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Tonight, a rally in District 3 to support diversity, oppose rezoning

A few people protested outside last week's CEC meeting; more are expected tonight.

A few people protested outside last week’s CEC meeting; more are expected tonight.

Scott Elliott

A rally this evening against a parent council resolution to relieve overcrowding in Upper West Side schools will try to move beyond a bitter fight between two schools to focus on the broader issue of diversity in the neighborhood’s schools.

The Community Education Council for District 3 voted last week after a contentious meeting to introduce a resolution that would move two schools and reduce the zones of two others. Tonight, six members of CEC 3 must vote to pass the resolution.

Before tonight’s CEC vote, a rally will give voice to parents who say the resolution, if enacted, would reduce diversity in several of the neighborhood’s school buildings. “Is this what we want in our city?” asked Jeanne Kerwin, a parent who is one of the organizers of tonight’s rally.

At stake is the fate of the entire two-month-long rezoning process. If the resolution is defeated tonight, the Department of Education, not parents, will decide how to deal with the space crunch at neighborhood schools.

Last week’s CEC 3 meeting turned into a showdown between representatives of two schools that have dominated the two-month-long rezoning process. Those schools share a building on West 70th Street that has been the epicenter of bitter fighting: Parents from the Center School, a selective middle school, say the building would become nearly all white if their school is forced to move. But parents of students zoned for PS 199 argue that having two schools in the building next year would cause hopeless overcrowding — or require some kids to be shut out of their neighborhood elementary school.

At last week’s meeting, speakers from several other schools interrupted the Center School-PS 199 fight to raise issues of diversity. “There are a lot of parents that are concerned about what is going on,” Jeanne Kerwin told me.

Among the issues: Parents at the Computer School worry about what will happen when a citywide gifted school, the Anderson School, moves into the building the Computer School shares with MS 44; until now, that building has had very few white students. Representatives of PS 75 say rezoning could threaten its Spanish dual-language program. And several parents from PS 199 told me last week that they were unhappy with their Parent Association’s anti-Center School attitude.

Kerwin said she organized tonight’s rally using e-mail addresses she collected from parents and other community members who walked out of last week’s meeting to protest what they said was the CEC’s inattention to issues of diversity through the rezoning process. The Center for Immigrant Families, a community group that has long supported programs to desegregate Upper West Side schools, issued a statement saying the CEC resolution should have addressed issues of equity.

A second contingent of parents could join the opposition tonight, but for a very different reason. The Post reported today that residents of several high-rise buildings on the verge of being rezoned for a low-performing elementary school are angry. Rumor has it that they plan to protest the resolution.

If diversity is to remain the focus of tonight’s rally, a major question is what role the Center School will play. The school’s Web site says that parents will be “mobilizing … and hopefully leading” the rally. But a message to the school’s private Yahoo group yesterday from a member of the PTA emphasizes that the Center School is not playing a leadership role:

Just to be clear, the rally … is NOT related specifically to the Center School’s move, but to the general issue of diversity. It is not sponsored by us, and we are not organizing or directing or leading it. You are welcome to back this issue, but any signs … should NOT say Center School or use our school’s name in any way.

A Center School parent, Alan Madison, who is also the son-in-law of Principal Elaine Schwartz, told me that community members decided not to make the school the focus of tonight’s rally. “In fact in this case we’re supporting someone else,” Madison told me. “We don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.”

About the Center School, Kerwin said, “They certainly have had their time in the press. … If I were them, I would choose to let other people speak.”

“A lot of schools have their own issues that all tell a bigger story,” she said.

Organizers expect a sizable turnout at tonight’s rally, but they aren’t expecting a last-minute change of heart from CEC members.

“Will [the rally] change the minds of CEC people? I have no idea,” Kerwin said. She said she’s hoping to prompt a larger conversation about race and class in District 3 schools.

Still, one CEC member abstained from voting last week after hearing a litany of complaints. If others abstain tonight, the resolution might not pass.

“If the resolution is defeated, that’s it,” Jennifer Freeman of CEC 3 told me. The DOE would then decide how to ease overcrowding, and it could cap school enrollments, end the district’s admissions lottery, or move schools or programs. Only rezoning is the exclusive domain of community education councils.