Thursday, September 25, 2008
Once upon a time, over a millennium ago, the weekly Torah reading may have sounded like the one at CSAIR last Saturday.
These days, it appears that “the people of the book often don’t know what’s in it.” So a decade ago, performance artist and Judaic literature teacher Amichai Lau-Lavie gathered a group of education-minded actors and founded a troupe to address this problem. Their name is Storahtelling, and their aim is to reconnect the Jews with the Torah—the Five Books of Moses—through ritual theater.
As the week’s Torah portion is chanted in the traditional manner, the reader pauses at selected passages and Storahtelling actors present what they call an interpretive translation, dramatizing the text in contemporary terms. Their material is based on careful study of standard and modern sources.
Lau-Lavie discovered that interpretive translation is far from new. From the inception of ritual Torah reading until the early Middle Ages, a professional “maven” provided vernacular translations of the Hebrew text. The maven’s interpretation may have evolved into what is now the rabbi’s sermon.
During Storahtelling Torah reading sessions, actors serve as mavens, challenging shulgoers to express their thoughts on what’s going on in the current week’s bible story. They do not hesitate to pose serious and fundamental questions: Are the Jews really chosen among all the nations? Those in favor and those opposed are asked to defend their views.
Whether or not there is a chosen people, Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale (CSAIR) was in fact one of a few chosen synagogues to receive a grant from the Legacy Heritage Fund. According to CSAIR Director of Youth and Informal Jewish Education Mike Dorfman, “One of the fund's main goals is to shift the paradigm of Jewish education from the ‘old Hebrew school model’…to models more creative and family-oriented that will provide systemic change throughout a synagogue.”
At last Saturday morning’s Shabbat services at CSAIR, Storahtelling’s Deanna Neil and Jonathan Adam Ross adapted parts of the weekly Torah portion into an interactive play, drawing out and clarifying concepts. The event kicked off a one-year program for sixth through eighth graders, who will learn Torah through theatrical programs and games developed by Storahtelling and the CSAIR staff.
Another Storahtelling “performance” at CSAIR is scheduled for June 6, 2009. For more information, call Mike Dorfman at 732-995-4707.
These days, the words "bridge construction" make Riverdalians recoil in horror, and rightfully so.
With that in mind, representatives of the City Department of Transportation stopped by the neighborhood this past week to assure anyone who would listen that two planned bridge revamps will move much more smoothly than those of the past.
The meeting kicked off with a presentation by the DOT, illustrating what the City would undertake during the "component rehabilitation" of two Riverdale bridges, one at West 246th Street and the other at Riverdale Avenue and West 254th Street, both over the Henry Hudson Parkway.
Unlike other ongoing bridge constructions in Riverdale that have snarled traffic for years, these two projects are not complete rebuilds. Instead, the DOT will renovate only the existing structures, a process they estimate will take eight months.
At the meeting, the DOT asked for the blessing of the community board to run both construction jobs at the same time, which they said would make each project more manageable.
"This is vastly different," said Anthony Perez Cassino, chairman of the community board's traffic and transportation committee, which hosted the meeting. "Those were complete reconstructions."
At both bridges the DOT plans to construct a new concrete bridge deck, repave the roadways approaching the bridge, repair the site's chain link barriers, repair concrete under the deck and repoint the bridges' fascia and wingwalls.
At the Riverdale Avenue bridge, the DOT also plans to repair the sidewalk.
Both projects will proceed in multiple phases, and the bridges will be open to traffic throughout construction. If the work can begin in October, the DOT expects to be able to complete it by the summer of 2009.
Still, those at the meeting had a number of questions about the plans. Robert Press asked whether the Bx20 bus would still be able to turn at West 246th Street during the construction. Committee member Saul Scheinbach expressed concern that the construction might interfere with the operation of Engine 52 Ladder 52, the firehouse located on the Henry Hudson Parkway. Another committee member, Bill Stone, asked how local residents would be notified of the construction.
But one way or another the plan will move forward, and the main issue at the meeting was whether or not it would be appropriate to run both projects at the same time. The mood of the room indicated support for the projects to run simultaneously.
The full Community Board #8 will take up the issue at its October general meeting.
Connie Moran, the Bronx Borough DOT commissioner, also gave a status report on the ongoing construction of the West 252nd Street bridge, which has become a running joke among Riverdale residents for its seemingly never-ending work.
Several months ago Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz held a press conference to note that construction on the small span is taking longer than construction on the Whitestone Bridge.
Moran said that the work is moving along and would be substantially completed by the end of December.
The Rainbow Rebellion—a broad group of Bronx elected officials hoping to overthrow Bronx County Leader Jose Rivera—flexed their muscles on Monday evening, despite a court ruling that prevented the Bronx Democratic County Committee meeting from happening that night.
"All this does is prolong the inevitable, and what we have here is an ailing patient and the doctor just gave them five extra days," said state Senator Ruben Diaz Jr. at a Rainbow Rebellion rally.
