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Two New Schools for Local Area

July 15, 2009

In September, 14 new public schools will open for business in the Bronx. Most will replace existing schools that the city’s Department of Education has decided to close.

Two of the new schools are in the local area: Creston Academy and East Fordham Academy for the Arts. Both are small middle schools, and both are moving into Elizabeth Barrett Browning Middle School 399′s cavernous building on 184th Street near Creston Avenue. When they do, MS 399 will drop a grade to accommodate them, and eventually close altogether.   

Creston Academy will start with just 120 sixth grade students. It’s being created in partnership with Good Shepherd Services, a social service and youth development agency, which will run after school programs inside the school from 3 to 6 p.m.

Pamela Edwards, currently the principal of nearly PS 79, an elementary school three blocks away, will be MS 399′s first principal. “Opening up a new school is a phenomenal opportunity,” Edwards said.

At Creston, there will be a focus on goal-setting, both short-term and long-term. Students will be encouraged to see the connection between where they are now and where they are going, Edwards said.

In September 2011, when MS 399 ceases to exist in, Creston Academy will have a 400 student body, grades 6 through 8.  

East Fordham Academy for the Arts will also start with 120 sixth graders. The school’s name hints at the important role art will play in the classroom and beyond, as does its motto: “Where arts and academics meet in excellence.”

“The school is really founded on the principle that arts are the foundation for academic and social success,” Principal Tanicia Williams told InsideSchools in an interview. The school will accommodate 350 students when fully up and running.

Initially, the two new schools will take over MS 399′s third floor, and share some of its facilities, including the gymnasium, and the 25-meter pool. Closed since 1994, the pool is in the process of being renovated and will reopen next summer, according to MS 399 principal Angelo Ledda. It’s one of the few indoor pools in the borough

MS 399′s impending closure is somewhat contentious – and staff are not going quietly. Vincent Wojsnis, a teacher at the school and a UFT chapter leader, insists the school “isn’t failing” and that test scores prove in. Back in December, and again in February, teachers, along with some parents and students, protested outside the school to bring attention to their plight. And on June 12, teachers held a day of activities and games for the students – an event they called “Celebrating Success!” – to show how proud they are of the school’s achievements.

In an e-mail, Wojsnis said the phasing out was “characterized by arrogance and indifference on the part of the DOE towards the needs of the students, the concerns of the parents or the experiences of the teachers.”

MS 399 received a grade D in its 2007/08 progress report from the DOE, down from a C the year prior. While ELA scores have dropped recently, math scores have improved, and that’s what rankles Wojsnis. Moreover, the school has recently been removed from the state’s list of “persistently dangerous” schools, and has as active PTA, he said.

Melody Myers, a DOE spokesperson, said the decision to close MS 399 was made over a period of time, and not taken lightly. She said the smaller schools would allow students to receive more individual attention from teachers, and that smaller schools that have replaced larger ones have generally performed better.

The new schools – Creston and East Fordham – were chosen after a rigorous application process, Myers added.

MS 399 isn’t the only school in the neighborhood being phased-out. Last September, Edwards’ current school – PS 79 on 181st Street and Creston Avenue – lost a grade, as two new elementary schools moved into the building: the Elementary School for Math, Science and Technology, and the School for Environmental Citizenship. PS 79 will close for good at the end of the 2010-11 school year.

Many of Creston Academy students will be graduates from PS 79, and therefore former students of Edwards.  “[It's] a great benefit to be able to see them for another three years and to motivate them to go through high school and college,” she said.

Elsewhere in the west Bronx, four more schools are opening this September. The Family School and the Sheridan Academy for Young Leaders, two elementary schools, will move into PS 90 on Sheridan Avenue near East 166th Street. PS 90 is been phased out.

Also, Grant Avenue Elementary School and Science and Technology Academy, a middle school, will open in CIS 166 Roberto Clemente School (at 250 East 164 St.), yet another school that’s being shuttered for poor student performance.


REBECCA CHAO contributed reporting

Housing to Go Up on Cedar Avenue

July 3, 2009

There was plenty of praise for all parties involved at the ground-breaking ceremony of a $37 million housing project at 1854 Cedar Avenue on June 24.

The building and its 105 apartments will house both low income residents and also persons living with psychiatric disabilities, qualifying the complex for its integrated label. It’s being built Community Access, a supportive housing non-profit.

