The community scored a major victory Tuesday night in a decade-long struggle for new public schools on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills when City Councilmembers Dennis Gallagher and Melinda Katz announced that four new schools would be zoned for local students.
That information, along with an announcement by the Department of Environmental Protection that contaminated soil at the site has been removed, somewhat appeased the hundreds of community members who packed Grace Lutheran Church in Forest Hills to hear details about the proposal.
Plans for the site, which was formerly occupied by a Heinz factory and a lumber company, call for four schools that will share one building. There will be two kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, which will each accommodate 630 students, and two high schools, each with a population of 500 students.
Yet a number of remaining questions about the site, its safety and exactly which students will attend the new schools, turned the standing-room-only meeting of the Forest Hills Civic Association into an emotionally charged event that at times became a screaming match as residents struggled to be heard.
Perhaps foremost on parents’ minds is where the lines will be drawn for the zoning of the schools. A representative from the Department of Education could not answer that question.
Some parents doubted whether the promise of local zoning could be kept at all. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, students in failing schools are allowed to transfer to other schools, even ones outside their district. The result has been that some students who live near desirable schools have been denied admission.
Yet Councilwoman Katz and Councilman Gallagher, who have been working on the project for years, assured residents that the schools would accommodate neighborhood children.
“For the last 10 years it has been a question. And finally in the last two months we were assured that they will be locally zoned schools,” Katz said. “As of a year or two ago we didn’t have an agreement that if you lived across the street from the site you would be guaranteed a seat.”
Several residents said that since the local high schools and junior high schools are so overcrowded, they would rather see the new schools used exclusively by the upper grades.
“We need high schools in this area,” said I.S. 119 PTA President Gloria Morgenstern. “Parents are paying $6,000 a year to send their kids to private schools because the schools in this area are so overcrowded.”
Although Katz said she would attempt to negotiate with the DOE, for now, lower grades will be included in the plan.
The advantage of housing four schools in one building is that each individual school will have access to larger, shared spaces, according to principal architect Martin Stein.
“The benefit of this project is that we’re giving you small, autonomous schools with large-school amenities,” Stein said.
The schools will each have their own administrative offices, cafeterias, classrooms, small gymnasiums and meeting rooms. Several larger facilities will be shared by all the students, including a 750-seat theater and a gymnasium. The two kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools will also share a library and outdoor recreation space.
Although each school will have its own entrance and older and younger children will be separated during the school day, several parents worried that the groups would find ways to interact, especially on their way to and from the building.
“If the kids are mixed in there together they’re going to pick up bad habits before their time,” said Lucy Capranzano, the mother of a fourth-grader, a seventh-grader and a high school student. “How will I be secure that the high school students will not influence my kids?”
One contentious issue that was largely settled was the safety of the former industrial site. Residents were assured by the DEP and the New York State Department of Health that all contaminated soil had been removed.
“I would say a fair statement is the contaminated soil is nonexistent,” said Vadim Brevdo, a project manager for the DEP.
Nonetheless, the groundwater is still contaminated with a chlorine solvent, Brevdo said. In the next 18 months to 2 years, air will be injected into the soil to vaporize the contaminants. The harmful substances will then be captured and removed.
It is likely that the cleanup will continue as construction begins. According to Lorraine Grillo, senior director of real estate for the School Construction Authority, bidding for the project will begin this May and work will start in the spring. The schools should open by the fall of 2008.
The construction itself is a point of contention for area residents, who are worried about the increased noise and traffic. “We’ll restrict the movement of heavy material to certain hours,” said a representative of the School Construction Authority. “But we can’t kid ourselves. There’s going to be a lot of heavy equipment in the area. That’s what it takes to build a school.”
For those living in the immediate vicinity of the site, it is not just the construction that concerns them, but the increase in pedestrian and motor vehicle traffic once the schools are open.
“The students will be walking en masse on 69th Avenue where I have a tiny little house on a tiny little street,” said Betty Korb. “There will be constant traffic. It’s not fair, it’s really disgusting.”
Many parents in favor of the schools said the meeting was a good beginning, but more needed to be discussed. “Right now this chancellor has one thing in mind, but everything can change with a new administration,” Susan DiVerniero said. “I don’t think they can commit to anything. The bottom line is we need more seats for the kids. Hopefully this will have a happy ending.”