The decision handed down by Supreme Court Justice Robert G. Seewald on Monday, September 22, which stopped the rebel-called meeting citing concerns over room capacity at the Co-op City Community Center, did little to stop rebel momentum.
"It doesn't matter if it's today, Sunday, Tuesday, doesn't matter," said State Senator Ruben Diaz. "The Bronx will be united. It'll no longer be one family. It will be for everybody."
At the rally at the Co-op City Community Center where the vote would have taken place, rebels put 14 of 24 district leaders on display, showing supporters that they have the numbers to win on Sunday. District leaders play a crucial role in the election because they vote with County executives for County Leader.
"Whether it happens now or happens Sunday, the numbers are what they are," said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz. "We feel confident and we look forward to the day when we can have leadership in The Bronx that's not divisive, leadership in The Bronx that's inclusive of everyone, leadership in The Bronx that wants to do the best for the Democratic Party in The Bronx and not necessarily for a selective few."
With the majority of district leaders favoring the rebels, others too might come on board by Sunday when the meeting occurs at Rivera's selected meeting space, the Grand Concourse's Utopia Paradise Theatre, political observers said.
In addition to the district leaders, the rebels—Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, Assemblywoman Aurelia Greene, Assemblyman Carl Heastie, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr., state Senator Ruben Diaz, Councilwoman Anabel Palma and Councilman James Vacca—brought about 500 committee members to the rally despite the cancellation.
"There's no meeting, but they're here," Assemblyman Heastie said.
Leaders said that the committee members present were just a fraction of their support. One official worried, however, that the Sunday meeting would disenfranchise some members. "It seems almost as if they intended to try to exclude people from participating in the county committee meeting by holding it on Sunday night right before Rosh Hashanah and on any Sunday night for that matter," said Assemblyman Dinowitz.
At the rally, the rebels said that they looked forward to creating a better Bronx—one that was more inclusive. Assemblywoman Greene recounted how the schism widened between rebels and the organization after Rivera promised to put up a black candidate for Civil Court judge and instead put up a Latina candidate. Rebel candidate Elizabeth Taylor emerged victorious from a three-way primary and served as a symbol that County leadership would be changed.
Rebels also said that Rivera pit Latinos and African Americans against each other during the primary because he sent a racially charged letter urging Latinos to support Sigfredo Gonzalez over incumbent rebel Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, who is black.
Divisiveness was not the only complaint from the Rainbow Rebellion. They also pointed to what seems to be a Rivera Dynasty. "The people of The Bronx are beginning to realize that when you have a man who makes a city employment chart look like a family tree, that's something the people are not going to stand for," Assemblyman Benedetto said.
Chairman Rivera's son Joel Rivera is the majority leader of the City Council and his daughter Naomi Rivera is an assemblywoman. Others with Rivera family ties serve in other government roles.
After the rally disbanded, many waited to take chartered buses back to their corner of the Borough. Michael Nieves, Chairman Rivera's spokesman, stood outside on the street of the opposition meeting.
He scoffed at the Rainbow Rebellion gripe that Rivera was divisive. "It wasn't divisive when Michael Benjamin got elected. It wasn't divisive when Michael Benedetto was elected. It wasn't divisive when both Ruben Diazes were elected. I could go on and on and on," he said.
Rivera supported candidates against Assembly members Benjamin, Heastie and Diaz this year.
"OK. You got a couple of renegades getting upset and going after them," he added. "You can't tell me that in a Borough that's totally Democratic today, no other county leader in the history of this Borough has accomplished that. The goal of the Democratic Party is to empower Democrats and that's what's happened here."
Though Nieves predicted a Rivera win, no one else there that evening would agree. Stanley Schlein, a former organization loyalist turned Rainbow Rebellion attorney, said following the rally, "I think the conclusion was simply as Mr. Heastie said. Whenever, wherever this meeting is held—it'll be held some day—this group will precipitate the change that is long overdue."
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Both Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and Debbie Bowden, chair of Community Board #8Õs education committee, are demanding answers from the Department of Education.
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz fired off a letter to Marty Barr, the DOEÕs executive director of elementary school enrollment, asking him to clarify comments he made at a meeting of the Community Education Council of District #10 two weeks ago.
At that meeting Barr implied that the gifted and talented program at P.S. 24 could be moved in the future, and stated that Manhattan had more gifted programs than other boroughs because many of its parents could afford20to leave the public schools.
BowdenÕs letter calls on the DOE to recognize potential overcrowding at P.S. 24 and P.S. 81, as evidenced by reports of students who are zoned for those schools being denied admission. She also called on the DOE to return the Whitehall Annex to local use and to create more gifted and talented programs for students here.
ÒThis overcrowding is due to bad planning by the Department of Education, who failed to recognize the need to provide adequate seats in this growing neighborhood,Ó wrote Bowden. ÒOne only has to drive through our local streets to observe the massive construction in this community.Ó
In his letter, Dinowitz noted that it was his community that demanded the gifted program in District #10, and stated that it was not fair for the DOE to threaten to remove it from Riverdale.