“You can only applaud Community Access’ efforts to house people from all walks of life,” said Shavonna Brisco, a tenant at another of Community Access’ residences at 1750 Davidson Ave. 

Community Access currently owns and operates 13 buildings in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. But the Cedar Avenue Project is being called a first of its kind by Priscilla Almodovar, president and CEO of the New York State Housing Finance Agency, because of the many partnerships forged to secure funding the for the site.

Community Access says that the project will benefit the community, not hurt it, as some local residents fear. “Sometimes people think mental health and think it will attract the ‘wrong’ crowd,” said Lenore Neier, Community Access’s director of communications.  

She said supportive housing projects can help reduce crime in a neighborhood, increase property prices, and attract small businesses.

The project should take 21 months to complete. 


Talking Trees on the Concourse

July 2, 2009

All along the Grand Concourse, you find people walking, talking and listening to their cell phones. But in the coming months to come, you may find them listening to their cell phones while standing in front of and staring at trees.

“Each has its own story to tell,” said Katie Holten, referring to the 100 trees along the Grand Concourse that she has made a part of the Bronx Tree Museum, a project she was commissioned to create as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the Grand Concourse.

The project was organized by the Bronx Museum of the Arts and Wave Hill, but Holten is the artistic mastermind behind this “museum without walls.” Although it is mostly invisible – only six signs indicate its presence along the Concourse from 138th Street to Mosholu Parkway – the public work of art is a museum-goers dream. There are no lines, it’s free and it never closes. 

The museum consists of 100 existing trees along the Concourse that were picked by Holten. At each tree there is a tiny plaque with a phone number and extension to call for a brief glimpse into life on the Concourse both past and present, and in both English and Spanish. Voices ranging from historians and local singers, to schoolchildren and an ex-Yankee, provide the perspectives that are centered around Holten’s theme of tree rings, or layers, of history.

“It’s historical, but it’s about the present,” Holten said. “People live here now and it’s their story.” Holten hopes people discover some of the surprises she did while researching, like the fact the Concourse was completely covered with trees before being paved to connect densely-populated Manhattan with the then more country-esque Bronx. “Nature is everything, it’s all connected,” Holten said. “People think you have to leave the city to find nature, but it’s right here.”

The idea of an outside museum just made sense to Holten, who is originally from Ireland, because of what she describes as the New York and Bronx phenomenon of “just hanging out on the streets.” 

From now until Oct. 12, Holten encourages the curious to use their cell phones on this self-guided tour that can begin and end at one’s will, although the complete walk is estimated to take two and a half hours. Even those equipped with a museum-provided map may be left wondering where this wall-less journey is, but that’s just the way Holten wants it.

“You could walk up and down and not see it,” Holten said. “I like that,” she added. “It’s about roots and what’s underground – not seen.” 


Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Norwood News. For more on the Bronx Tree Museum, including a map, visit www.treemuseum.org 

Push to Close Schools on Muslim Holy Days Gains Momentum

July 2, 2009

We’re in favor! That was the message city council members sent out on June 30 when they voted to approve a bill to add two Muslim holy days to the public school calendar.

Only Councilman Oliver Koppell, of the north Bronx, voted against.

Still, for those supporting the measure, hurdles remain. The City Council vote was a resolution, meaning it’s non-binding. Moreover, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is firmly against the idea – and he has the ultimate say.

“Educating our kids requires time in the classroom, and that’s more important to us that anything else,” Bloomberg told reporters before the vote, echoing comments he’s made before.  He said the city’s too diverse to close schools on every religious holiday.

The issue first received widespread attention in January 2006, when a New York State Regents exam fell on Eid Ul-Adha, a day of celebration marking the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. For Abdul Muhaimin Ladan, then a teacher in Queens, it was a kick in the teeth: his students, many of whom were Muslim, had to choose between taking a mandatory test and being with their families. 

“We thought it wasn’t right,” recalls Ladan, who now splits his time between running his own business and working as an assistant Imam at Mt. Hope Masjid, a mosque on Mount Hope Place near Jerome Avenue.

Ladan’s frustration was shared by many Muslim parents, says Zahida Pirani, an organizer with the New York Civic Participation Project (NYCPP).

Afterward, the NYCPP, Mt. Hope Masjid, and 50 other organizations from across the city formed the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays. That September, the group’s advocacy work helped successfully maneuver a bill through the New York State Senate that prevents future tests from being scheduled on religious dates.

