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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Toxins Send PS 51 to Crotona

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the latest issue of the Norwood News, out now.

Bronx New School, housed on Van  Cortlandt Avenue East in an old lighting factory,
will have a new home in a former Catholic school two miles away in Crotona.
(Photo by Adi Talwar)
By Ronald Chavez

At a tense public hearing last week, the Department of Education announced it will be moving Bedford Park elementary school PS 51, known as the Bronx New School, to a new building two miles south—the result of a discovery earlier this summer that its current site contains hazardous levels of a chemical toxin linked to cancer.

“I apologize to you. It will not happen again,” Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott told a crowd of seething parents at the Aug. 18 meeting at the Bronx High School of Science.

The school will re-open in less than two weeks, the first day of the new school year, in a building on East 182nd Street in Crotona, formerly the Catholic school at St. Martin of Tours. The new location is larger, with more classroom space and a gym next door.
Chancellor Dennis Walcott made the announcement at an Aug. 18 meeting and talked to worried parents.
(Photo by Adi Talwar)
But that’s doing little to calm parents, worried over the news that P.S. 51’s current building on Jerome Avenue tested positive for high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), a chemical which can cause kidney and liver problems and damage to the central nervous system over long periods of time, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. TCE also causes dizziness, headaches, nausea and blurred vision.

“There were children in the school who were sick, and I mean seriously sick,” said Annette Melendez, a former PTA president who said a number of students during her time at the school had complained of headaches and that one had died from cancer.

“Gee, this is such a small school,” she said. “Why are so many children sick in such a small school?”

The building, at 3200 Jerome Ave., was previously home to an industrial facility that manufactured lamps. Then it became a garage. The Board of Education (now the DOE) leased the building in 1991. The DOE started testing school sites in 2002 as their leases were up for renewal.

PS 51 parents found out about the contamination at the end of July, despite the DOE having evidence of the presence of the chemical as early as March. The DOE contends it was waiting for further testing before informing parents.
Bronx New School principal Paul Smith greets a
student at last week's hearing. (Photo by Adi Talwar)

Judith LaGuerre, whose two children attended the school, said she was upset with the city’s handling of the situation. One of her daughters, now 24, has kidney problems. Her younger daughter, who attended the school from kindergarten through the second grade, used to get headaches, which LaGuerre says stopped after she removed her from the school.

Some parents were concerned about sending their children two miles away to Crotona, a neighborhood many consider less safe than Bedford Park.

Because the DOE will be busing students, parent Alton Young said he doesn’t mind the move—as long as the teachers remain.

“The staff is good, and the kids are learning a lot from the staff,” he said.

The Bronx New School, a school of choice open to children throughout District 10, has been a source of pride in the Bedford Park neighborhood since its inception in the early 1990s. Parents and community members at that time, unsatisfied with other school options in the neighborhood, helped to found the school. It quickly became known, and praised, for its progressive curriculum and unique approach.

“We had our own identity, and a pride that went along with that,” said former substitute teacher Kelly Lewis. The school had always felt more like a private school, she added.

PS 51 parents are organizing another meeting this Wednesday night, Aug. 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the office of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, 103 East196th St. “It’s going to be about giving parents the opportunity to debrief what’s been going on, and then figure out the next steps we need to take,” parent Ginette Sosa told the Daily News.

Some are calling for more stringent oversight of leased school sites. Dawn Phillips, a staff attorney for New York Lawyers in the Public Interest, said the DOE is fighting a bill that would require it to abide by the same stringent rules and public oversight when leasing schools at existing buildings as it does for newly constructed schools.

1 comment:

  1. Why didn't they move into the now defunct library, on 231st Street, in Kingsbridge????


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