At one point a few years back many local wags (as well as annoyed hipsters) proclaimed Williamsburg to be “Babyburg!” Thankfully, that Times Style Section-type story seems like a goner, but the gentrification of the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area—and many other parts of Brooklyn—has only accelerated. Condos are chockablock in every nook and cranny, expensive organic convenience stores are cropping up and fighting the corner bodegas, and local services such as transportation and sanitation are stretched thin. Meanwhile public schools, the bedrock of our communities, are at something of a crossroads as growing numbers of new families demand change.
No doubt, it’s an old story for modern New York City. Neighborhoods transform and property value goes up. Often those initially responsible are artists, then the artsy folks with jobs, followed by young urban professionals who launch the baby boom. Many of these newcomers want something different from the public schools than what has developed over the pre-gentrified era. The immigrant and ethnic New York communities that have been in place for decades either hunker down or leave and the local public schools reflect this change. “Remember that there has been a significant population decline in several local schools as a result of economic displacement,” says Kate Yourke, a community activist and recent member of School District 14’s Community Education Council. “I think some of the schools are starting to realize that, if they expect to attract students from the population now moving to the neighborhood, they must update their educational model and compete with programs offered in the East Village and elsewhere.”
Given the Byzantine nature of New York politics, calling for change in even one district means dealing with an amalgam of issues concerning school zoning and funding mechanisms, as well as working with local politicians and various community organizations. And, of course, there’s the bureaucratic behemoth otherwise known as the Board of Education. All of these obstacles are causing many parents to opt out. “Some of the schools can maintain their enrollment without adapting their traditional style, some are eager to move in a more experiential direction, and some might need to be reorganized to maximize their success,” says Yourke. “But right now the fact is that most groups of parents with small children with whom I cross paths are, on the whole, not choosing to send their children to local schools.”
But in Williamsburg, many local parents have been pushing for change. On June 16th, a coalition of groups—including the Community Education Council, Community Board 1, the North Brooklyn Alliance and the Williamsburg/Greepoint Schools Initiative Group (WiGSIG)—held a packed Town Hall Meeting at Automotive High School near McCarren Park. It was a lively affair that included an improvised playpen in the back of the auditorium for the many babies, toddlers and children that created the background noise for the likes of Councilman David Yassky, Councilwoman Diana Reyna, State Assemblyman Joseph Lentol and District 14 Superintendent James Quail. Most of the panel members stayed for more than two and a half hours listening to and commenting on the main objectives of the meeting: a request for more resources for schools in the district; more choice in school zoning; and the need within the community to organize a task force to deal with these issues. There was a clear message from a growing and vocal group of residents who want more progressive education. The local schools that adhere to this model are currently overflowing with new students.
The politicians gently lent their support. “We have some folks interested in progressive education,” said Councilman Yassky. “But I don’t think we’re doing enough to get that option out there. I’m sure some of you here are feeling like they have to go outside of this area to get the education they want for their children. That’s not what I want.”
One reason parents are sending their children out of the district is because of the zoning restrictions currently in place. Brooke Parker, a Borough President appointee to District 14 CEC, said that changing this restriction means that parents would get to choose which school their child would attend within the district (something not currently easily attained) rather than having to go outside the district. Parker notes that district parents have been utilizing the few public school choices already available but that the charter and magnet schools in the area have huge waiting lists. She also makes the salient point that many parents often lie about their addresses in order to get their children into the schools they aren’t zoned for. “It’s our districts’ dirtiest open secret – and, frankly, it’s the most inefficient.” According to Parker, if these choices were legitimate and encouraged, schools that attracted families could be rewarded for their successes and those that were unable to attract high enrollment could no longer hide behind zoning issues.
WiGSIG member Kimberly Wright pointed out the challenges and importance of these calls for change coming from within the community. “In such a complex neighborhood undergoing such rapid change, local leadership is absolutely essential for any solution to be appropriate and lasting. The assessment and response to our school district’s needs must be a community-led initiative,” said Wright. The other side of that challenge is working with a sprawling part of city government. “The Board of Ed. is certainly not accustomed to working closely with the community,” adds Yourke. “So there is a lot of trust to develop before we can have a significant impact.”
In general, many parents who came to the town hall meeting hope that all segments of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint community, not just those newer residents who want change, will work together. “Here in our complex, diverse and multi-faceted neighborhood in North Brooklyn,” says Wright, “we welcome the community-building potential of supporting and creating schools where our children can engage with each other and develop the invaluable bonds of community.” That can be easier said than done, of course, but it’s an essential goal.
The first step towards better local schools has already been accomplished: demonstrating to the Board of Ed. that a vocal part of the District 14 community is organized and working to address pressing issues in the public education system. Anyone familiar with local politics knows that making such a statement is a crucial first step.