ÒOur community for many years demanded a gifted program in our district,Ó wrote Dinowitz. ÒOur last elected school board made the establishment of such a program a top priority, as have I.Ê School boards may be a thing of the past, but the strong and overwhelming support in our community for gifted programs is not. Ê The DOE resisted for many years.Ê Finally, we were told last year that we would have a gifted programs starting with two first grade classes in our district of over 40,000 students.Ó
During that CEC meeting Barr noted that so few students had elected to attend the gifted program at P.S. 54 that the program was canceled this year. Dinowitz said such a move was inevitable.
ÒAs predicted, many parents who very much would like their child to be part of a gifted program decided that P.S. 24 was their only realistic option and that a bus ride of up to an hour to P.S. 54, a failing school, did not make sense,Ó wrote Dinowitz.
That said, the assemblyman demanded that the DOE show that they are serious about gifted programs by creating more in the district and in his community, across all grades and schools. He specifically took issue with BarrÕs statement declaring that ÒG&T is a district program.Ê It is not a Riverdale program.Ê It doesnÕt belong to any part of the district.Ó
ÒThat is an outrageous and disgraceful position,Ó wrote Dinowitz, who said that if Riverdale has20more gifted kids then it should have more gifted programs. ÒThere are gifted children throughout our district and every child and every corner of the district should be served.Ê But if itÕs the case that the children are concentrated in particular areas, for whatever reason, then programs ought to be housed in schools in those local areas.Ó
Dinowitz closed his letter by demanding that the DOE expand its gifted programs, stating that he is sure that more gifted students are in District #10 than the DOE wants to admit.
ÒDifferent children have different needs,Ó wrote Dinowitz. ÒWe cannot ignore any of them.Ê I am confident that there are many more gifted children throughout district 10 than the DOE is willing to acknowledge.Ê Wherever they are we must identify them and provide for gifted classes in their home school or at least in a nearby school.Ê Anything less would be scandalous.Ó
In BowdenÕs letter, she noted that the kindergarten applications at both P.S. 24 and P.S. 81 have increased significantly, leading to space crunch at those schools. She also noted that the number of gifted students in Riverdale is higher than other parts of the district, yet only one local gifted class has been created. With a need for more space for both local students and gifted programs, the Whitehall Annex could solve such problems easily.
ÒWe are requesting the return of our annex at the Whitehall and the construction of schools to provide more seats so we can continue to maintain our children with the excellent quality of education in our local elementary schools,Ó wrote Bowden.
As of press time, neither Bowden nor Dinowitz had received a response from the DOE.
Bronx Democratic machine was dealt a crushing, potentially fatal blow at the ballot box on Primary Day.
Civil Court candidate Elizabeth Taylor, who was backed by a prominent coalition of elected officials known as the "Rainbow Rebellion," handily defeated machine-backed candidate Maria Matos for the boroughwide court seat.
Across The Bronx Taylor picked up 19,228 votes, roughly 54 percent of the total, according to unofficial counts. Matos grabbed 10,406 votes, about 29 percent of the borough total. A third candidate, Verena Powell, finished third with 5,917 votes, good for almost 17 percent.
In addition, three Rebellion leaders who faced primary opponents with machine tiesÑAssembly Members Ruben Diaz Jr., Carl Heastie and Michael BenjaminÑeach cruised to victory by wide margins.
At the Rainbow Rebellion's primary night victory party at Maestro's on Bronxdale Avenue, campaign workers dined on free food and were thanked individually by Taylor. Spirits were high when the Rebellion members, including the aforementioned officials as well as Assembly Members Jeffrey Dinowitz, Aurelia Greene and Michael Benedetto, and State Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz, took to the stage to declare victory and demand change in the Borough's political culture.
Assemblyman Diaz, widely considered to be the frontrunner for the borough presidential race in 2009, defeated his opponent with a whopping 84 percent of the vote. He said that the results of the Civil Court race showed that the current Bronx political leadership, led by Chairman Assemblyman Jose Rivera, had lost its grip on The Bronx.
"Gutter politics, divisive politics, character assassination will no longer be tolerated," said Assemblyman Diaz.Ê "We are not going to tolerate it anymore."
The assemblyman added that the civil court race, while characterized as a rebellion, really represented a coming together of various elected officials to put politics aside and choose the best person to serve on the bench. Assemblyman Diaz said that the race would also represent a sea change in the spirit and the attitude of The Bronx and its political culture.
"What we're doing here is that we're showing everyone that we can come together as one whole Bronx," said Assemblyman Diaz. "We won't always agree with one another, but we'll listen with respect."
He added, "The Bronx right now is laughable. People are laughing at us from the outside. We're looking to repair that."
Though he faced no race himself Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz did play a critical role in the election of Taylor. Taylor defeated Matos in the three-to-one margin in the 81st Assembly District, despite Matos holding the endorsement of City Councilman G.Oliver Koppell. In Riverdale the numbers were even more stark, with Taylor defeating Matos by a five-to-one margin. The initial significance of the race, said Dinowitz, was that The Bronx had come together to elect a quality jurist.
