June 21, 2017

‘Sunset Park Connect’: A Design Strategy to Reduce School Overcrowding

By Lyric Kelkar, Eduarda Aun, and Zara Farooq

While many elementary schools in New York City face overcrowding, Sunset Park is home to some of the worst instances. Eight of 10 schools in Sunset Park are overcrowded, and some classes are held in hallways and in rooms with no windows. Sunset Park is also a diverse community of immigrants; nearly 50% of its residents are foreign-born from a multitude of countries. The languages and cultures in this neighborhood act as unifiers but also dividers. There are visible divides in Sunset Park where each ethnic group lives.

Our project, Sunset Park Connect, posed the question: How can a design model help such a diverse neighborhood come together to alleviate something that is affecting all their children?

Well, the diverse cultures that make up the neighborhood might be the exact formula needed. Creating a curriculum for schools that celebrates and embraces the cultural and community institutions in Sunset Park would bring students out of classrooms that could then be used for instruction in science, art, and music that has often been eliminated for lack of space. A field trip system that ties community cultural diversity to the existing curriculum can also forge connections across cultural lines.

And who better to lead such a process than the residents themselves, particularly the parents who have deep ties to the community and its cultures?   

Our design strategy was based on the concepts “Engage, Connect, and Activate.”

Aware that we were dealing with a busy working community, we understood that the best way to reach residents would be within their daily routines. So our project included different strategies to begin engaging the population, such as canvassing community residents on the streets of Sunset Park.  Now we propose further interventions. This month, for example, we expect to publish and distribute a “gazette” that highlights work done by community groups such as Making Quality Schools for Sunset Park or Friends of Sunset Park. 

We also propose connecting different groups through pop-up sessions - about 30 minutes in length - in laundromats or bodegas on Saturday afternoons, with the goal of bringing together the ideas of parents and to collect knowledge from the community about their cultural histories.

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Tying these histories to places in the community would begin to suggest a cultural curriculum for neighborhood students. Having the curriculum shaped by parents and students and what they feel is important to learn in the children’s lives would bridge gaps among different cultures and teach kids at a young age the many histories that have contributed to building Sunset Park and New York City. It would also bring the voices of parents and students from many backgrounds into the conversation.

Activating the program would consist of bridging the community-developed curriculum with the existing one, through the collaboration of PTAs, school administrators, parents, and volunteers, and organizing the field trips to make space for other in-class activities.

Our design project is not just focused on this particular issue but also tries to structure a process of public mobilization – one that can be used for a whole range of issues, not just creating a new inclusive curriculum for schools. Because after all, when talking about cities and their policies, we are really talking about people and their lives.

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Lyric Kelkar, Eduarda Aun, and Zara Farooq are students in the Parsons School of Design Master of Science program in Design and Urban Ecologies at The New School.  Their “Sunset Park Connect” project was among the winners of this year’s Prized Solutions competition sponsored by the Center for New York City Affairs, which highlighted exemplary research and ideas from New School students focused on issues impacting New York City.

Photos and images courtesy of the Sunset Park Connect project.