Students Protest Armory's Disappearing High Schools

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The shouts of Bronx high school students penetrated a driving rain as several hundred borough residents joined them in a boisterous rally recently at the Kingsbridge Armory. The crowd's demand was not what one expects from teenagers: “What do we want?” bellowed the members of Sistas and Brothas United, a local teen organization that wants the armory used for education. “Schools!” their fellow demonstrators shouted back. “When do we want them? Now!”

As energetic as the rally at the hulking 1912 fortress was, it wasn't supposed to be necessary. After 12 years of demanding that redevelopment of the city-owned and mostly vacant Kingsbridge Armory include new student seats in this overcrowded school district, neighborhood activists with the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance – a coalition of Sistas and Brothas United, its parent organization the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, other community groups, and unions pressing for living wage jobs and schools at the site – thought they'd won.

But now the city Department of Education (DOE) says it won't build schools at the armory, maintaining that the current 2005-2009 capital building plan includes all the new school capacity the area needs. But that projection underestimates the neighborhood's educational needs, alleges Sistas and Brothas United, depending on a third of their classmates dropping out. The group is demanding that DOE amend its capital plan to include an additional 2,000 seats – the number Sistas and Brothas says is necessary to provide for all students – and commit to building them on the armory site.

Proposed changes to the capital plan were released Friday as the Department of Education began its annual reassessment of the document, said Margie Feinberg, a department spokeswoman. “The capital plan is a living document. We amend it each year. It's a continuous process,” Feinberg said. Representatives of DOE, the Schools Construction Authority, City Council, Community Education Councils and parent groups discuss proposed amendments and decide which to approve by the end of January, she explained. In the spring it is submitted to Council and the mayor for approval, according to a timeline published with the proposed amendments. But while the capital budget is amended each year, the amendments are minor, Feinberg cautioned, focused on refining details rather than adding whole new buildings.

City Council Majority Leader Joel Rivera, who represents a neighboring Bronx district, said he would pressure the education department to commit to armory schools in the current capital budget. “We cannot settle for something that is not what we want. This is maybe the last big project that is going to be done in the Bronx. Let's make sure it is done right. Let's make sure City Hall is listening,” he said in a passionate speech before the group began its march around the entire Armory structure.

Students struck a defiant note. “The Department of Education? They're not going to schools every day. They don't know what we're going through. We're taking classes in the principal's office, in closets, in the hallways,” said Julia Ramirez, 16, a senior at Bronx International High School, as she marched on Oct. 27.

The Armory was built almost a century ago to house the New York National Guard. A regiment continues to drill in a building on the site, but the armory has been mostly empty for a generation. Beginning in 1995 members of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition – another sponsor of the recent protest – began pushing the city to build schools for the overcrowded district in the massive building. The Giuliani administration had a plan to turn the facility into solely a shopping mall and entertainment complex, but that project fizzled.

So when the New York City Economic Development Corporation released a Request for Proposals (RFP) in Sept. 2006 to get the ball rolling for renovation of the castle-like red brick structure, neighborhood activists claimed victory. The RFP called for two schools to be included among the site's uses. That's because the grassroots Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance had a hand in writing the RFP. Advocates of citizen-led planning hailed it as a breakthrough in community development practice. “They created a process where the community and city write the rules, not the developer,” Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development said at the time. “This is exactly how the city should do planning for large-scale development.”

The RFP also called for redevelopment to include major retailers, a movie theater, a bookstore and space for community activities in the massive structure – its interior the size of four football fields – which occupies the corner of Kingsbridge Road and Jerome Avenue in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. The document included assurances from DOE and the School Construction Authority that they were prepared to build schools on the armory plot, behind the structure itself.

But the school buildings were to be the responsibility of the construction authority and were not actually a part of the RFP, said Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for the city Economic Development Corporation (EDC). Developers simply had to leave room for them on the site. “The RFP stated that the Department of Education envisioned building two schools there,” Patterson said.

The Economic Development Corporation is currently reviewing bids from the Related Companies and Atlantic Development Corporation and expects to announce a developer in the near future, but wouldn't say how the Department of Education decision might affect the project.

The education department was amenable to schools at the armory when the RFP was being drafted. But when the capital plan was amended last winter, the department scraped those plans because the National Guard continued to occupy the area where the schools were to be built (and it still does today). “We just needed to move on. We couldn't wait any longer,” Feinberg said. “When we were first creating the capital plan we looked at the armory, but it was occupied and continues to be occupied,” she said. “We can't really plan to build in spaces that are occupied.”

Although Sistas and Brothas United and other veteran Armory campaigners don't buy it, DOE insists it has enough seats for Bronx students in the works at other sites.

“We've been very aggressive about the Bronx, it's one of the more overcrowded areas,” Feinberg said, explaining that the capital plan calls for 2,500 new school seats in Bronx District 10, where the armory is located. Of those seats, 1,900 will be in two new schools slated to be built on DOE property. Those schools are being designed now. The remaining 600 seats will be in additions to existing schools. “The number of seats in the Bronx is more than every other borough in the city, except for Queens, which has similar demographics,” she said.

The School Construction Authority this Friday released its Enrollment, Capacity and Utilization Report for the 2006-2007 school year. It reports that nearly half of all city high schools are overcrowded, along with about a quarter of elementary schools and 14 percent of middle schools. In the armory's school District 10, DeWitt Clinton High School is at 126 percent capacity, with 4,465 students in a building designed for 3,362, according to the SCA's calculations. Nearby PS 246 has 121 more students than it can rightly hold, operating at 118 percent capacity, while PS 86 has 253 students in a building meant to serve 166.

Even without the armory space, there will be room for all high school students in the Bronx once the current capital plan is built out, Feinberg said, adding that this capital plan is more reliable than most because for the first time in recent memory it is fully funded. The Bronx will have 10,000 new high school seats when the current capital building plan is completed – enough, by its calculations, to serve all the Bronx students who need them. “Our graduation rate is 60 percent,” Feinberg said. “We will continue to closely monitor high school graduation rates, as well as birth, immigration and migration rates.”

The students and neighbors who have focused their energy on school overcrowding and the armory's redevelopment for more than a decade don't accept the calculation of demand on the current graduation rate, however. They say overcrowding helps push students out of chaotic schools, thus contributing to the low graduation rate. The current capital plan, even when it is fully built out, won’t provide for all the students who deserve a seat in the public school system, they argue.

“They are expecting a third of us to drop out. We need a 100 percent graduation rate,” said Melvin Rogers, 17, a voluble junior at the Leadership Institute, a small high school sponsored by Sistas and Brothas United under the New Century Schools program.

“I don't think the Department of Education understands how we feel. If they don't put enough schools here, they are taking away from our education,” Rogers said.

– Eileen Markey

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