will proceed as a K-8 school, launching our 6th grade in 2015.  Your advocacy and support have been evident to all, and we could not do this work without you.


Just as the school year is winding down, parents at the Spruce Street School are gearing up to save their promised middle school.

Recently reported comments by schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña cast doubt on the future of the middle school, which is expected to open next year, and sparked a last-minute campaign by parents to hold education officials to their promise.

Over the years, DOE officials have repeatedly reassured parents that the middle school was on track to open in 2015 with two sixth grade classes.

"We're almost out of school for the year and then going into summer," said PTA co-president Ashley Duncan. "We need to do immediate action now and see how much we can change before the school year is out."

Along with emails and calls to education and elected officials, the parents have launched an online petition, and plan to make their case on Tuesday at Community Board 1's monthly meeting. A protest is scheduled for Wednesday morning in front of the school. CB1's Executive Committee has already passed a resolution calling on the DOE to honor its commitment.

There have long been questions about space for the middle school. To relieve kindergarten overcrowding in Lower Manhattan, each year the school has opened more kindergarten classes than planned, putting the squeeze on classrooms intended for future middle school students. Lately, the DOE has been under pressure to find more elementary school seats below Canal Street, beyond the 456 now in the city's five-year spending plan. 

Asked at a news conference earlier this month about the potential use of Spruce Street's planned middle school classrooms for an expanded elementary school, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña declined to rule it out, saying "everything is on the table."

"We're looking at all possibilities," Fariña said. "Are there schools where it makes more sense to allow the school to grow in a different way?"

Fariña's remarks, reported online by the Trib, set off a flurry of concern by parents. At a heavily attended PTA meeting on June 18, principal Nancy Harris stopped short of taking a position on the middle school's future. But she was unequivocal about the uncertainty that now hangs over the school's families.

"It's not fair to parents and it's especially unfair, by June 18, to really feel that pit in your stomach of what's going on," Harris told the parents. "At the end of the day, it should have been resolved a long time ago, whatever the resolution is."

"I'm certainly not in the same position as you," the principal added, "but I personally have felt frustrated and jerked around for years, as well, on this issue."

But Harris, who has led the school since it opened in temporary quarters at Tweed Courthouse in 2009, made it clear that there will be only two free classrooms left in the next school year and that she has "legitimate space concerns and logistical issues that will not so easily be resolved."

"Physically could we fit it?" Harris said. "Sure, they stuff schools into buildings all the time." But she said the middle school could come at the expense of dedicated music and art rooms and other programs that benefit the students.

"I'm concerned about space because I also want to advocate for our programs and to make our space work for the kids that are here," Harris said.

Sarah Elbatanouny, the mother of a 4th-grader, said after the PTA meeting that uncertainty over the fate of the middle school was an "emotional ride" for parents and children. "We need to know. That's the whole issue. If the decision is we're not going to have it, then tell us," she said.  "We need pure clarity of what's going on. I need to know how to plan."

"More so," added Karen Stonley, also the mother a 4th-grader. "I think we were made a promise."

Questions over the fate of the middle school have been raised repeatedly at meetings of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's School Overcrowding Task Force.  And school officials—including then-Chancellor Dennis Walcott as recently as last year—have maintained that the middle school would open. At the task force meeting held this month, Silver said he is calling on Fariña to honor the commitment.

"I want to reiterate that we were promised a k-to-8 school," he said, adding, "We look forward to seeing the DOE live up to that promise."

So, too, does 4th-grader Lola Milagro, who said in a phone interview that she would be "very upset" to leave the school after 5th grade.

"Kids always keep their promises," Lola said. "Why do adults not keep their promises about having a middle school in my school."