Dinowitz also said that the results of the primary proved that Rivera's county machine is virtually powerless.
"Every candidate that we supported tonight, that's part of this coalition, won, and won by an enormous margin," said Dinowitz. "I believe that the county Democratic organization has been exposed as a paper tiger."
Though the mood was one of jubilation at Maestro's it was a very different scene at the Bronx Democratic Party headquarters, where Assemblyman Rivera awaited the results of the evening in his office. County headquarters lacked decorations and catering, usually a staple of such affairs. The crowd was sparse, and the feeling was more of a wake than a celebration.
In his office Assemblyman Rivera, joined by a small parade of various well-wishers, discuss his career and what he felt were the negative perceptions of his Bronx power. He also blamed the media, especially this newspaper and the Daily News, for contributing to his loss.
At one point, while television news discussed the fallout between himself and election lawyer Stanley Schlein, who is part of the Rebellion. At one point Schlein was described on the television as a political genius, to which Assemblyman Rivera got annoyed.
"Says who?" asked the chairman.
To the victors go the spoils, and the Rainbow Rebellion have begun a push to name a new Democratic County leader, with their likely candidate being Heastie. The meeting of the county committee, the body that decides such positions, had been scheduled for this past Monday, though that was eventually cancelled.
Instead, the current Rivera-led organization has called the meeting for September 28, a Sunday, and have implied to numerous sources that they have the votes to keep Assemblyman Rivera in power as chairman.
However, the "Rainbow Rebellion" has mounted a challenge to that leadership by acquiring the signatures of more than 25 percent of the members of the county committee. That maneuver allows the "Rainbow Rebellion" to call its own meeting for Monday, September 22, at the Dreiser Auditorium in Co-op City.
"We have the votes to make the change," said one source close to the Rainbow Rebellion.
At that meeting it is expected that the assembled members of the county committee will vote, select Heastie as the new party leader, who would then cancel the September 28 meeting. In all likelihood, the entire situation would end up in court shortly thereafter.
A new leadership under Heastie would also mean that other plum jobs would be filled by Rebellion members. Greene, for example, appears to be the odds on favorite to takeover as County Clerk, a position that has remained vacant for several months. Reports have also surfaced that the new leadership may pressure City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to remove City Councilman Joel Rivera, Assemblyman Rivera's son and a candidate for borough president, as Council majority leader.
The county organization did see one victory on primary night. Nelson Castro, who was dogged throughout his campaign by reports of past criminal convictions, defeated Mike Soto for the 86th Assembly District seat by a 63-37 margin.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Against the backdrop of a faltering economy and a community development boom, neighborhood residents flocked to the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel this past Sunday morning for a forum on the state of real estate in Riverdale.
The panel consisted of five brokers from local real estate agencies and one bank: Norma Gordon of Koppell River Realty, Vasco DaSilva of Halstead Property, Brian Scott Cohen of Wells Fargo, Ellen Feld of Susan Goldy, Barbara Jurist of Sopher Realty, Linda Justus of Robert E. Hill, and Fred Levy of Halstead Property. Each of the panelists, who prefaced their statements by noting that they were also Riverdale residents, weighed in on several important topics close to the hearts of the audience.
The first question posed to panelists solicited their opinion on the market trend of Riverdale real estate. The consensus was that there is still a healthy interest in homes here, even if, as Halstead agent Vasco DaSilva pointed out, prospective buyers are taking longer to Òpull the triggerÓ and make a decision. The high cost of Manhattan living, along with the easy commute to the city and the new condominiums, are attracting many young families, added SopherÕs Barbara Jurist.
Ironically, the panelists agreed, it is the often grueling and invasive nature of co-op boards resented by so many that have protected Riverdale from the foreclosures that have taken place in other parts of the country: because co-op owners are forced to disclose their finances to prove that they can afford the purchase, there have not been defaults on payments.
Panelists responded in a similarly optimistic way to an audience member's asking how the construction of new condominiums has affected the market. Agents concurred that most of the new buildings, such as Solaria and Riverstone, are of very high quality and will attract residents of high caliber who will only add positively to the community. Agents also scoffed at the fear that the new buildings will exacerbate RiverdaleÕs parking problem. ÒParking is an issue but not because of the condos, stated one broker. ÒThese buildings can accommodate parking. The parking issue, however, is one that should be addressed by local elected officials.Ó
Joe Korff, the developer of Solaria, added from the audience that his luxury high-rise has Òmore than adequate parkingÓ and that Riverdale is still considered Òone of the hot spots of New York City.Ó
DaSilva added that RiverdaleÕs accessibility is a key to its desirability, as are recent additions such as the new Starbucks on Johnson Avenue, where, he noted, he brings clients to discuss things after taking them to view a property.
