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As public schools protest land deal, a college counterdemonstrates

JREC supporters at yesterday's demonstration
JREC supporters at yesterday's demonstration

What was planned as a choreographed demonstration turned into a showdown in front of Tweed Courthouse yesterday between supporters of an Upper East Side school complex and backers of the construction project that would displace it.

Now 13 years old, Julia Richman Education Complex was one of the first school complexes in the city to hold multiple small schools, and its well-publicized successes with struggling students made it a model for the Department of Education’s efforts to break down many large high schools.

But for the last two years, JREC community members have been fighting a complicated real estate deal that would require it to relocate.

The president of nearby Hunter College, Jennifer Raab, wants to tear down JREC and erect a massive science building in its place. In exchange, Hunter would make sure JREC gets a new and improved building — but it would be more than 40 blocks south. Parents, teachers, and students from the six schools in the building, which include schools for autistic children and immigrant teenagers, say relocating JREC would undermine the community that has been cultivated there.

DOE officials have said they’re interested in Raab’s proposal, provided that the new school really does come at no cost to the city. Yesterday, members of the Campaign to Save JREC arrived at DOE headquarters to present a petition against the move with so many signatures that it stretched from the sidewalk, up the front stairs, to the front door and beyond.

They were surprised, leader Jane Hirschmann told me, to find a sizable group of teenagers and Hunter College faculty with signs of their own supporting the new science facility.

The two groups exchanged shouts, with teens from JREC shouting, “2, 4, 6, 8 — Children first, not real estate,” and science building supporters trying to drown them out with chants of their own. Many of the Hunter supporters were not Hunter College students but actually high schoolers from the Upper West Side’s college-supported Hunter/Manhattan Science High School.

No one, including JREC’s backers, disputes Hunter’s need for a new science building. Gail Scovell, Hunter’s lawyer, told me that the school’s research grants are in jeopardy because its facilities are considered sub-par. And this fall, she said, the school didn’t have enough room to let sophomore take organic chemistry, required for admission to medical school.

But JREC supporters say the college should use its own land downtown for a new science building, instead of trying to move JREC there.

A fact sheet the college distributed at the rally argues that a science building uptown would allow cross-pollination between the sciences and liberals arts at Hunter. Faculty members also told me that students don’t like traveling downtown for their science classes.

Wendy Selnick, a 1977 graduate of Hunter’s nursing program who lives across the street from JREC and came to the rally to support the complex, said she found the commuting argument spurious. “Tens of thousands of nurses have made the trip,” she said.

Donna Nevel, a member of the campaign’s steering committee, said the DOE’s interest in the Hunter deal defied logic. “JREC is a complex of schools that really are serving all kids,” Nevel told me. “A school like that should be celebrated instead of destroyed.”

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