It was a fast walk. Just eight minutes outside Columbia’s Amsterdam-facing gates, past Apple Tree, Columbia Secondary School, Faison Firehouse Theater, and I’m here. At the quiet intersection of Morningside Avenue and 127th Street, Teachers College Community School stands lonesome and unobtrusive. Its exposed red brick exterior and narrow, neat dimensions seem more characteristic of a residence than of a school. I take another look at my phone, convinced I’ve meandered off course; the building looks smaller and lonelier in person than on Google Maps.
A gaggle of five parents strolls past me into the building. They’re here for Square 1 Arts, a fundraising event happening inside. Saralinda Lügohart, co-president of the Parent Association at TCCS, has invited me to witness the vending of mugs, totes, pillows, and water bottles imprinted with students’ artwork. The parents’ roles are twofold: They are patrons for the art and volunteers for the event. Square 1 Arts is one of many fundraisers held throughout the school year; others include Spring Fling (a street carnival in June open to the whole neighborhood that boasts a bouncy castle, music, food, and arts and crafts) and TCCS Got Talent.
TCCS is a public, lottery-based elementary and middle school that was established in 2011 as a part of Columbia’s Community Benefits Agreement, a document outlining Columbia’s planned contributions to West Harlem to accompany the construction of the University’s new Manhattanville campus. The CBA states that the University, in partnership with TC, will allocate $30 million in value to the “Demonstration Community Public School”—a filler name for TCCS at the time the document was written—between the school’s inception in 2011 and December 31, 2045. Or until the $30 million runs out.
Primarily serving districts 5 and 6 in Harlem, TCCS currently has 273 children enrolled and has been celebrated for its racial demographics, which reflect the diversity of the surrounding community. In 2014, just three years after its founding, the school became the most sought-after kindergarten in most of northern Manhattan.
As a university-assisted public school, TCCS is a pioneer in education. Indeed, many parents are drawn to the unique enrichment and educational opportunities made available to their children through the Teachers College partnership. But some parents, like Lügohart, are worried about the longevity of these opportunities, fearing what will happen to the school when Columbia’s contractual obligations to the school come to an end.
According to Nancy Streim, associate vice president for School and Community Partnerships at TC, the Department of Education is the “major financial contributor” for TCCS, as is the case with most public schools. It allocated $1.8 million of TCCS’ $2.5 million budget for 2018. Unlike most others, however, TCCS is also financially intertwined with Columbia—and by extension, with we members of the Columbia community who attend the institution. Columbia provides a portion of the funds in the form of a (privately agreed upon) yearly grant. Additionally, TC applies for grants from other private and public sources, solicits donations, and seeks out individuals interested in supporting TCCS.
With students currently enrolled in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, the school plans to add a grade each year until it becomes pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. As it grows to fill out the upper middle school level, TCCS’ budget allocation from the DoE, which is based on the projected number and needs of its students, will grow with it. However, TC and Columbia’s partnership will stay at a fixed value. While Michelle Kelly, co-president of the PA and mother of Maggie, a sixth grader, and Alexa, a third grader, disagrees with many parents about funding being an issue at the school, she recognizes that “money went a lot further” during the initial years of the school, when there were fewer students.
The school has plans for expanding to a second campus at West 132nd Street in the near future to accommodate kindergarten through second grade. Additional lease and facility maintenance costs will also add to TCCS’ financial burden.
In the seven years since its founding, TCCS’ sacrifices in the name of budget have been a cause of parental pushback. The school initially provided a free after-school program every day of the work week, but could no longer sustain that frequency after the 2013-14 school year. Since then, TCCS has offered the free program three times a week—from 3 p.m to 5 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. (Summer, Lügohart’s first-grade daughter, attends twice a week.) As Spectator reported in 2014, some parents expressed frustration over this reneged promise. While there is another daily program, called Road to Success, that runs until 6 p.m., it comes with a price tag.
Security stops me as I trail into TCCS behind the parents, and I’m turned away; the fundraising event isn’t open to the public. But during my brief moments inside the school, a black-and-gold poster for another fundraising event, meticulously taped on the far-left wall, catches my attention. “Come Celebrate Harlem Nights At the 7th Annual TCCS Parent Social & Silent Auction,” the poster declares. At the bottom, gold, bold print solicits help: “We Need Volunteers!!”