Other questions were quite pointed. One woman in the audience asked about the fate of empty storefronts, such as the recently vacated Paperbacks Plus on Riverdale Avenue. HalsteadÕs Fred Levy stated that only the owner of the spaces knows the answer, leaving everyone else Òin the dark.Ó
Another Riverdalian elicited laughs when he asked whether agents are willing to cut their commissions so as to help people afford to buy homes here. Agents were quick to defend their commissions as deserved, given the expertise and knowledge they bring to the table, but several agreed that even commissions are negotiable.
A final question was for panelists to name the best five co-op buildings in Riverdale, factoring location, value, and quality. While several agents replied that it was impossible to answer such a questions without knowing the priorities of the buyer, Barbara Jurist rattled off a few of her top picks, which included the Whitehall, the Solaria, 555 Kappock Street, and several buildings along Palisade Avenue near Metro North.
Panelists encouraged audience members to contact them at their offices for more information, and concluded on an optimistic note.
ÒRiverdale does not reflect the national news and is fairly resistant to market trends,Ó said one broker. ÒWeÕre warm, not cool, going into 2009.Ó
Thursday, September 11, 2008
City Councilman G. Oliver Koppell is set to help overturn the expressed will of the voters.
Koppell announced this past week that he would begin the process of drafting a bill to overturn the City's term limit laws, which were passed in a citywide referendum in 1993 and were reaffirmed in 1996.
Koppell told the New York Times that he would introduce a bill "within weeks" that would allow City elected officials, including City Council members, the mayor and borough presidents, to serve three terms instead of two.
In a recent interview with this newspaper, Koppell said that he has never believed in term limits. While he would prefer that the law would be changed by referendum, he had no problem going the legislative route.
"I just don't believe in term limits," said Koppell. "I don't think it makes any sense. If voters want to vote me out than let them vote me out."
Koppell did note that a change to the law did not mean he would definitely run again for a third term. "I haven't made a decision yet," said Koppell. "I'm postponing the decision until I have to make it."
That said, he felt that the voters, not a law, should decide when his City Council career should end.
"I like what I do, and I think I do a good job," said Koppell. "We'll have to see."
Koppell's push to change the law flies in the face of the support expressed for term limits by his own constituents. In 1993 the 81st Assembly District, which includes Riverdale and Kingsbridge, supported the creation of term limits by a vote of 12,985 for and 8,771 against.
In 1996 voters were asked if they would support extending term limits from two terms to three. In the 81st Assembly District 12,807 voters said no to that extension, with 12,184 supporting the change.
A number of local political luminaries, including almost every one of the candidates planning to run for Koppell's seat in 2009, chastised the Councilman for denying the will of the electorate.
"I am, 100 percent opposed to term limits for City Council members. The voters should have the right to choose whichever Council Member they prefer, including the incumbent," said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz. I think the right way to change the current law is through a referendum."
Charles Moerdler, who is considering a run for City Council and serves as chairman of Community Board #8's land use committee, wondered if the City Council might be violating conflict of interest laws by seeking a legislative change to term limits, adding that Koppell was "dead wrong" on the term limits question.
"Public service is not a license to wallow at the public trough," said Moerdler. "Public service means listening to and obeying the will of the electorate. On reflection, Council Member Koppell, a principled and respected public servant, will, I hope, rethink an ill considered act."
Ari Hoffnung, co-president of the Riverdale Jewish Community Council, said that term limits are good for democracy and noted that a recent Quinnipiac poll showed that New Yorkers support term limits by a 72-24 margin.
"In the absence of term limits, voters get stuck with entrenched incumbents who are not motivated to serve the people who elected them. It should come as no surprise that over a dozen states have already implemented some form of term limits," said Hoffnung. "Ironically, the same City Council members who are now calling for the elimination of term limits would not have been elected had their predecessors had not been forced out of office by term limits. Their desire to overturn a law enacted and then reaffirmed by New York City voters is hypocritical, self-serving, and undemocratic."
Anthony Perez Cassino, former chairman of Community Board #8, said that while he had great respect for Koppell's years of service his conduct on this issue was "shameful."
"Is there any wonder whyÊpeople are cynical of politics and politicians?ÊÊNew Yorkers have spoken loud and clear--twice--that we want term limits," said Cassino. "Now we have an attempt by someÊelected officialsÊto circumvent the will of the people by changing term limits without even coming back to the voters forÊa referendum.Ê These are the same politicians who owe their own jobs to term limits.Ê Does it get more hypocritical than that?ÊÊIf theyÊreally feel that the City will be better served to have term limits extended to three terms, than they should make it effective for anyone elected after them."
Helen Morik, vice president for community and governmental affairs at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, said she was not a supporter of term limits but felt it must be decided by another referendum.
"I have not supported term limits and was disappointed both times when it was passed by the voters," said Morik. "I voted against it. However, if it is to be raised again, it is preferable to do it again through a referendum so that the voters can once again voice their preference. Clearly, I think if it is to be put to a vote, it should be done sooner rather than later."
