Politicians, students and teachers cut the ribbon on a brand new school on Wednesday, a happy culmination to years of often-acrimonious negotiations and delays.
The new PS 191 on 61st Street and West End Avenue boasts shiny new science rooms, a sun-filled playground, a library, two rooftop rec areas, a medical suite, a gym, an auditorium and other amenities.
Principal Lauren Keville said she cried “tears of joy” when she saw the finished school a week ago. “This building is more than I could ever imagine,” she said.
The school, now dubbed The Riverside School for Makers and Artists, has capacity for 692 students from Kindergarten through Eighth grade, and will have a special focus on both arts and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).
The school is inside a new building at 21 West End Avenue that is part of the luxury Riverside Center development. The shell of the school was constructed by private developers who agreed to build it after negotiations with local officials. It’s the first newly built elementary school to open on the Upper West Side in 45 years, a period when the neighborhood experienced substantial new development but minimal city investment in new school capacity. “With the dozens upon dozens of new residential buildings erected [in that time], you have to wonder what educational plan the city envisioned for its future,” noted Kim Watkins, president of Community Education Council 3, a parent body that advocates for local schools.
“It’s like a private school,” beamed teacher Alessandra de Bellegarde, who works with special needs students at the school. De Bellegarde said she thinks that 191 has been underestimated for years, and its student body deserves the shiny facility.
“I think it’s going to give oomph to the school because kids who go to 191 don’t always get new stuff,” she said.
PS 191 has historically educated students from the Amsterdam Houses projects, and its student population is predominantly black and Hispanic, unlike other nearby schools. That could change, however. After a rezoning last year, the PS 191 zone now includes more white students, many from families with more money than the students who have historically enrolled in the school.
It’s too soon to tell if wealthier students — including some from the developments along Riverside Boulevard — will attend the school or opt for private or charter schools. PS 191 doubled its test scores last year, but the scores still trail neighboring schools. And it was labeled “persistently dangerous” by the state in 2015, though that designation was removed last year.
There are some early indications that the school is becoming more popular. Its preliminary enrollment is 475, up from 425 last year, the Department of Education said, though final stats won’t be available until October at the earliest. The DOE had no information yet on the demographics of the incoming students.
The diversity issue was front and center at the ribbon-cutting. Borough President Gale Brewer said it would “serve the neighborhood’s diverse student population.”
“We have made equity and inclusivity a priority,” said City Council member Helen Rosenthal.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina (left), who has been criticized for failing to articulate a citywide solution to school segregation, pointed to the Upper West Side rezoning as a model of how to integrate schools.
“First and foremost, this is a real community effort,” she said.
Indeed, much of the heavy lifting on the rezoning was done by the Community Education Council 3, the local parent board. With just weeks to go before the rezoning had to be finalized and public officials remaining noncommittal, the CEC3 sent a letter to the DOE outlining its own rezoning plan. The DOE eventually agreed to a plan that was similar to the one CEC3 outlined in the letter. Some parents criticized that process, as the CEC3 is not an elected body (parents of children at local schools do get to choose reps, but it’s not a formal election) and its statutory role is to consult and vote on the plan, not to draw it up.
There were other criticisms too: those who had advocated for a much broader desegregation scoffed at the notion that the rezoning made a real dent in Upper West Side segregation.
Other effects of the rezoning also remain unclear. PS 452 on 77th Street will move into the old 191 building on 61st Street and Amsterdam, upsetting many of the parents there. PS 452 Principal Scott Parker was at the 191 ribbon-cutting and said he’s “incredibly optimistic” about the upcoming school year. Enrollment remains strong and teachers all returned, he said. “Everyone’s happy with the move.” What about the parents who left? “Well, everyone who’s staying.”
For now, there are no wait-lists at PS 199, PS 452 or PS 87, which have had wait lists in the past, according to the DOE. But some expect more overcrowding soon, particularly with more new construction expected in the southern part of the district. The decision to shift PS 452 into the old PS 191 building and put a middle school in the old 452 was a mistake, said CEC3 member Noah Gotbaum. If PS 452 had stayed put and the city had made 191 a new zoned school, it would have added hundreds of new elementary school seats. “It’s not helping overcrowding, it’s making it worse,” he said.
The ribbon-cutting also included some noticeable omissions. No one from Community Board 7, which negotiated with the developer to get the school built, was invited, according to CB7 Chair Roberta Semer and district manager Penny Ryan. And Mel Wymore, who was chair of the board during much of those negotiations and advocated for a large school to reduce overcrowding, wasn’t on the guest list either. Wymore, who is challenging Helen Rosenthal for her City Council seat, showed up anyway and sat in the back.
He praised the design of the school, but said the omission of key people from the ribbon-cutting was “either a massive oversight or a pre-election political decision.” (The Department of Education put together the guest list, Helen Rosenthal’s office noted. The DOE did not have an immediate answer about the CB7 invitation.)
Those weren’t the only oversights that caused a stir. Farina credited Helen Rosenthal for her efforts, but not state assembly member Linda Rosenthal, who also helped create the new school. Linda Rosenthal got upset at Farina on her way out. In an email to West Side Rag, she explained more.
“Instead of playing politics and glad-handing at ribbon cuttings and new school openings, the DOE would be wise to invest the same kind of energy in policies that put our children first, that actually diversify our schools and create a rich and supportive learning environment.”
Meanwhile, State Senator Marisol Alcantara, who was not involved in the negotiations or rezoning, spoke at the ribbon cutting, later tweeting her support. But she referenced a completely different school:
PS 161 is on 133rd Street.
The first day of school is next Thursday. The Department of Education predicts that parents who see the new PS 191 will be inclined to send their kids there, and enrollment will continue to rise. If you’re zoned for the school but haven’t visited, give it a look!
Correction: We initially wrote that it was the first new school on the UWS in 35 years, but it turns out it was the first in 45 years.