If there's one point that all New Yorkers can see eye-to-eye on, it's that space is a limited commodity in New York City. As a result, city-dwellers learn to re-envision how rooms can be used and, above all, how to share the little space that is available. At some point, though, square footage simply reaches maximum capacity, and debates over how to dole it out ensue.
Take the micro conflict of sharing a closet-sized double at Columbia and apply it to a bigger issue: that of sharing school space. At P.S. 145 on 105th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, parents, school administrators, teachers, and education activists have been in heated debate—which has escalated to intense screaming matches—over Harlem Success Academy, the charter school network run by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. Moskowitz plans to open a charter school in the P.S. 145 building next fall.
It's clear that housing two schools in one building will require a large adjustment and will unavoidably cause some glitches. However, the question remains: Is it worth it?
If the bottom line for everyone related to academic institutions is improving the education system for the children in it, the sacrifices incurred from sharing space must be weighed against the possible benefits accrued by opening a new school.
This specific incident is representative of similar tensions that occur all over the city in every borough, as it is not uncommon for several independent schools to operate out of a single building divided up by floor. Areas such as gyms, cafeterias, and playgrounds may be shared, but other than that, each school operates on its own schedule and with its own staff, students, and budget.
Think of what happens when four roommates have different schedules. Inevitably, two will be waiting for the bathroom at the same time, and two won't be able to sleep late because the others have early classes. Now imagine all of the possible problems that could arise when several academic institutions reside in the same building.
The most salient issue is overcrowding. Those who oppose the charter school at West 105th Street argue that if Harlem Success Academy opens with kindergarten and first-grade classes in 2011, the building will be supporting too many bodies. (However, reports show that P.S. 145 is only at 59 percent capacity.)
Logistical problems occur in the following types of scenarios as well: One school decides to have a fire drill at the same time another has an assembly. Students from one school bully those from another on the playground. Standardized test scores for one school rank significantly better than those at the other, but it's not as if students can simply choose to switch to the better school upstairs. Those are just some examples of the friction caused by sharing school space.
An argument in favor of Harlem Success Academy is that opening a new school increases school choice in the community by expanding the options available to parents. If this benefit outweighs the drawbacks, it is probably worth it for Harlem Success Academy to move into P.S. 145's building in fall 2011.
An interesting facet of this particular dispute over sharing school space is the neighborhood that Harlem Success Academy is targeting. There is a huge concentration of charter schools north of Columbia in West Harlem, but this one would cater primarily to students who live south of West 110th Street.
As "Waiting for Superman"—the movie about Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children's Zone—highlights, parents of all income levels are considering charter schools as viable alternatives to their neighborhood schools. A charter school on the Upper West Side may also help to alleviate overcrowding at some of the best public schools if it turns out to be a top-notch option.
Columbia students should care about the controversy at P.S. 145 because it's in the neighborhood where we live and study. As community members, we shouldn't ignore how local politics impact students right beyond our gates.
We should also be aware of the conflict because of our own experiences with controversy involving shared real estate and land, not just in living arrangements but also in Manhattanville. Since we have personally lived this controversy, we understand how ownership of space can translate into a position of power. Bringing this perspective to other local debates is one entrée for more active engagement in local politics.
Jessica Hills is a Barnard College junior majoring in political science and French language. She is a former associate news editor. Class Notes runs alternate Thursdays.