“The chickens are in for the night!” a small sign announces. You may have seen it—it hangs at an angle on a chain-link fence bordering a tiny plot of land next to Friedman’s on 119th Street and Amsterdam. Chickens in New York City? I wondered when I first saw the tiny wooden slat suspended by a shoelace. Surrounded by the grandeur of Columbia’s libraries and the concrete and brick of West Harlem’s restaurants, this tiny garden seems out of place. Chickens are especially unimaginable.
When I return a few days later, though, there they are: strutting around, clucking and pecking at the ground. Upon closer examination, I see another sign, this one handwritten in teal marker. It announces that this garden belongs to Columbia Secondary School.
For many Columbia students, a glimpse of the chickens is their only awareness of CSS, a sixth- through 12th-grade public school on 123rd Street that the University was instrumental in creating and financing. The University’s ties to CSS run deep—CSS students and staff call their school “Columbia” just as we do. Around a third of CSS students also take free classes at the University, an asset that distinguishes it from other public secondary schools in NYC. Yet much of the attention on CSS has been about a scandal involving the former principal that occured eight years ago. Given the lack of awareness about CSS, I wondered about its overarching narrative. How has it transformed from an ambitious vision to a real, living, breathing school?
CSS opened its doors in September 2006 on 425 W. 123rd Street. Six years before, in a demonstration of Columbia’s contribution to neighborhoods in West Harlem, President Lee Bollinger, along with then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor of Public Schools Joel Klein, announced Columbia’s long-term commitment to establishing and building CSS. The school promised to be unique through its STEM- and philosophy-based coursework and through its Columbia affiliation.
The school would be one of the provisions of the Community Benefits Agreement, a protocol that outlines initiatives Columbia would take to compensate for the negative impacts of the new Manhattanville campus in West Harlem. In an announcement to the Columbia community, Bollinger stated that CSS would be “a permanent and tangible expression of [Columbia’s] deep and longstanding commitment to serve the City and our surrounding communities, and indeed the nation, in a way we know best—namely, through education.” Columbia promised a $150,000 start-up grant and a $100,000 annual grant as well as access to University facilities. José Maldonado-Rivera, a charismatic and idealistic educator, was selected as the principal-to-be.
The school promised to be exceptionally diverse. According to a Spectator article published in 2008, Maldonado-Rivera stated that “[CSS] is the only place where the child of a Columbia professor can mix with the child of a low-income single Hispanic woman.” This is still among the school’s points of pride: The student body is mostly a mix of children of Columbia affiliates and students from Harlem. 52 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and among the 702 students in the entire school in the current school year, 41 percent are Hispanic, 23 percent are black, 23 percent are white, 9 percent are Asian, 1 percent are American Indian or Alaskan Native, 1 percent are Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and 1 percent are multiracial. All of the announcements on CSS’s website are delivered in both Spanish and English, and most students take Spanish classes.
CSS proved attractive to parents for various different reasons. Demetria Gallegos, who graduated from Columbia College in 1987 and Columbia Journalism School in 1988, spent eight months in 2010 searching for a school for her four children. Due to exorbitant tuition, private schools were out of the question. When a friend told her about the up-and-coming CSS, it caught her attention because of its Morningside Heights location and STEM curriculum, which fit her kids’ interests.
I ask Ruth Robles, the mother of Karime Robles, a CSS alumnus and first-year in Columbia College, why she chose for Karime to start middle school at CSS. “It had great reviews and it goes until 12th grade,” she tells me over the phone in Spanish. She explains how this alleviates the stress and costs of reapplying to specialized schools during eighth grade—an important factor for many families. Although the parents weren’t exactly sure what was to come, they took a chance and enrolled their children in a school that was still finding its footing.
Anna Okounkova, also a first-year at Columbia College and a CSS alumna, mentions that students from all over New York City came to CSS. “Some people came from very far away. There were people from Queens and Brooklyn, and I know two kids from Staten Island as well,” she says. “They wanted to go there badly enough to have a commute that serious.”