The bill’s passing, Pirani says, was “a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t enough.” Since then, the Coalition has been trying – without success – to get the city’s Department of Education to close schools on Eid Ul-Adha, and Eid Ul-Fitr, which commemorates the end of Ramadan.  Supporters say doing so would be no different than closing schools on Christmas Day, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

“We shouldn’t be forced to choose between education and our religion,” Ladan said.

Advocates went even further. In a 2006 report, “Acceptance, not Exclusion: A Case for Muslim Holidays in New York City Public Schools,” NYCPP officials and others said that the DOE’s unwillingness “to recognize Muslim holidays alongside the Jewish and Christian holidays…denies Muslim students their rights to freedom of religion and access to an equitable education.”

Bourema Niambele, president of the New York Council of Malians, agrees. He remembers a conversation with his niece back in 2007. She asked him why she had to go to school on Eid, an Arabic word for festival, when her school closed on holidays her non-Muslim classmates observed. 

“It broke my heart,” Niambele said, whose organization also joined the coalition. “Like in any community, it’s very important to celebrate it [the Eids] with the family.”

Marge Feinberg, a DOE spokeswoman, said there are no plans to add the Eids to the school calendar. She said the department already makes “accommodations to any students who want to take time off” for religious reasons.

“When you have a city as diverse as we do, with virtually every religion known to man practiced, if we closed school for every single day there wouldn’t be any school,” Bloomberg told reporters last year.

This year, Eid Ul-Fitr is expected to fall on Sept. 20, and Eid Ul-Adha on Nov. 27. The dates are subject to change because the Islamic Calendar is a lunar calendar, based on phases of the moon, which are difficult to calculate. Those who oppose adding the two holidays to the school calendar say this unpredictability makes planning difficult.

The Coalition for Muslim School Holidays counters by pointing out that 600,000 Muslims live in the five boroughs. According to a 2004 Columbia University study, one in every eight public school students (or 12 percent) is Muslim. That equates to more than 100,000 Muslim children in the system.

In the Bronx, the Muslim population has been growing steadily, with immigrants from Mali, Ghana, Gambia, and other West African countries settling in neighborhoods just west of the Harlem River, including Highbridge, Mount Hope, and Morris Heights.

When Ladan, 42, moved to the Bronx from Ghana nine years ago, there were seven mosques in the borough. Today, there are nearly 30. On any given Friday, he said, up to 400 people attend Mt. Hope Masjid, a converted four-story row house, for Friday prayers, called Jumu’ah.

Typically, Ladan says, children join in the Eid festivities  – and miss school in the process. While their absence is marked as “excused” (provided their parents send the school a letter beforehand), missing a full day of classes puts students at risk of falling behind. 

In the tri-state area, a number of cities with sizeable Muslim populations have already incorporated the two holidays into their school calendars. Irvington, Atlantic City, Trenton, and Paterson are among them.

Farther out, public schools now close on both days in Dearborn (MI), a city with the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the country.

Muslim groups in Baltimore have tried – unsuccessfully, so far – to convince the school board there to do the same, according to Laila Al-Qatami, of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a Washington DC-based organization.

In New York, too, there’s been stiff resistance: bills seeking to modify the calendar have stumbled in the state Senate and Assembly.

Last month’s City Council vote, then, was a sign of progress. Speaking prior to the vote, Joe McNearney, Councilman Robert Jackson’s legislative and budget director, said a resounding “yes” vote would “make a point” and could prompt the state legislature to act. (Jackson, a Muslim, was the sponsor of the resolution.) 

Bloomberg still has the upper hand: mayoral control of the city public schools, in place since 2002, has curtailed much of the City Council’s law-making power when it comes to education.

But if mayoral control, currently up for review, was weakened, or if a new mayor was elected, things could quickly change. Likewise, if the state legislature were to resurrect the pending bills, and pass them, Bloomberg’s objections would be overridden.

“We need to show that New York City recognizes diversity and promotes tolerance,” insists Pirani. “Other cities and districts have done it… why are they making such a fuss in New York City?”

Said Naimbele: “Having these days would push [non-Muslims] to understand what it means to be a Muslim.”


Editor’s note: This article was written as part of an education reporting fellowship granted by New York Community Media Alliance.

A New Community Center in Mount Hope

July 2, 2009

Community Center

The wait is nearly over. 

