Pupils stranded in power struggle with DOE


I dare you to discharge my kindergartner.

PS 340 parents are challenging the Department of Education by defying mid-year transfers that disregard several chancellor’s regulations. And the DOE is not backing down. 

After nearly two weeks of PS 340 parents ignoring a Nov. 15 notice informing them that their kindergartners must move to PS 310 in Marble Hill, the DOE threatened to leave the 19 kindergartners without any school to attend. 

Despite the threats of discharge, parents vow to continue dropping their children off at the Kingsbridge Heights school and pitting the DOE against its own regulations, which forbid PS 340 from removing students from its register until another school calls to confirm their enrollment. 

“Nobody is appreciating getting shuffled around like a deck of cards,” said PS 340 PTA president Terry Moss. “When people bully you, you have to get to a point where you say, ‘You know what? That’s enough.’ We’re at that point.’”

Last month the DOE sent letters home to 19 PS 340 parents notifying them that the school’s kindergarten had been capped. The notice said that due to overcrowding their children were required to attend PS 310 beginning days later, on Nov. 19.  

Hours after the letters went out, more than 50 parents and supporters spoke out against the mid-year transfers at the District 10 Community Education Council meeting. Multiple parents said their children were in tears at the prospect of being pulled away from siblings, friends and teachers at a high-performing school they were zoned to attend. The three-day notice enraged many, who said the DOE was aware of crowding issues last June and refused to use available space at PS 86, which is hundreds of feet away from PS 340.

District 10 CEC President Marvin Shelton concluded the meeting by saying he was concerned the transfers violated chancellor’s regulations by not honoring safety-related transfers; ignoring the last-in-first-out-policy for enrollment; and breaking up siblings.

On Nov. 28, the DOE sent MetroCards to PS 340 and invited the families to travel to PS 310, meet its principal, Elizabeth Cardona, and to discuss the stalemate with DOE officials. 

Ms. Cardona did not return calls for comment.

Mr. Moss showed up alone and handed back the MetroCards in protest. He said he appreciated Ms. Cardona welcoming the students into her school, but was offended by the DOE casually discussing the prospect of kindergartners losing their seats in city schools. Olivia Ellis, a school district advocate in the DOE’s office of family engagement and advocacy, flippantly dismissed his request that the DOE reconsider using PS 86, Mr. Moss said.

“She said, ‘Well, I’d like to have more room in my closet, but I don’t have it. I have to make other arrangements or stop buying shoes.’ She’s comparing our children to a wardrobe. They’re forgetting these are babies, 4, 5-year-olds,” he said.

Eleanor Edelstein, from Councilman Oliver Koppell’s office, confirmed the content of Ms. Ellis’ statement.

On Monday, the DOE instructed PS 340 Principal Nelly Maldonado to tell the parents they needed to abide by the transfers.

“It’s heartbreaking for me to have to constantly tell the parents, ‘I’m sorry. This is out of my hands.’ Some of these are children and families that I have worked with for years,” she said.

Back in September, PS 340 compiled a transfer list of the most recently enrolled kindergartners, excluding students guaranteed seats under other regulations. The DOE waited until the day before superstorm Sandy to notify PS 340 that it found space for the students half a mile away at PS 310. When the school asked if buses would be sent, the DOE edited the list.

“They basically said to me that they wanted to accommodate zoned children first,” Ms. Maldonado said. “My response to them was that many of the children were in the zone, but I followed the protocol.”

For months, the parents asked the DOE to move the kindergartners next door to PS 86. Principal Fiona Tyson told Mr. Moss, Mr. Shelton and Mr. Koppell she had an available classroom and a teacher to instruct the children. Now that three months have passed, that opportunity is gone, Ms. Maldonado said.

Parents vowed to continue sending their kindergartners to PS 340 after the Monday meeting. The school is so crowded that a physical therapist has begun operating out of a closet and teachers have brought in their own tables and chairs to accommodate student needs. 

But parents, including, Mohammed Ali, whose son was placed in PS 310 after his wife was targeted by a gunman near a bus stop; Jennifer Velez, whose son feels he’s being separated from his two sisters as a punishment; and Alexis Martinez, whose son wants to ride the same bus to school as his peers living at a women’s shelter, all insist it’s the best fit for them.

“It’s messed up that it’s only happening to us in this community … Middle class, rich people –– they can take their child into any school because money talks,” said Ms. Melendez, whose son was registered late, unlike most of the other kindergartners, but who is entitled to an enrollment priority since he lives in a shelter. “He’s getting attached to his teachers, his classmates. He doesn’t need this.”

The DOE sought to send the kindergartners to the closest possible school with open space, according to David Pena, a DOE press representative.

“PS 310 currently has the space to accommodate an additional kindergarten section and already has a teacher in place for the section. We are working with administrators from both schools to provide an instructional plan that will ensure all affected students have a smooth transition,” Mr. Pena wrote in an e-mail.