A compromise plan to prevent white flight from public schools in Riverdale, a middle-class and affluent stronghold in the Bronx, is leading toward the unexpected busing of about 700 black and Hispanic children from their neighborhoods to unfamiliar schools far from home.
The busing is an effect of a two- year-old decision to expand a Riverdale middle school to embrace high school as well, giving middle-class students a haven from the Bronx's many large, foundering high schools and, it was hoped, stemming defections to private schools. In exchange, the poorer black and Hispanic students from the housing projects of nearby Marble Hill, displaced from the middle school, were promised a glittering new school of their own.
Now the vision of a Riverdale high school has come to pass, complete with a newly expanded wing. But the opening of the Marble Hill school has been delayed until 2004, partly for environmental reasons, leading to the prospect that about 350 teenagers will have to take public transportation to a converted synagogue seven or eight long blocks and several wide avenues to the east, in turn evicting 350 kindergartners and first graders.
To the dismay of their parents, the 5- and 6-year-olds, who now walk to school, will be forced to ride yellow buses about two miles to the east near Crotona Park, a time-consuming trip with no easy subway access for parents to attend meetings or pick up sick children.
Like court-ordered busing to promote desegregation in Yonkers, Boston and other cities, this complicated if well-intended plan has raised bitter accusations that neighborhoods are being frayed for the sake of racial engineering in the schools.
This neck of the Bronx is no stranger to race and class wars. The surrounding school district was rezoned in the early 1990's, accelerating white and middle-class flight from Middle School 141, which had long before lost the confidence of the surrounding neighborhood. In revolt, Riverdale residents elected a majority of the local school board, led by G. Oliver Koppell, a former state attorney general, in 1999. That majority set about reclaiming M.S. 141 by zoning out Marble Hill and expanding the school to 12th grade.
But this time it is the minority parents who are angry at what they perceive as the broken promise of a new school, while their more affluent and politically savvy counterparts in Riverdale got exactly what they wanted. Swept up in the dispute are the working-class parents – mainly Hispanic and Caribbean immigrants – of the kindergartners from Public School 86 in Kingsbridge Heights, who say their 5-year-olds are the innocent victims of a scheme that has nothing to do with them.
Last night, more than 100 parents, mostly from P.S. 86, showed up at a school board meeting to protest the busing.
"This is going on in our community, our school; this is happening to our children," said Juanda Nieves, the PTA president at P.S. 86, to whom Riverdale and Marble Hill might as well be a foreign country.
Giovanni Villalona, whose younger son is supposed to begin kindergarten at P.S. 86 next fall, said, "We elect them and they get to do what they want, not what we want," referring to the community school board members who, along with the local superintendent, have devised the busing plan.
Bruce Irushalmi, a spokesman for Community School District 10, which includes Riverdale, Kingsbridge and much of the northwest Bronx, said yesterday that there had been no final decision on the busing plan but the district was having a hard time finding alternative places to put the students from Middle School 368, the school that is under construction.
"It means someone has to move over to share the bedroom, so to speak," Mr. Irushalmi said. "Nobody's happy about it." Mr. Irushalmi said the racial issue was less clear-cut than it might appear.
While M.S. 141 was only about 14 percent white just three years ago – by most measures a segregated school – it is now relatively integrated: 57 percent Hispanic, 21 percent white, 12 percent black and 10 percent Asians and others.
Mr. Koppell, who resigned as school board president when he was elected to the City Council in the fall, also seemed stung by the uproar. The central Board of Education, he said, tried to lease a building controlled by the Fordham Hill Co-op for the M.S. 368 students, but was blocked by one District 10 board member, Charles Williams, who wanted the space to be made available to children from Fordham Hill.
The environmental concerns that delayed the start of construction of M.S. 368 until October, Mr. Koppell said, also turned out to be overblown.
Mr. Koppell said it might still be possible to put a second temporary building in the backyard of P.S. 86; there is one there already. But Mr. Irushalmi said the central board had discouraged that idea. As a last resort, Mr. Koppell said, it might be possible to put students from M.S. 368 in the new wing of M.S. 141, though Mr. Irushalmi said that as both schools expanded, that, too, would become problematic.
"One thing I would emphasize is it's a temporary issue," Mr. Koppell said. "At the most, it's two years. The pile drivers are driving piles and construction is moving ahead, I'm delighted to say."