Indeed, fundraising culture at TCCS is ubiquitous. Michelle Verdiner, the school’s principal since 2015, joins the PA at their monthly meetings to discuss how the parents can support the school. Their involvement contributes to the school’s day-to-day operations. The PA regularly sends out surveys asking parents to rank how they prioritize allocating the funds they raise—everything from school supply grants, art programs, and gardening projects to music assemblies, field trips for underprivileged students, and a fish tank. (Verdiner did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.)
However, even with engaged and active parents, Lügohart worries about the school’s future when its defining partnership touts an expiration date, and she remains skeptical about the endurance of the agreement. “It looks beautiful and it sounds like, ‘Wow $30 million!’ But in reality … it’s never enough. As a parent, and as a businesswoman, it doesn’t even make sense. The continuity of it doesn’t make sense.”
Over the phone, I ask Streim if she has spoken with TCCS about a long-term financial plan. She has served as the point person for TCCS at TC since the school’s establishment and has overseen its development through grants and services provided by TC. Streim declines to clarify when, exactly, CU/TC funding for the school will run out, or what will happen at that point. “We do not talk about what’s going to happen in 30 years,” she tells me. “We continue to move forward with the school.” The CBA itself lacks planning about how the $30 million should be spent in the long-term, but in our conversation, Streim seems unconcerned with the partnership’s apparent mortality. She simply reiterates, “For 30 years, CU and TC will work to support TCCS.”
Streim explains that “there is no bank account with $30 million that supports the school.” In fact, the promised $30 million isn’t just cash; TC and Columbia jointly provide TCCS with services, expertise, and resources valued at between $1-2 million each year. Specifically in the 2016-17 school year, TC and CU provided $261,577 in expertise, including school development and curriculum development, $461,488 in services, including instruction and tutoring, and $358,047 in other resources, including instructional supplies and equipment, as well as lease payment and renovations to the facilities.
Audrey Cox, TCCS liaison and a former music teacher, oversees the involvement of 42 TC graduate students who provide expertise and services to TCCS faculty and students—much like they do for Columbia’s undergraduate colleges. According to Lügohart, Cox’s engagement at the school is widely known and admired: “You can tell she knows the name of every child.”
Passion emanates from Cox as she praises the work of TC graduate students who serve as math, reading, and science interventionists, helping TCCS students who struggle in these academic areas. In addition, nine of these 42 TC students developed the music curriculum, which begins in pre-kindergarten with a general music program and evolves to include violin studying, singing, and even music composition as the students advance each year. The TC students also assist with lunch and recess on a daily basis. Their tutorage and mentorship is no doubt vital to the students’ high-quality education, and it hallmarks the innovative partnership.
Moreover, the fourth- and fifth-graders who join the award-winning TCCS Orchestra go to TC to practice and get to see the bustling campus in action. “There’s really something powerful about kids getting to go onto a college campus,” Cox points out, “Because then they have something to aspire to.”
Kelly sees potential in the prospects of a public school with an academic partnership. She attributes Maggie’s mathematical aptitude and strong writing voice to TCCS’ curriculum, which had been developed largely with TC’s input. “The pedagogy has always been consistent,” she emphasizes.
Lügohart similarly praises the school’s curriculum and resources. She’s surprised when Summer, her first-grade daughter, comes home and chronicles school days spent learning the definition of “hypothesis” and various methods for multiplication. “She’s teaching me,” Lügohart laughs. “I can guarantee that.”
The PA clearly appreciates TC and CU’s fruitful collaboration with TCCS; it is exactly this gratitude that fuels parents’ augmenting concerns about its durability.
As I’m heading back to campus, I almost miss TCCS’ playground, a jumble of green flooring, blue climbing walls, and cardinal monkey bars; it’s a half-floor below street level and eclipsed by an ugly metal fence. Behind the fence, children scramble around on the contraptions oblivious to the cold. On the street, a mother paces anxiously, peering in.