One final candidate, Jamin Sewell, who works as Koppell's legislative director, could not be reached for comment as of press time.
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz is furious at the Department of Education's apparent lack of concern for Riverdale's gifted students.
Last week, at a meeting of the Community Education Council of School District #10, Marty Barr, the DOE's director of elementary school enrollment, made some inflammatory statements concerning gifted and talented admissions in The Bronx.
Specifically, Barr implied that the DOE could move the gifted program from P.S. 24 whenever it liked and that Manhattan districts have more gifted programs because parents in that borough have the money to leave public schools and therefore must be placated.
"G&T is not a local program, it is a district program," said Barr last week. "And if it turns out that there is no school in Riverdale that can accommodate the G&T programÉthen in the long run there may not be any G&T in that part of the district."
Dinowitz was angry, though not surprised that the DOE would so clearly broadcast its hostility to gifted and talented programs in The Bronx.
"The DOE's commitment to gifted and talented programs is almost nonexistent," said Dinowitz. "They don't seem to understand that the needs of all students have to be addressed, and that includes the students who are exceptionally bright."
During last week's meeting the issue was raised as to just how many students applied to District #10's gifted and programs and what schools those students were zoned for.
Andrew Jacob, a spokesman for the DOE, stated that 671 kids were tested for gifted programs in District #10, and 54 students scored at or above the 90th percentile and therefore qualified for gifted programs.
District #10 had two sites for gifted programs, one at P.S. 24 and another at P.S. 54 on Webster Avenue near Fordham Road. So few students accepted a seat in P.S. 54's first grade gifted program that the class was cancelled this year.
It was unclear at press time what schools the 54 students who qualified for the gifted program were zoned for.
"We can give them a big fat 'I told you so' on that," said Dinowitz. "No one from our part of the district wants to schlep to P.S. 54."
Dinowitz said that the appropriate thing for the DOE to do would be to create more gifted programs in District #10, and to base enrollment on not only test results but geographic location, as well.
"We have many more students in our own district who should be in such programs than the department is willing to provide for," said Dinowitz.
Though such a proposition may seem reasonable, last week Barr stated that gifted and talented programs do not belong to any specific community, and that placing such programs entirely in one area of the district would create a hardship for students from other communities.
"G&T is a district program, it is not a Riverdale program," said Barr. "It doesn't belong to any part of the district."
Dinowitz said that he felt it was crystal clear that there was an anti-Riverdale bias at the DOE, and that the agency did not care for the needs of middle-class communities.
"It's very consistent with their policy all along, which seems to be a policy of deliberately working against middle-class communities," said Dinowitz.
Citing concerns over inconsistent language and insufficient review time, Community Board #8's Land Use Chairman Charles Moerdler implored the Landmarks Preservation Commission to delay the agency's hearing for a couple of months.
The committee passed a resolution requesting an extension at their September 4 meeting in order to allow the Fieldston Property Owners' Association sufficient review time and to allow the board to consider those views because copies of the latest Fieldston Master Plan were received only ten days prior to the meeting.
Dr. Marc Odrich, FPOA president, said that the organization hired a top-notch consulting firm to comb through the entire plan on behalf of the homeowners. "Unfortunately, as this in-depth review has not yet been completed and we are in the midst of active discussion with our consultant group, FPOA is not prepared to share these views at this time," he said, adding that their own review would probably not be ready for the LPC's September 24 hearing.
Board members said that they would like to hear from the FPOA before submitting their own comments.
While the document was available for only a short time, Moerdler picked out several sections from its text that he believes need another look.
One section he said illustrated a cumbersome chain of agency approvals before a landmark application is reviewed. Residents must visit the City Planning Commission to meet Special Natural Area District requirements, receive an approval letter from the FPOA, and visit the Department of Buildings as well.
"A long time ago under a different administration, government took an oath in trying to create one-stop shopping in government interests. In my view this creates a proliferation of agencies," Moerdler said, asking for interagency action.
Even if homeowners plan an interior modification, they now must visit the LPC before the Department of Buildings because often interior changes result in exterior ones.
"For example, sometimes someone's putting in a new kitchen or something that you think is purely interior but in the back they're punching a new vent or they're doing something else that requires exterior change," explained Mark Silberman, LPC counsel. If the work does not alter anything, the LPC provides a certificate of no effect.
Moerdler also questioned the language used regarding additions. The Fieldston Master Plan allows the staff to approve "modest" additions of up to 25 percent without public review, but to incorporate additions made prior to designation in that calculation.
"There are many buildings you obviously recognize within the Fieldston area where over a period of decades additions have been made and the effect of saying those count into the calculations--and that's what this language seems to imply--counting those into it will negate the possibility of it ever applying at all because in some cases additions made 30 years ago, 40 years ago or 10 years ago swallow the entire percentage of this ability," Moerdler said.
LPC officials said the language reflected a desire to prevent homeowners' making several 25 percent additions through separate applications.
