A Morningside Heights school building on 123rd Street, home to over 1,200 students in three co-located schools, is bursting at the seams.
Columbia Secondary School, a Columbia-affiliated public school which serves grades six through 12, public elementary school P.S. 125, and charter middle school KIPP STAR share the auditorium, cafeteria, gym, and swimming pool in the six-story building.
Though the three schools have shared space for several years, CSS expanded this year with a 12th grade. The expansion has renewed concerns from parents, students, and school officials about how 1,200 students from kindergarten to 12th grade can effectively share the building.
Space constraints have already prompted the schools to compromise with each other.
P.S. 125 Principal Reginald Higgins said that his school had given up the right to utilize the gym because high school students in the building needed P.E. credits to graduate—though he added that his school currently does not have a certified P.E. teacher.
“As a consequence, I’ve had to use the swimming pool exclusively for physical education for my students,” he said. “As principals, we’ve been able to make agreements and arrangements.”
Miriam Nightengale, the principal of CSS, said that the co-location reflects “general space issues that exist city-wide” and poses ongoing challenges for negotiating the shared spaces.
“Not everyone agrees on how to use space,” Nightengale said. “When will kids eat lunch? How many basketball games can you have? Who gets to have a basketball tournament?”
Higgins said that accommodating students of a wide grade and age range has caused concerns about building facilities.
“Middle and high school students relate to each other in a very different way than elementary school children,” Higgins said.
The 1,200 students currently eat in the same cafeteria facilities.
“It’s a nightmare,” Roxanna Bosch, CSS director of admissions, said. “High schoolers have to eat lunch at 10:30.”
“The worst part is we’re not installing good habits in these kids,” she said.
Andi Velasquez, parent coordinator at CSS, agreed.
“There’s literally not enough hours in the day” to accommodate 1,220 students in the building, she said. “It’s not an ideal situation when you have 12th graders sharing a cafeteria with first graders.”
Susan Furey-Soper, who has a third-grader who recently started at P.S. 125, agreed.
“They are crowding three schools in one cafeteria at one lunch time,” Furey-Soper added.
Ashly Contreras, a KIPP STAR seventh grader, said that, one day, KIPP’s lunch period was much shorter because students from another school had come early to the cafeteria.
“We had to, like, leave the cafeteria,” Contreras said. “It was messed up. We were all mad.”
“There’s a formula that the Department of Education uses to determine how space should be shared,” Higgins said, but noted that the formula doesn’t take different grade levels into account.
To help the building better house the three schools, the Department of Education has plans to fix the P.A. system, which does not work in all parts of the main building, and was removed from the KIPP STAR section during a renovation. The DOE also plans to renovate bathrooms campus-wide.
“We have bathrooms and other facilities that, you know, are scaled for younger populations,” Kevin Daly said, pointing out that the building dates to the 1920s. “We’re grateful to have the work happen.”
But he added that since the work would likely occur during the school year, the renovation could pose additional “logistical challenges.”
Nightengale said that in order to lessen the impact of students, only one floor at a time would be closed off. In addition, Nightengale said that they will try to do as much work as possible after the school day.
Parents have mixed feelings towards co-location, saying they were still satisfied with the schools’ academics.
“I know that space is an issue ... especially because they now have all the classes,” Irina Kandarasheva, parent of a CSS sixth-grader said. But“I’m very happy with the school.”
Velasquez said parents at P.S. 125 circulated a petition at CSS last year about the space the school took up.
“It’s more of a planning, DOE issue,” Velasquez said, adding that CSS and P.S. 125 faculty had had a “wonderful potluck” two nights back.
“We’re definitely surviving and thriving in this space,” Velasquez said, though she added that the building could use more investment.
“So far, it’s good,” Linda Braxton, a fifth-grade grandparent at KIPP STAR, said, pointing out the school’s positive impact on her grandson’s academic performance. “I have no negative thoughts.”
When asked whether she had noticed any space issues, she replied, “Not here.”
“Everybody’s nice,” KIPP STAR seventh-grader Laila Goumelle said, but that sharing the gym sometimes posed issues.
“It’s very cramped in the school,” eighth-grader Mariah Hidalgo said.
Higgins said the schools have been taking steps to work together, arranging a lunch schedule and negotiating the use of gym space.
“It’s better—it’s a lot better,” Higgins said. “We’ve all realized that we can get more solutions for all of our schools when we all work together.”
“In cities, you just have to deal with it,” Nightengale said. “We’re fairly functional as a campus.”
Higgins said that, ultimately, the schools were working to make sure the children’s experiences were not overly affected.
“No one wants children to suffer as a result of decisions made at a central level,” he said.