New special-ed school was a long time coming

Construction fencing recently was removed from around the new middle school at 75 Morton St. The building, formerly owned by a state agency, has undergone an extensive renovation. Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | When Marjorie Dienstag’s eldest son, Alex, was in middle school in the 1990s, he had to commute back and forth from their West Village home to his school Uptown a total of two hours each day.

Alex, who had a language-processing disorder, attended a middle school in District 75, which includes schools for students with disabilities and special needs.

The lack of District 75 middle school seats Downtown altered the Dienstags’ lives. Marjorie even had to hire a babysitter to wait for one child at the bus stop while she picked up her other son from a different school across town.

“We were always rushing to get home,” she said. Spontaneity for playground time or buying an ice cream after school wasn’t in the cards for her day-to-day life raising Alex and Stefan, now 33 and 27 years old, respectively. “It changed my life completely,” she said.

But this September — after nearly a decade in the making — that scenario could change for many Downtown families. A District 75 middle school — P751, at 75 Morton St. — will open its doors just after Labor Day. Advocates for the school expect it to fill a gap of school seats for students with disabilities Downtown, especially in the Village.

“I am thrilled that the new District 75 middle school at 75 Morton will open in September,” said Jeannine Kiely, the chairperson of the Schools and Education Committee of Community Board 2. “This will be the largest D75 middle school Downtown and provide a local option for students who otherwise may have needed to commute Uptown.”

Two schools, P751 and M.S. 297, will be co-located at 75 Morton St. Though many District 75 and non-District 75 schools are co-located, this middle school is different, some parents say. The concept of co-locating the schools started from the ground up.

What will make P751 particularly unique is the integrated approach the principals hope to create.

Both principals, Ewa Asterita of P751 and Jacqui Getz of M.S. 297, voiced their vision of integration and inclusion at the C.B. 2 Schools and Education Committee meeting last Wed., May 16.

“The principals declared publicly their intention,” said Jordana Mendelson, a longtime advocate for the new District 75 middle school and a professor in New York University’s Spanish department. “That carries a lot of weight — the fact that they are coming together from the ground floor to say this is our intention.”

Mendelson’s 10-year-old son, Aedan, will be among the first students at the new school. Aedan, who has Down syndrome, has been attending elementary school at P94, a District 75 school co-located with P.S. 361, on E. 12th St. between Avenues B and C. If not for the new Morton St. middle school, he would have gone to the P94 middle school — the Spectrum School — which is co-located with the Island School and Girls Prep at the F.D.R. Drive and Houston St.

Mendelson hardly knows anyone around that Lower East Side neighborhood since she lives in Washington Square Village. On the other hand, she hopes that at the new P751 middle school, Aedan will have an opportunity to connect more with other students without special needs, as well as build lifelong connections with people in their community. With a school now much closer to their home, she believes that opportunity is more viable. Currently, Aedan’s friends could live hours away across the city, making it difficult to schedule play dates.

“Morton St. is so welcome,” Mendelson said. “It’s going to be a huge school community that now welcomes back into our neighborhood students with severe disabilities.”

The question “How do they meet their nondisabled peers?” is one that Mendelson knows will be a challenge for Principals Asterita and Getz. Having various shared spaces doesn’t automatically mean those spaces will be inclusive and integrated, she said.

“It’s going to depend on the school community,” Mendelson said. “It’s like, passively, nothing could happen. But actively, a lot of really interesting and meaningful experiences [could happen] for the kids.”

Asterita and Assistant Principal Yakeen Dinmahamad have been working together at P751’s 113 E. Fourth St. location for five years. (Each District 75 school actually typically has multiple locations.) Though specific plans on how an integrative culture would at 75 Morton are still preliminary, Asterita, Dinmahamad and Getz are working together in ongoing discussions, Asterita said.

“We’re looking at a shared vision of inclusive education,” Asterita said. “And we hope with that, the students are going to be able to not only share the resources — rooms or events — but also resources like after-school providers, as well as instructional tools.”

P751 will have a 100-student capacity and nine classes. The ratios of students to teachers are expected to be six, eight and 12 students to one teacher and one paraprofessional. The proportion of each of those ratios has yet to be determined since not all of the school’s seats have been filled.

School hours for P751 will be 8 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. — slightly different than those for the larger M.S. 297, which has a 900-student capacity. A meeting with the city’s Department of Transportation and other officials to determine where the buses will arrive on Morton St. is being scheduled, Kiely, the C.B. 2 Schools Committee chairperson, told the May 16 meeting. Manhattan Youth, a Lower Manhattan youth organization with various programs, will manage the after-school programming at the middle school.

For Josephine and Bill Bray, whose families have lived in the neighborhood for generations, adequate after-school programming was critical. Their son, who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or A.D.H.D., even spoke up at the meeting about his concerns about his current after-school programs at his Uptown school.

“I hate it,” Rocco Bray, a rising sixth-grader who is expected to go to P751 this fall, told the May 16 meeting. The Brays have experience with Manhattan Youth’s summer programs, so they expect Rocco’s after-school programming to be more engaging this fall.

“Hopefully, in school, they’ll do the same or just as good,” said Bill Bray, who is also a C.B. 2 member. “If they could offer the same or something like it, that would be good.”

For Rocco, his parents said, the integration of students with the non-District 75 school and proximity to their home are key factors in their decision to move Rocco to another school. He currently travels an hour Uptown to the P.S. M811 Mickey Mantle School. Previously, he commuted two hours for elementary school to Brooklyn, according to his parents.

“My son has been through four schools already,” said Josephine Bray. She said she has high hopes for the Morton St. school, particularly as a way for Rocco to learn more and stay focused if he has more inclusive opportunities with non-special-needs students.

“That’s encouraging for a parent to see,” she said, “how he could act and relate to children who do not have special needs.”

Preliminary ideas of how to create opportunities for all students to interact include shared after-school programs and sports, or sharing lunchtime together in the cafeteria, according to Asterita. Shared spaces include designated rooms, the library, auditorium, cafeteria, gym, the yard and green roof.

Asterita looks forward to expanding the focus on arts, theater, digital technology and global citizenship at P751’s current high school program for the incoming Morton St. middle schoolers this fall. Providing equal academic rigor for students with disabilities is also key, Dinmahamad, the assistant principal, said. Asterita and Dinmahamad both have high hopes of working with Getz, stressing that her dedication to this partnership was apparent from the beginning.

“The change in time over special education has been enormous,” M.S. 297 Principal Getz said at the C.B. 2 Schools and Education Committee meeting. Her daughter, who graduated from Purchase College, part of the State University of New York, this spring, at one point was not bound for college or a career because of a lack of opportunities for special education. She went to a private school because a public school like P751 didn’t exist.

“There is so much light at the end of the tunnel,” Getz said. “This is my dream.”

But some parents who have advocated for this school for years won’t see that light for their own children. Dienstag’s third and youngest son, Ryan, will be entering ninth grade this year — one year too late to attend.

“Retroactively, I would’ve been jumping for joy and happiness that I could walk him to school, take him to school, and be there for everything in a heartbeat,” Dienstag said.

She knew by the time the Morton middle school school came to fruition, it would be too late for Ryan, who has autism, to attend. But that disappointment is outweighed by the satisfaction of knowing that years of effort and community meetings have finally resulted in the school’s creation.

“To me, it’s not just about my son,” she said. “This is my neighborhood. I’ve been here for over 40 years, and this school is what I would like to see.”

After raising two children in District 75 schools from the 1990s until now, she has seen many changes for students with disabilities. This new middle school is a welcome one.

“District 75 is finally listening to us,” she said.

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