In light of the many comments and the lack of FPOA review, Councilman G. Oliver Koppell asked the Commission also to reconsider its hearing date. "To rush now doesn't seem to make much sense," he said.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Riverdale Review, 09/04/2008
Few questions were answered and many were raised when gifted and talented programs in District #10 were discussed at this past week's meeting of the Community Education Council.
Marty Barr, the executive director of elementary school enrollment at the Department of Education, was met by a group of Riverdale parents concerned about the management of the district's gifted and talented programs.
Those parents, whose ranks included Community Board #8 Chairman Damian McShane, had their children tested to attend a gifted program in kindergarten—though there is no kindergarten program in District #10.
Barr noted that about one-third of gifted programs, including almost every Bronx program, start in first grade. To qualify for a gifted program, a child must score in the 90th percentile or above.
Barr noted that parents who had a child tested in kindergarten will be offered a seat in the first grade program, provided they are willing to send their child to any gifted program site.
In District #10 there are two such sites, one in P.S. 24 and another in P.S. 54, located on Webster Avenue near Fordham Road. Barr noted that so few parents elected to send their first graders to the P.S. 54 site this year that the school's program was cancelled, leaving only P.S. 24 to house a first grade gifted class this year.
"You child doesn't have to test again," said Barr. "That does not mean that we are guaranteeing every child that tested at the 90th percentile a seat."
Barr noted that the number of gifted seats is determined by the number of students who tested at the 90th percentile or above. He noted that the DOE could not guarantee a seat for a child unless that child's parents ranked every gifted site. If a parent selected to send their child only to P.S. 24 and not P.S. 54, they might not get a seat anywhere. Not enough children selected P.S. 54, said Barr, and therefore that program was cancelled.
"This will be an issue every single year," said Barr, adding that gifted program size will be decided not only by the number of children eligible but also by "whether families are willing to send their children to classes in particular schools."
Marvin Shelton, president of the Community Education Council, asked whether this means that the program would be eliminated from P.S. 54 altogether and placed in a different school. Barr said that he could not answer that question specifically and that the Department of Education was not necessarily wedded to placing the program in any school. He did note that if, year after year, a particular school could not field enough students for a gifted program, then the site would be reconsidered.
Barr noted that the program could grow if the Department of Education is successful in its community outreach programs. If more kids are tested, then more programs would be needed.
Parents at the meeting asked Barr how many of the children who turned down placement in P.S. 54 were zoned for Riverdale and Kingsbridge schools, particularly P.S. 24, P.S. 81 and P.S. 7. Barr reiterated several times that gifted and talented programs were not neighborhood programs and that it would not be equitable for Riverdale to host District #10's programs, regardless of the regional makeup of the students who tested in the 90th percentile.
"If we concentrated all the seats in G&T in one part of the district, then clearly we've created a hardship for anybody who lives at the other end of the district to get to those programs," said Barr.
He added later, "G&T is a district program. It is not a Riverdale program. It doesn't belong to any part of the district."
Barr said that the Department of Education's policy was to distribute programs as widely through any school district as possible in order to ensure that the maximum number of students could access them.
Barr was asked at one point why gifted programs could not be expanded in District #10 to the levels of a district such as Manhattan's District #2. He explained that some districts have a longer history of gifted programs and that their prevalence is part of an effort to keep more well-to-do families in the public school system, rather than see them leave for private schools.
"In places like Manhattan there are a large number of families that have other options because they can afford them," said Barr.
McShane, clearly upset with many of Barr's explanations, said that his biggest concerns were to see that Riverdale parents had a local program for their children and that gifted program placement did not exacerbate potential overcrowding at Riverdale schools. He pressed Barr for the number of children who qualified from Riverdale and Kingsbridge schools.
"I want to make sure there's a program available, locally, for them," said McShane of those parents.
Barr shot back, and implied that if Riverdale schools could not handle the gifted classes within their walls, they could be moved.
"G&T is not a local program, it is a district program," said Barr. "And if it turns out that there is no school in Riverdale that can accommodate the G&T program…then in the long run there may not be any G&T in that part of the district."
McShane also blasted the Department of Education for not seeking the input of local parents when it makes such decisions.
"We're not comfortable with the DOE making blanket statements and local policy without involvement from the local parents," said McShane. "That's the problem."
Exact information on the number of students accepted into District #10's gifted program, what schools they were zoned for and what schools they turned down was unavailable from the Department of Education as of press time.
Riverdale Review, 09/04/2008
Pedro Espada Jr. is trying to unseat State Senator Efrain Gonzalez Jr. in any way possible, from luring people with grocery giveaway events to wooing Democrats with awards.
The candidate also sent out a mailing, just in time for the September 9 primary, reminding potential voters that Gonzalez was charged with funneling members items meant to help community organizations into his own pocket to lavishing himself with jewelry, clothing and a vacation home, among other things. Gonzalez's trial has been delayed.
The Espada campaign's bilingual mailer calls Gonzalez "the shame of our borough" and further exclaims, "He stole our children's money and future!"
