Thursday, December 3, 2009
City Unveils Zoning Limits for Metro Ave HS
Frustration Over DOE Process for Opening New Buildings
By Conor Greene
With overcrowding within borough schools a chronic problem, many parents are thrilled that the long-awaited Metropolitan Avenue high school complex will finally open this September. However, many are shocked at the city’s decision to only open the school up to one grade at a time, meaning it won’t be filled to capacity for four more years.
The city Department of Education unveiled its proposed zoning map for the new 1,000 seat high school set to open on Metropolitan Avenue near Woodhaven Boulevard in time for the start of the next school year. Aside from expected disappointment and complaints from parents whose block wasn’t included in the zoning, many in attendance at PS 113 on Monday were surprised that the school will initially only be occupied by freshmen.
The complex, which as been in the works for nearly two decades, includes the 1,000-seat high school, for which priority is being given to District 24 and District 28 students who live within the proposed zoning boundaries. It also contains a 6-12 school which has been set aside for students in District 28 and wasn’t part of Monday’s zoning discussion.
Gaby Fighetti, senior director of enrollment at the city DOE, said the main goal is to “set up this high school to be a success.” The goal was to create a zone that will eventually include about 250 students from each grade level, with half the seats set aside for District 24 students and half for District 28 students.
For the first year only, students living in an area previously zoned for another local high school such as Forest Hills or Hillcrest, but now included in the Metropolitan Avenue zone, will be allowed to choose which facility they attend. In future years, they will only be zoned for the new school.
Priority will first be given to students living in the zoned area, and then to the rest of Queens before admission is opened up to residents citywide. The proposed zone was created using mapping software that contains addresses of enrolled students, explained Fighetti. “It’s all about density. You go out as far as you can go until you have too many families zoned,” she said.
During Monday’s meeting, some residents requested changes to the proposed zoning, such as extending it further north so students don’t have to cross Queens Boulevard. Another asked if Cord Meyer residents currently zoned for Hillcrest would be allowed to utilize seats at Forest Hills High School that will open up as students enroll in the new Metropolitan Avenue complex.
Fighetti said that since FHHS is already overcrowded, the department will not be redrawing zoning lines for that facility. “No matter where you draw the zoning lines, there is a family across the street that isn’t included,” she said, adding that while the DOE is willing to listen to arguments regarding the zoning, the rationale behind a change can’t simply be that a particular block or household isn’t included.
However, a major point of contention was the DOE’s decision to open the new school up to one grade level at a time, meaning it won’t be filled to capacity for four years – even though nearby high schools are filled beyond capacity. In explaining the decision, Fighetti repeated the mantra of “setting the school up to succeed.”
A DOE spokesman later told The Forum that the department is “phasing in the school one grade at a time rather than opening all grades at once because research, as well as our experience, shows that new schools do better when they phase in gradually. While we understand that high school overcrowding is a serious concern in Queens, our first responsibility is ensuring that we’re setting up our schools for success. The Metropolitan Avenue complex will help alleviate overcrowding in nearby high schools starting when it opens in 9th grade next year, and as it adds new grades in subsequent years.”
Still, many didn’t buy that rationale at Monday’s meeting. “We can’t have schools operating on five sessions,” said Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the borough president’s appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy. “We’re building state of the art buildings and we’re not even utilizing them… I think this is a mistake. Go back to the drawing board and utilize more of this school now,” he said to loud applause.
Another resident suggested that the school be opened up to freshmen, sophomores and juniors initially, since most students wouldn’t want to transfer to a new school for their senior year anyway. Fighetti later denied a resident’s theory that the decision is drive by budget constraints. “It is not an economic decision, it’s an instructional one,” she reiterated.
While the proposed zoning map is close to a final product, the DOE will continue to accept community feedback over the next two weeks, according to a spokesman. Residents can e-mail suggestions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org before the proposal is submitted to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein for approval.
Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) told the audience that the zoning map presented that night was different from a proposal officials reviewed several weeks ago, which didn’t include Forest Hills Gardens. He also questioned the decision regarding the facility’s opening. “The bottom line was to reduce overcrowding [so] is there a rationale to open just one grade?” he questioned.
Dermot Smyth, the area’s United Federation of Teachers representative, suggested that parents fill Klein’s e-mail inbox to voice their unhappiness with the decision to only open the school to freshmen next year. “Let him know you don’t want it to open up with three-quarters of the seats empty,” he said. “Be a little loud and he will pay attention.”