Mount Hope Housing Company’s $16 million community center on East 175th Street will soon open to the public.

On June 25, the organization held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the end of construction, and to recognize Shaun Belle, Mount Hope’s CEO and president, who is leaving the company after 13 years of service.

“I’m excited that we’re able to deliver this building to the community,” Belle said.

All that’s needed now is the permanent certificate of occupancy from the city’s Department of Buildings, staff say. It’s expected to come through this month.

Home to classrooms, computer labs, conference rooms, and offices, the four-story building is a welcome addition to a neighborhood bereft of open space, parks and playgrounds.

And boy does it stand out!  With its huge windows, sharp architectural angles, and red brick and aluminum façade, it’s a one of a kind – certainly in the Bronx. 

Mount Hope’s Youth Services department, led by Estel Fonseca, will take over much of the first and second floors, enabling them to serve more children than ever. This fall, enrollment in their after school program for 6 to12 year olds, and their GED classes (17 to 24 year olds), is likely to rise dramatically, Fonseca said.

“We can hardly wait to get in there, roll up our sleeves, and get working,” she said. 

Funds permitting, Fonseca hopes to offer programs in the evenings and on weekends, and also reach out to seniors and other local residents. “My vision is that the community center becomes an anchor through which a broad variety of populations… can be served according to their needs,” she said.

Mount Hope’s computer classes and financial literacy programs – run by the Asset Building & Information Technology department – will also relocate to the center, said Brenda Jones, the department’s vice-president.

Center entrance

Open spaces on the third and fourth floors – ideal for events and conferences – may be rented out, staff say.

The idea for a community center was conceived in the late 1990s. Later, Mount Hope purchased four empty lots between Townsend and Walton avenues, just north of East 175th Street. From there, they set about securing funding, finding an architect, settling on contractors, and everything in-between.

It’s been a long road: the center is more than a year behind schedule. “These things don’t come easily or quickly, but it is now finally becoming a reality,” Fonseca said.

At the ribbon-cutting, Belle was praised for his role in helping to bring the center about. Leona Clardy, a much-loved community activist who died in 2005, was also recognized for ensuring no one lost sight of the end goal.

The environmentally friendly building boasts a green roof to help with insulation and drainage, an air purification system to help reduce allergens that trigger asthma, and lights that turn off automatically when you leave a room.

Funding came from Councilwoman Maria Baez, the National Development Council, and others. Mount Hope is looking to bring it additional money so it can build a gymnasium next door, on the Walton Avenue side.

“The kids are really looking forward to that [the gym],” Jones said. “The whole focus is keeping them off the streets, and having them engage in healthy activity. That’s really needed in this community.”

After the ribbon-cutting, Mount Hope held a fund-raiser on the fourth floor to raise funds for the center’s operating costs, and to honor Belle, and his stellar leadership.

“Shaun has laid a strong foundation for Mount Hope,” said Fritz Jean, president of Mount Hope’s board of directors, who will fill Belle’s shoes until a permanent replacement is found.


Editor’s Note: See here for more photos. You can reach Mount Hope’s Youth Services department at (718) 466-3600. For information about renting space for events, or to inquire about renting office space, call (718) 583-7017.  


Street Talk – Michael Jackson

July 2, 2009

Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, died unexpectedly on June 25.  He was 50.  We asked readers if they thought history would be kind to him. 

Verna Thomas

I loved Michael Jackson when he first started. I lost interest in him when he made himself over with the [plastic surgery] operations.  I didn’t like what he did and wanted him to look his old way.  I will remember him as he was as a child of nine.  I pray for him and hope he’s in heaven.    

Ana Carmano

Yes, history will be kind to Michael Jackson because of the messages in his songs. The words inspired me when I was little.  He will also be remembered because he always made people laugh. 


I’m African, I knew of Michael Jackson since I was seven to this day, and I listened to his music my whole life.  People will never forget Michael – a superstar, a great entertainer. He’s number one in my book. He will be more popular than when he was alive.  Just pray for him and his family. 

Pow Wow

He will be remembered as a humanitarian, a very good writer, producer, and performer.  He will also be remembered as an accused child molester. With all the good things he has done, I know in my heart he didn’t do it.  



Juan Eduardo

Yes. I’m from the Dominican Republic and have been listening to Michael Jackson since I was eight years old. I like his music.  There will be good memories about him. He was the King, and a powerful, successful entertainer.  





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