But despite the malfeasance alleged by federal prosecutors—printing up political-themed cigar bands for his company, renovating his mother-in-law's apartment in the Dominican Republic and paying his daughter's college on the taxpayers' dime, many point out that Espada is no boy scout.
In the past Espada used the Soundview Healthcare Network's resources in an unsuccessful bid for the borough presidency in 2001. Several of his employees were convicted after being charged with using the nonprofit to push his candidacy. Espada is the organization's president.
In response to his latest quest for the 33rd state Senate seat, critics have made similar charges regarding the free food and book events held throughout the district. Announcements for the giveaways came in Soundview Healthcare envelopes, but at the events attendees found that they got a serving of politics with their free veggies.
After one of the first events, Gonzalez said that granola bars would not sway his constituents.
Espada also launched a television commercial, in which individuals sing their praises. One man featured in the T.V. spot is holding a copy of "Heart Healthy for Life," a Reader's Digest book handed out for free at one of the fairs.
At his latest giveaway at a V.F.W. hall in Kingsbridge, many Gonzalez supporters gathered across the street to talk to local voters.
The Gonzalez campaign has criticized Espada for not really living in the district. A challenge to his residency failed in court. But the campaign made their point on YouTube—they posted videos featuring Espada's "neighbors," who assert that he does not live in The Bronx. Gonzalez's campaign also cobbled together a clip showing his opponent's car parked in a Mamaroneck driveway.
Espada has also been painted a Republican shade of red by the Gonzalez team because he said that he would potentially sit on the opposite side of the aisle when elected—something that has Democrats seething because a Democratic majority is down to only a couple of seats.
To spread the word, Gonzalez warned voters of that prospect by hiring a person to prance around in an elephant suit in areas within the 33rd District.
Espada received a big endorsement from Citizen's Union this past week, though the organization did contemplate his past record. "Citizens Union remains concerned about how Espada's healthcare organization has contributed to his political activity, given that several of his aides pleaded guilty several years ago to such activity. He himself was found not guilty of similar charges," read the endorsement. "Given that his opponent, the incumbent Senator, is currently under indictment, without yet the benefit of a trial, for misuse of state legislative member items, and has not responded to Citizens Union's repeated requests to be interviewed, Citizens Union believes that the district deserves better."
by John DeSio
Riverdale Review, 09/04/2008
SAT scores at the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy improved slightly last academic year, though they still fall short of the State and national averages.
The College Board, the company that administers the SAT, released the scores to the 2008 test this past week. Nationally students averaged 1017 on the test, 502 in reading and 515 in math.
RKA averaged a score of 923, with students averaging 468 in reading and 455 in math. Those numbers are marginally higher than last year's RKA average of 885, which was met through a reading score of 438 and a math score of 447.
RKA's scores were lower than the State average of 992. The State reading average is 488, and the State math average is 504.
Lori O'Mara, principal at the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy, requested that questions regarding these scores be sent to her via email. As of press time, she had not responded to those questions.
A total of 108 students at RKA took the SAT last year, out of a graduating class of 130. Those students also averaged 461 on the writing portion of the test, which is given little weight by colleges.
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz was glad to see that the scores had gone up but was extremely concerned that RKA was still far below the national average.
"I'm pleased that there was a significant increase in the reading scores," said Dinowitz. "But it is very unfortunate that RKA's scores are still far below the State and national averages."
Dinowitz added, "I would hope our students would not just meet the national average, but surpass it. We still need significant improvement."
Debbie Bowden, chairwoman of the education committee of Community Board #8, was just as cautious in her comments.
"I'm glad it is some improvement, but the improvement is too slight to get excited about," said Bowden. "We have to work harder."
The College Board also released RKA's results for other tests it administers. Seventy-seven students at the school took a total of 85 Advanced Placement tests, with 48 tests scored at a passing level of 3, 4 or 5. The statistics give no indication of what subjects those tests were in.
When it came to the PSAT, 123 sophomores took the test last year. Graded on a scale of 20 to 80, those students averaged a 40.8 in reading, 41.5 in math and 38.6 in writing. One hundred and twenty-two juniors also took the test, averaging a 40.6 in reading, 40.9 in math and 39.4 on the writing portion.
Dinowitz noted that these poor scores are not the product of any one individual, but are an indictment of the entire education system.
"It takes 12 years to develop scores this poor," said Dinowitz. "Our education system focuses on mediocrity, not high standards."
Other local schools did worse than RKA on last year's SAT. John F. Kennedy High School averaged a 368 in reading and 383 in math, for a total score of 751; M.S./H.S. 368/In-Tech Academy averaged 416 in reading and 418 in math, for a total score of 834; and DeWitt Clinton High School averaged 424 in reading and 437 in math, for a total of 861.
The two bright spots in The Bronx were the Bronx High School of Science and the High School of American Studies at Lehman College. Bronx Science averaged a 640 in reading and 684 in math, for a total of 1324. American Studies averaged 618 in reading and 633 in math, for a total of 1251.