Perhaps the biggest draw of CSS was, and still is, the opportunity for high school students to take free classes at Columbia University, which is only five blocks away. Today, its school profile boasts that “CSS is the only high school in NYC where students have the opportunity to take classes at Columbia University (CU) while in high school.” Students may start taking University classes in ninth grade if they have a 95 percent core GPA (the average of their English, social studies, math, and science courses) and at least an 85 percent in every individual course. Sophomores must have a 90 percent core GPA, and juniors and seniors an 85 percent. While CSS students could initially only take math classes at Columbia, the offerings have expanded into sciences, languages, and more.
A four-credit class at Columbia costs approximately $7,024. In Harlem, the average household income is $54,067. Taking multiple classes of this much value is an unheard of opportunity at most high schools in the United States, especially public schools. And at CSS, around 70 of the 400 or so high school students take Columbia classes every year. “Coming out of Harlem, it’s an unbelievable opportunity,” dean and athletic director of CSS, Arthur Puritz, remarks.
Although the elevator pitch was enticing, fitting the building blocks of a new school together was riddled with unexpected challenges. In its first year, CSS only had a sixth grade. All classes took place on the upper floor of a building already occupied by two other schools—P.S. 125 and KIPP STAR. Okounkova explains that this presented an issue. “The building that we have was built initially to be a little girls’ school, so the proportions of the hallways are for small children and the bathrooms are for small children although they’ve been redoing them one by one,” she tells me.
I was surprised to hear that there is a pool in the basement, but Okounkova explains that “Nobody really uses the pool. Plumbing backs up into the pool.”
When students struggled with a lack of changing rooms, they crammed into the too-small bathrooms and an unused section of an office. Responding to demands for a specific changing area, the Department of Education constructed a changing room in the basement. While this likely benefited students from schools on the floors below, the design was impractical for CSS students who had class and went to gym on the fifth floor. The school even lacked basic safety features like a PA system.
Infrastructure was not the only concern. In the beginning, there were no sports teams. Even in 2016, Columbia Pride, CSS’s student newspaper, published an article titled “Why is It So Difficult to Establish a Sports Team?” quoting frustrated students as they tried to start badminton and volleyball teams. Art classes were also a rarity: “You couldn’t go to Columbia [Secondary School] and be like ‘I’m going to be an artist,’ or ‘I’m going to be a writer or a musician,’” Gallegos’s daughter, Jamie Feldman, a CSS alumna and current senior in SEAS, tells me. Her brother, who was artistically inclined, felt that CSS could not support his interests and eventually transferred. In addition, under Maldonado-Rivera’s supervision, part of the curriculum didn’t abide by DOE regulations, so students would have to retake classes or take classes that didn’t count toward graduation requirements. Because of mishaps with permission slips, students couldn’t even cross the street to Morningside Park for a period of time.
Typical high school traditions like dances hadn’t been established either. As Feldman went through high school, Gallegos worried that she wouldn’t have a prom to attend, which most high schoolers spend years looking forward to: “If you wanted to join [something], you had to build it, you had to create it,” Gallegos reflects.
CSS’s concerns were at best an annoyance, at worst compromising the children’s educations. Three years after the school’s inception, these issues bubbled up to public scrutiny with the tragic death of 12-year-old Nicole Suriel on June 22, 2010. While on a field trip to Long Island, Suriel was swept away by a riptide and drowned. The CSS community was devastated and mourned; it still regularly does. Although a New York City investigation found that no regulations were broken that day, it suggested that CSS didn’t obtain adequate permission slips and did not ensure that enough adults were present to supervise swimming students.
The tragedy prompted anger from those who believed Maldonado-Rivera was mismanaging the school, ignoring status quo rules in order to fulfill his creative vision. He lost his tenure and was put on probation. Soon after, a faculty member reported an inappropriate financial relationship between Maldonado-Rivera and the school’s former parent coordinator, and the principal was fired five months later. The New York Times article that covered this escapade, “Anatomy of a School Crisis,” stated that the drowning exposed “the fissures underlying the strong [academic] statistics” at CSS and that some saw Maldonado-Rivera as “a dangerous autocrat.”
In addition to a lot of teacher turnover, an interim principal, Gary Biester, replaced Maldonado-Rivera. As he had never been a principal before, the position was sudden and somewhat unproductive. “It was just really confusing as a student because when you have leaders in your life who are supposed to know what’s going on and don’t, you’re like, ‘Well, fuck,’” said Feldman.
