Volume 73, Number 37 | January 14 - 20, 2004

New schools superintendent has a lot to build on

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Peter Heaney at P.S. 234 on Chambers St. in Tribeca.

Downtown can look forward to more classroom space in a few years, when a new public school is built in the area, according to a high-ranking Department of Education official.

Peter Heaney, the superintendent of the new Region 9 school district, who oversees local schools, said last week that the education department’s five-year budget included a new kindergarten-through-eighth grade school for Downtown. The department’s latest capital plan, released in November, provides for three new schools in the old District 2 but does not specify locations for the schools within the former district, which runs from Lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side and includes Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Chinatown, Chelsea and Clinton.

No new schools are planned for the former District 1, which covers part of the East Village and Lower East Side.

While community members have widely anticipated a new public school, Heaney was the first education official to tell The Villager that the community’s expectations were founded.

“That’s my understanding, and I think that’s wonderful,” Heaney said Jan. 8 when asked whether a new school would be created in the area. Heaney spoke during a telephone interview that also touched on the mayor’s massive school overhaul and Heaney’s position heading one of the city’s 10 new instructional regions.

No site has been selected for a Downtown school, which will be either a new building or leased space in an existing building. Of the three schools planned for local District 2, two are scheduled to begin construction in the summer of 2006 and the other in the summer of 2007.

In a larger uncertainty, the city education department’s ability to follow through on its capital plan depends partly on the state contributing $6.5 billion to the city as a result of a lawsuit filed on behalf of New York City parents charging unfair allocation of state education funds. Gov. George Pataki, who is expected to release his capital budget on Jan. 20, has not promised that amount.

Classrooms in local school District 2, tend to be more crowded than those in District 1. The new Region 9 encompasses Districts 1, 2, 4 and 7 and stretches from Lower Manhattan to the South Bronx.

Heaney begins two days a week with school visits. But with about 180 days in the school year, it will take him more than two years before he can visit them all.

He’s no stranger to the classroom, though. As a kindergarten teacher in 1968, Heaney was told that he was the first male to teach that grade in all of New York City.

“It was great,” Heaney said. “The kids certainly liked it.”

More recently, Heaney served for 10 years as the principal of P.S. 321 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He lived — and still lives — four blocks from the school and admitted he used to feel like a “rock star” in the neighborhood among the 11 and under set and their parents.

The biggest challenge of the job he has held since last summer is that, “You want to have a close relationship with as many people as you can,” Heaney said.

Ellen Foote, principal of I.S. 89 in Battery Park City, said that Heaney has not yet visited her school. But the local instructional supervisor who reports to Heaney has come often, Foote said.

“She’s very accessible,” Foote said of Annie Zimmer, the supervisor, who also oversees P.S. 41 in the Village and P.S. 33 in Chelsea.

Foote said she has spent most of this school year forging new relationships with administrators at the education department’s central and regional offices. The mayor’s overhaul went into effect in September, bringing a radically different administrative structure to the city’s public school system.

“Things are still very much in flux,” Foote said, noting that when she couldn’t get help over the phone she had to visit the Region 9 offices in Chelsea to get answers to her budgetary and other questions.

Heaney said that the system’s new challenges could also be viewed as a source of strength.

“There’s been a lot to learn, very interesting schools to get to know,” from Battery Park City to the Bronx, Heaney said. “That is the beauty of the restructuring — I love the combination of those districts.”


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