Erin Olavesen
Erin Olavesen

Not long after my husband’s work relocated us to Roosevelt Island in 2010, I found myself sitting on the bench in the window of the Westview lobby with long-time Islander and four-time Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) President Matthew Katz.

Matt and I connected through a WIRE listing – I needed a notary, he’s a notary. After we finished our business, the then president gave me the hard sell on ‘getting involved’ and running for RIRA’s Common Council. He explained RIRA’s mission, and the challenges that the Council faced in involving the wave of new Islanders who were here temporarily.

He knew my profile: transplant, here for work, to beef up the resume and to enjoy what NYC has to offer without going broke, all within a few years. I had a toddler at home and was pregnant with my second child, and my husband was putting in 80-hour work-weeks. RIRA meetings weren’t going to happen for me, but I admired Matt’s commitment to his community and understood his passion for activism.

After that meeting, life went on for my family. My second son, Hans, took his first steps on the Southtown lawn. My older son Freddie learned to ride a bicycle on the promenade. We found our friends in the Island Kids’ Baby Group and during long afternoons sitting on the benches at the toddler playground. Ariel and Andrea, Island teenagers, taught my boys to swim at the Sportspark Pool, on behalf of the Roosevelt Island Marlins. And just like that, this became home.

Last year we began the kindergarten search, the next phase of city living as parents. Having gone to parochial schools, I assumed I’d send my kids to parochial schools as well, so we toured nearby Catholic schools. We learned that Roosevelt Island is part of District 2, which has some of the best public schools in the state, so we cast our net further. We toured private programs housed in historic brownstones, dripping with resources. There were public schools where parents raised a million dollars to supplement the meager Department of Education budget. We saw schools with chess programs for five-year-olds and Broadway-theater partnerships. There was certainly every type of offering, but something kept calling us back home.

PS/IS 217 (217) is not awash in resources, or a top-performing school in the state. As it turned out, the notes I jotted down on my very first 217 school tour were the most persuasive: “diverse, smiling children, student work displayed, new building, gym, music room, auditorium.” Freddie would do just fine here. I toured the school three more times before finally accepting that this was where he belonged – a place where I’d be willing to dedicate my time and money, a place that would preserve our family’s quality of life.

My first year in the school revealed a diverse community of friends and neighbors, an active PTA who work tirelessly to raise money, and a faculty who are dedicated to our children. I’ve also appreciated the small group of families commuting here from Queens for the Gifted & Talented (G&T) program, paying for busing, because they believe in our school.

One of these parents commented to me in the first few weeks of school that “it must have been a no-brainer” to choose the neighborhood school for us, and she was so thankful for her son to have the opportunity to experience the rich diversity along with the small-town feel. The Queens families believe so strongly in what we have here that they, as the most active PTA members, contribute more time and money to enrich the experiences of our 217 children than we Islanders do.

I am so thankful that their commitment to the school has increased our fundraising, which benefits every student. Their commitment has also allowed Islanders access to a G&T program right here in our neighborhood, since without them it would not be large enough to continue.

My boys sleep until 7:30 in the morning before making the five-minute walk to school; we stroll along with our neighbors, making plans to meet up at the Halloween Parade or at the Octagon barbecue pits. I know all of the kids and families in my boys’ classes, and just about all of the kids in their grades (Hans started Pre-K this year). We see each other on Friday afternoons as we cram into Main Street Sweets, and at the soccer fields on Saturdays. My boys are proud of their school. They will tell anyone who will listen about the concerts and celebrations and work they are doing here on Roosevelt Island.

This year, I’ve had the opportunity to lead tours and share our experience at 217. I tell anecdotes of Freddie’s excitement to get to school each day, his love of learning, the individual connections that teachers have with my child and family. Families ask why the classes do not have assistants, they notice the lack of iPads, and they inquire about clubs. All of this is possible at 217, but it is up to us. The task of making our school great falls to us. Our principal and teachers need us to volunteer, dedicate time, raise money. We have work to do.

We have a faculty who need us to raise money and support their efforts, to help them create lessons that further engage our kids and support each and every student. We have a principal who would love to see chess programs and drama clubs, but needs funding and Islanders to make it happen.

Knowing this is our school, our community, our home, I’ve come back to Matt Katz with a new perspective. Working with him and other Islanders this year on the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition is helping me connect even more with the school and community. I’m clearing my schedule to devote time to RIRA meetings this year. I want an even better school for my boys and for our community.

Tags: Island Observer

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