A push to open a new public school in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn is running into an unexpected obstacle: the politics of gentrification.
A group of mostly white parents had the idea for an elementary school that would have a social studies-centered curriculum, and it seemed poised to open this year. But the school's future is now uncertain, after an angry protest from more than 300 parents — mostly Hispanic — recently led the Department of Education to declare one possible location for the new school off bounds.
On both sides, emotions are running high.
"With all my battles, with all my schools, I've never seen something like this," the president of the local Community Education Council, Mario Aguila, said.
A recent closed-door meeting moderated by the Department of Education, with representatives from both sides — the white parents who want to build a new school, and the coalition of mainly Hispanic parents who are skeptical — was an attempt at peacemaking.
Although new residents are pouring into Williamsburg, its public schools are losing their students.
P.S. 84 on Berry Street had only 384 students enrolled last October, down from 409 in 2006. Its capacity is 1,057, city school officials said.
The idea of a new school was to cut into the paradox. As the parents behind the idea see it, the schools have so few students because parents are opting out of local public schools in favor of either private schools or so-called progressive public schools in Manhattan.
A new school with a similar approach, right in their neighborhood, might convince parents to stay, the thinking went.
A proposal to build a new school called the Discovery School hit a roadblock recently when local Hispanic parents heard it might move into their building, at P.S. 84.
Within days, about 350 parents were crowding into P.S. 84's lunchroom for an emergency meeting to protest what they saw as an encroachment grounded in a "separate but equal" mentality.
"The fact is, our kids are kids of color. The school has basically planned for a community that is predominantly white. There is no way of getting around that," the vice president of the Parent Teacher Association at P.S. 84, Erika Donovan Estades, said.
The proposal touched a nerve at P.S. 84, whose PTA in 2006 saw a battle between white parents and longtime Hispanic ones end in many of the white parents leaving the school. Ms. Estades estimated that 20 parents left.
Ms. Estades said she is not opposed to creating new schools, but she said the whole Williamsburg community should be included in plans.
"It's a gentrifying community, but there's no reason that it has to be a segregated community," she said.
A parent who is on the Discovery School's planning committee said her school would welcome all members of the Williamsburg community.
Indeed, speaking on the condition of anonymity, the woman said that she herself has lived in Williamsburg 16 years, and once faced eviction from a loft she renovated, due to rising rents, she said.