A few weeks ago, Stacey Vasseur’s TKYR OLD son boarded a school bus on his way to The Peck Slip School near the Brooklyn Bridge, but he didn’t arrive there until nearly two hours later. The bus driver, unfamiliar with Lower Manhattan, accidentally drove the students to the Upper West Side before realizing his mistake and delivering them to the correct location. Vasseur didn’t find out what had happened until the end of the school day. “They eventually got to Peck Slip and the bus parked, and my son came off and said hello to the security guard, went inside, and I was never informed that he was lost,” she said.
The tangled bureaucracy of New York City schools makes even an on-time bus departure difficult for parents, much less a guarantee that their kids are delivered to the right place. Downtown schools have become drastically overcrowded as the area’s population has doubled since 2001, forcing families to commute farther than they would like to wherever there is an open space. Vasseur’s family lives in Battery Park City which, though less than two miles from Peck Slip, can be more than an hour’s bus drive due to traffic congestion and convoluted routes.
At a meeting of the Community Board 1 youth and education committee on Monday night, co-chair Paul Hovitz expressed his frustration about fixing issues such as the ones that Vasseur has experienced. “This has been ridiculous,” he said at the meeting. “I had to talk to [Deputy Chancellor] Elizabeth Rose in order to get a response from someone from the Department of Education, including the high school superintendent, who never returned any calls, including the principals, who never returned any calls.” Hovitz said he also reached out to the Department of Education’s Offices of Pupil Transportation and Family and Community Engagement with little success.
However, Sydney Renwick, the DOE’s Manhattan liaison for the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, did show up to Monday’s meeting and promised to follow up with the Office of Pupil Transportation.
Vasseur said that Peck Slip was not her family’s first choice to send their two kids, but they decided to stay there instead of splitting the children up because they were not aware there was another option. “It shouldn’t be that hard to opt for a school that’s more convenient,” Vasseur said. “Over the last three years we were offered a spot two times [at P.S. 276 in Battery Park City] but it was too much disruption. It would be helpful if, when somebody moves into the district, the word could be out … so parents aren’t going through what I went through for three years.”
Committee co-chair Tricia Joyce narrowed Lower Manhattan’s issues to three main categories: busing, overcrowding and safety. Plaguing all three categories, the committee determined, is a lack of communication between the community and the relevant city agencies that lands families at schools they would not have preferred. “Tackling these one agency at a time has been not as productive as we hoped,” Joyce said.
Renwick said that what Vasseur should have done when her family moved to the city was go to the education department’s Family Welcome Center—which none of the committee members had ever heard of. Committee members offered several suggestions to improve communication on this subject: handing out packets to new residents, opening up a designated hotline for school complaints and giving principals more power independently from the Office of Pupil Transportation.
The rest of the meeting revolved around the same theme. In a discussion of sorely needed upgrades to Millennial High School’s malfunctioning telecom and security camera systems, the committee ran up against a rule that no capital improvements can be made to buildings with fewer than five years left on their lease. Despite assurances from the School Construction Authority that the city will renew the school’s lease, the security upgrades as well as the Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s offer to partition the library to accommodate its growing population must wait.
The PTA president at Spruce Street School brought up similar frustrations while trying to secure crossing guards for Spruce students’ safe dismissal each afternoon. Spruce Street is situated in both the first and fifth precinct’s territories, causing uncertainty as to who should be responsible for patrolling the area. This has become a particular concern ever since a student at the nearby Murry Bergtraum High School was recently found in possession of a gun and another was accused of beating the principal. Three NYPD officers from the school unit of fifth precinct who were present at the meeting promised to address the issue with officers from the first precinct.
After six weeks of collaborating with other parents, Vasseur’s bus problems have finally been resolved, with a new group of bus drivers in place who are familiar with the area. “It took a lot of time on bus stop corners waiting for everything to get smoothed over,” she said. Vasseur was complimentary of the new drivers, who she said are caring and attentive. But plenty of other outstanding problems remain unsolved.
Madeleine Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org