In an effort to deal with overcrowding in nearby schools, Bay Ridge is finally getting its first high school in nearly 100 years.
School District 20 has long had schools with jam-packed classrooms, and not enough resources, so the news of a new school was a major delight to many eager residents.
For years, district locals have complained about the need for another high school to alleviate overcrowding at both Fort Hamilton High School and the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology. Both schools are over 100% capacity. Fort Hamilton is commonly described as “bursting at the seams” and has three sessions during its 10-period day for its nearly 5,000 students to cope with the overcrowding.
Other high schools in D20 like New Utrecht in Bensonhurst, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Mapleton also have large student populations.
But appears that a site for a new Bay Ridge high school has been found, and it has sparked excitement throughout the district, along with some skepticism.
Finding the location
The quest to find a site for a much-needed high school had been on the minds of many education advocates and local elected officials for many years. However, that search had been hampered not just by the lack of space in an urban area, but also by how the Department of Education (DOE) had been replying to the many requests for a new high school.
Bay Ridge Council Member Justin Brannan says the DOE has dragged its feet for years.
“Even though people have been yelling and screaming, and rightfully so, that the high schools in Bay Ridge have been overcrowded for 30 years, the DOE doesn’t see it the same way,” said Brannan. “They don’t see any overcrowding.”
Instead, because students are able to attend any school in the city, rather than being assigned to the one closest to home, the DOE was slow to deal with overcrowding schools that are concentrated in one area.
“They’re like ‘look, you might not have a seat in the school, the high school on your corner. But there’s a seat for your kid at the high school in Canarsie or Park Slope or East New York or wherever,” said Brannan.
“So that’s how they measure supply and demand. They don’t measure it based on the local high school.”
Francine Almash, a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education and a Bay Ridge resident, whose son attends Fort Hamilton High School, agrees that the ways in which the DOE views high school overcrowding issues have been an obstacle in getting a new high school to D20.
“High schools are complicated, no doubt,” she says. “Given the way we do high schools in New York, it’s just moving kids around the city.”
Almash even says no one at the DOE or the SCA has been reluctant to find a site in Bay Ridge. It is simply a matter of timing and location.
“They take space when they can,” she says. “It’s not that the will wasn’t there. If there’s an opportunity to take advantage when they can, they do.”
A turning point came in November when Chancellor David Banks held a Town Hall in the district.
It was then that Community Education Council (CEC) 20 told the Chancellor about the crucial need for a new high school, and he agreed to help.
CEC20 then collaborated with the Citywide Council on High Schools to propose a detailed pitch to the Chancellor.
A short while later, a site at 425 Ovington Ave., the location of the St. Nicholas Home, a now-closed assisted living home in Bay Ridge, was switched from an elementary school to a high school.
“We like to think our efforts helped make a difference here,” says CEC20 President Stephen Stowe. “We know it’s challenging to find land.”
Building the building
Council Member Brannan says the site has 36,000 square feet, which could provide about 900 seats for future high school students — which is much less than the number of students most of New York City’s public high schools hold.
“I think the days of having high schools that are built for 1,500 or 2,000 kids, it’s over,” Brannan says. “Where are you building? You’re gonna have to build smaller schools, more local high schools. But like, I couldn’t think of a space where it’s big enough to build a school for 2,000 [students]. So you got to build as you can, maybe we’re looking at some more high schools maybe.”
Stowe gave Brooklyn Paper a PowerPoint presentation that both he and Kin Mark, a Brooklyn Representative on the Citywide Council on High Schools, worked on to promote various sites that could possibly be used to build more high schools in D20. The sites include several along the southeast part of Sunset Park, bordering Borough Park and northwest Bensonhurst, all within proximity of the train stations for the D and N trains.
“We believe there should be a serious effort to locate high school locations in less served areas,” Stowe says. “There is a section of D20 that is the most densely populated but [has the] lowest income and that really could use a high school. We’ve submitted a few sites for consideration to the SCA [School Construction Authority] and are waiting for them to follow up.”
The next step is for the SCA to conduct a public review process on the St. Nicholas Home location. Afterward, the local community board (CB10) and D20 will be required to hold a town hall within 30 days to discuss the upcoming project with the public including, “but not limited to the responsiveness of the site plan to projected changes in student population in the affected community board or boards and how such plan factors and accounts for student population projections.”
Brooklyn Paper contacted the SCA about the expected timeline for the acquisition but received no reply. Josephine Beckmann, the District Manager of CB10 says she expects to receive the official SCA notification soon.
If construction to build this new Bay Ridge high school is allowed, it is unknown when to expect the completion of the school. Council Member Brannan says he would like to see the school be ready by 2026, but even he was not sure.
What is in the works is to create seats for D75 students, who are those with special needs such as autistic spectrum disorders, emotional disturbances, disabilities, and other needs. Many in D20 have expressed dismay over the years that the district had no D75 seats and parents had to send their children outside of the district to attend school.
“If there’s a student that should be able to attend the school on their corner, it’s a D75,” says Brannan. “That’s just a no-brainer. We figured it out with the space planning folks to do that based on the need and the projected need for D75 seats.”
Excitement and skepticism among Bay Ridge Residents
Some Bay Ridge residents, particularly those who live on or near the street where the new high school may be located, were excited about the new school.
Doaa El-Waer seemed thrilled, especially at the idea that her son, an elementary school student, may attend the school one day.
“I think it’s good,” she says. “We do need another one. It’s perfect here and it’s good for my son that he may go.”
One man who lives on the block, and declined to give his name, says the privacy of the street will be good for the school.
“We have a church, two elementary schools here. It’s meant to be,” he says, referring to Lutheran Elementary School and the annex for PS/IS 30. “It will be better for the neighbors. Once it’s cleaned out and fixed up, it will benefit the residents of this block.”
Even though some Bay Ridge residents were excited by the prospect of the high school, others were not pleased. Some said the site was too small for a high school, or any kind of school, and questioned if the block needed to have more schools.
When asked about these concerns, Brannan said setting up a new location is always the first step.
“Lots of community input will follow along with working together with the NYC Department of Transportation, etc. to make everything run safe and smooth for students and neighbors alike,” he says. “All told, the plot purchased by the SCA here is nearly 36,000 square feet. I am told it is the largest site they have purchased to build a new school in District 20 in two decades.”
Another Bay Ridge resident who has her concerns is Francine Almash. She wonders if this high school will fall into three traps that would hinder its purpose in alleviating overcrowding in the district’s high schools.
“Absolutely we needed a high school, absolutely we have overcrowded high schools,” she says. “But there’s a lot of questions between now and then. We still have zones to worry about, we have to see any feeder patterns, and what went on with MS 936.”
What Almash is referring to is MS 936 Arts Off The Third, a school in lower Sunset Park that was meant to provide an arts-based education while also relieving overcrowding. In December 2021, the school announced it will start holding auditions as part of its admissions program, despite being lottery-based for the two previous years. Many in D20 decried this change, saying it took opportunities away from students in lower Sunset Park, who are usually from immigrant and lower-income families.
Almash’s other two concerns are connected to D20’s zoning that dictates which schools D20 students will attend despite where they live; a student could live across the street from one school but will be zoned to another school a few blocks away. The feeder pattern refers to schools that feed one into another. For example, elementary schools can be feeders into middle schools which then are feeders into high schools.
“There’s a lot of questions and it’s too soon to know,” Almash says. “I’m not yet jumping for joy. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Brooklyn Paper reached out to both the SCA and the DOE for a comment. The SCA said it will be able to comment after the public review process. The DOE also declined, citing that this idea is all at a proposal stage.