Vol. 13, No. 6 March 23 - April 5, 2000


A NORWOOD NEWS Special Report

City Dawdles on Replacing Decrepit School Building

PS 246 Learns to Live with Official Neglect


rank Gonzalez says he doesn't believe in Santa Claus anymore. But it wasn't siblings or schoolyard bullies that broke the news to him. It was the school system's years of neglect of the elementary school he has headed in Fordham Bedford since 1983.

Seven years ago, Gonzalez, principal of PS 246, had his hopes dashed when the Giuliani administration nixed a plan to replace the decrepit, dingy school building at 2642 Grand Concourse, along with several other new schools in the district.

And although money for improvements for the K-6 school were penned into the most recent capital plan for 2000-2004, Gonzalez remains skeptical. "When I see them bring the scaffolding in, then I'll believe it," he said.

School needs extensive repairs

When parents and school board members talk about decaying and overcrowded schools, PS 246 is often held up as a prime example. Just last September, parent activists boarded school buses and toured troubled schools in three Bronx districts with the press and public officials in tow to publicize the crisis of poor conditions and overcrowding. PS 246 was the District 10 destination.

Exhibit 1 in the case for immediate attention from officialdom would have to be the school's windows. Framed with rotting wood, the glass has turned a murky, opaque shade that blocks natural light.

Many of the windows are too unsafe to even open and have gaping holes that draw drafts into classrooms.

"I'd love to put an air conditioner in some of the classrooms, but I won't because the windows won't hold one," Gonzalez said.

The drafty windows only worsen the heating situation at the school. On the third floor there are no radiators in the hallway and the long, narrow classrooms are not conducive to distributing the heat well, Gonzalez said.

Uneven heating is a problem throughout the school. "I've been in the building where the general office has their window wide open," Gonzalez explained. "But they're freezing up here on the third floor." Classrooms become so cold that students sometimes wear their coats indoors and teachers have been known to move students into the cafeteria for extra warmth.

The school also suffers from leaky ceilings and, in some classrooms, offices and hallways, fallen plaster powders the floor. The city was supposed to waterproof the building and replace the windows last summer, according to Gonzalez, but the school is still waiting for those repairs.

According to Jack Deacy of the School Construction Authority (SCA), which oversees school construction and repairs, between $4 million and $5 million was recently set aside by the city to repair PS 246. Deacy said the SCA is now designing an exterior modernization for the building, including roof and window replacement, waterproofing, brick refacing, and the installation of new entrances. The plans will be put out for bid and work could begin as early as the summer, he said.

Rooms unusually small
But no amount of repairs will alter the simple mathematical equation that governs PS 246: too many kids in too little space. Students cram into unusually small rooms at PS 246, also called the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage School (named for Poe's one-time home, which still stands across the street in Poe Park), estimated by school officials to be just 500 or 550 feet. In most schools, classrooms are typically 750 feet, but PS 246 was originally a home for the blind, and the rooms now filled to the brim with kids used to be dormitory rooms.

PS 246 has endured severe overcrowding that has reached as high as 156 percent of its capacity, according to the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition Education Committee, a local grassroots group. Enrollment this year is 980, but the building's capacity is only 700.

Even though class enrollment is now limited, space remains tight. "Classes are capped at 25 students in lower grades," Gonzalez said. "The fact of the matter is some of my classrooms can't even accommodate that many kids."

Space is so limited that about 100 kindergartners are bused to other schools and one teacher works at two tables in the hallway to provide small group instruction for kids who need extra help. Former storage closets are also used as office space and to tutor small groups of children, and to compensate, boxes of supplies are stacked almost 10 feet high against a cafeteria wall.

Because PS 246 was not built as an educational facility, it also lacks some standard amenities associated with a school. The tiny auditorium, which used to be a chapel, holds only 75 students. And the library, which consists only of a couple of bookshelves, doubles as the school's computer laboratory. It measures around 400 square feet, and barely squeezes in 20 students at a time.

"It's just an awkward, uncomfortable building," Gonzalez said.

School board member Myrna Calderon said the city and the Board of Education must act now to replace PS 246. "It's ridiculous that we continue to have kids in that building knowing what we know," she said.

Becoming 'immune'
Despite the poor conditions at the school, spirits remain high. "After a while, we become immune to our surroundings," Gonzalez said. "I don't even think about it. We can't use this as an excuse not to educate the kids. We do the best we can." The principal points to good attendance records by both staff and students as proof of the school's perseverance.

"I bus kids from University Avenue and Fordham Road. That's a haul," Gonzalez explained. "But my attendance is 90 or 91 percent. The kids are apparently happy."

The staff pulls resources together to cope with limited space. "Over the years we've become very creative," Gonzalez said. One teacher, Henry Mininberg, took it upon himself to wire some of the classrooms for the Internet with funds donated by the school's Parent Association. (Councilman Jose Rivera has also promised to work on getting more computers for PS 246, according to Gonzalez.)

Because there is no place to have school gatherings, the school has hooked up its own internal television system so students can view events and announcements from other areas of the school, like the cafeteria. At holiday time, students put on their holiday music parade in the hallways of the school, rather than the tiny auditorium.

Staff at PS 246 are especially proud of the music program. Directed by Michael Siegel, students have performed at senior homes, local stores and at a reception for Vice President Al Gore. The school also boasts a strong gifted bilingual program and a tennis program.

"The physical plant [stinks] but my staff is good and morale is good," Gonzalez said. "We have a lot of good things going on here."

Renovate or replace?
Although there is a consensus among local school officials that PS 246 needs to be replaced, officials complain they don't have the power to make the changes. Maria Garcia, a spokeswoman for Sandra Lerner, the Bronx representative to the Board of Education, said, "Sandy Lerner knows the history personally, but she's one in seven votes [on the board]. A lot of stuff is beyond her control." The board voted 4-3 last summer to replace a capital plan that would have given the Bronx several new schools with a sharply reduced plan favored by the mayor that eliminated all but one new school for District 10.

But Garcia said officials should continue to lobby for funding for PS 246. In January, School Board 10 passed a resolution that supports using the Kingsbridge Armory, a mammoth, mostly unused facility located a few blocks from PS 246, to alleviate problems at PS 246. (Though a local group came up with a plan that includes three public schools at the armory, the mayor recently announced his plan for a sports, entertainment and retail facility there. See article on p. 4.) Garcia added that there has been talk about replacing PS 246 with one of the two new schools Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has reportedly agreed to build in negotiations with local elected officials concerning the fate of the armory.

Meanwhile, District 10 spokesman Bruce Irushalmi said that since there are no current plans to replace the school, repairs plans must continue. "Until it's replaced, it can't be neglected," he said. "We're trying to ensure the school is safe."

For now, Gonzalez and his staff make do with what they have. "It's like the show M*A*S*H," said Siegel, the music instructor. "You know, like when they perform surgery [even without the proper materials]? We keep going no matter what."


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