“[Maldonado-Rivera] was a bit of a crazy person, so having a normal school was also nice for once,” Fabian Stute, also a CSS alumnus and senior in SEAS, added. But other former students recollect his firing with mixed emotions. “Maldonado was kind of like the soul of the school,” reminisces Okounkova.
In any case, this interim period was one of uncertainty and tumult. “There was like a year where with the administration, nothing was solidified,” Feldman tells me. Yet, students stuck it it out. Curious as to why, I asked alumni and parents and sensed one common thread: community. With less than 100 students per grade, small class sizes foster personal relationships between teachers and students. It seemed to me that the teachers built a web of support for CSS students.
I witnessed this firsthand when I spoke to Arthur Puritz in his office. When I envision a dean, Puritz checks every box: He wears a pale yellow polo shirt and khakis, his white hair is combed back, and he peers up over his glasses as he speaks. School is over, and many students wear red and pink for Valentine’s Day dress-down as they linger in the hallways. Their laughter contrasts with the morose expressions of the students who trickle into Puritz’s turquoise-walled office for disciplinary talks after the last bell has rung. Puritz patiently takes them out into the hallway to address why they were sent to his office. “If we’re educators, and someone does something wrong, we should explain to them what the right way would be,” he says. “We need to be more positive rather than negative; positive actions get positive results.”
I ask Gallegos about community and she begins to recount a story. When her son got into Booker T. Washington, another NYC public school, her visit to the school left her thinking: “This place runs like a machine. It is really a together place. Look at these experienced teachers.” When she visited CSS, though, she felt she had witnessed the X-factor: “Oh my god, this place is on fire. All of these teachers are so committed and charismatic and much more engaged with their students… It just had a tremendous amount of heart.”
As I learn more and more about CSS’s story, I get the sense that current Principal Miriam Nightengale was largely responsible for lifting the school back onto its feet. Nightengale was identified as a suitable principal for CSS through a Teachers College program. At her previous school, she was instrumental in raising graduation rates from 30 percent to 83 percent.
When I visit CSS, the door to Nightengale’s office is propped open and her desk is visible as soon as you step in. With curly hair and a cheerful demeanor, she invites me to sit down without an appointment or any previous notice. Her laugh is infectious. “It’s a very open environment,” she says of her leadership style. “At CSS, a lot of what they had been through was really emotional. So a lot of the approach at CSS coming in was just listening to the concerns of the teachers, the students, the parents,” she tells me. “I did a lot of listening.”
Nightengale emphasizes how essential the school’s relationship with Columbia has been for CSS. Columbia’s annual $100,000 donation contributes to the free after-school program at CSS, which costs around $250,000 per year. Funding from Columbia also goes toward costs like purchasing textbooks for students’ Columbia classes since many CSS students cannot afford these egregiously costly supplemental materials. This has changed since Maldonado-Rivera’s time; a New York Times article from 2011 cites the funding being divided between the principal’s salary, paying teachers for elective classes, and other miscellaneous expenses.
When CSS was still struggling near the beginning of Nightengale’s tenure, Columbia went so far as to double its annual contribution, she said. She expresses gratitude to the University for “[going] beyond the minimum that the Community Benefits Agreement is asking for,” which she says many institutions often don’t give a second thought about. Interestingly, the relationship seems entirely one sided: The CSS alumni I speak to aren’t surprised that most Columbia students aren’t even aware that CSS exists despite the fact that it is only three blocks away from campus and our tuition dollars help fund it.
Despite CSS’s new horizons, the school still lacks space and funding. “Schools where there are violent incidents or schools where 90 percent of the students are not performing on level, that’s where the focus is going to go,” she says of the DOE, explaining that specialized schools are not its current priority, despite the fact that the DOE provides most of CSS’s funding. Puritz explains to me that the CSS girls’ basketball team has had record-breaking successes this year and is looking forward to the NYC championships. But because KIPP STAR reserved the gym they share, CSS’s team has to go to Brooklyn to play its championship home game in a foreign court.
Still, Puritz’s office is evidence of CSS’s growth. I smile when I see a huge gold banner tacked to the teal-colored wall that reads “Columbia Secondary School Founding Class Prom.”
Have fun leafing through our fifth issue!