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Three’s a crowd?

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By SCOTT SELL
As soon as the third period bell rang at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, Queens, secretary Kathy Vitale’s phone did the same. It was someone from P.S. 223, the elementary school for kids with special needs, down three flights of stairs on the basement level, trying to negotiate for space.

Vitale covered the mouthpiece of the phone and called over to Ginger Spellman, her fellow secretary who was busy making copies of permission slips.

“Can you check the calendar? They want to use the auditorium on June 25th,” said Vitale. “What do we have on June 25th?”

“June 25th?” Spellman said, one hand on her hip. “That’s our kids’ graduation!”

They both cackled for a moment, knowing this was not negotiable.

“Yeah, hi hon,” Vitale said, getting back on the line. “Did you hear us? Yeah, we reserved the auditorium on that day already. So I would check in with Joan in I.S. 25 and look at the calendar to see what day would work for you.”

Vitale hung up and rubbed her forehead.

“When things overlap like this,” she said. “Man, that’s when it gets complicated.”

World Journalism, a new sixth through 12th grade public school with 560 students, is in its fourth year of sharing space with P.S. 223, and I.S. 25 – a middle school. The schools occupy the three floors of the Adrien Block Campus, a concrete box of a school on 92nd Street in Flushing, Queens. With the help of secretaries, principals, custodians, cafeteria workers, and security guards, the schools spend most of their days trying to cohabitate peacefully, coordinating everything from lunch and recess to plays and graduations. Some days they get through the day unscathed, sometimes not.

Newer, smaller public schools like World Journalism are being placed into bigger schools at a rapid rate across the city. Since mayoral control began in 2002, more than 300 small public schools have been created and now, about half of all New York schools share space with other schools and programs, according to the Department of Education. And teachers, students and parents are learning to share what they have.

“For everyone in a shared school, transitions are tough,” said Dr. Mak Mitchell, executive director of school governance for the DOE. “But the hope is that decisions can be made democratically, resources can be shared and all principals can support their own school’s mission as well as their building’s growth.”

Butting Heads

After two minutes of chaos as students scrambled to their fourth period classes, the hallways on the third floor of World Journalism suddenly turned quiet. Brian Melendez, a 17-year-old senior with square-framed glasses and sinewy arms, slipped from room to room as though he had built the school himself. He enrolled in World Journalism when it first opened four years ago, the year principal Cynthia Schneider – a former news producer and teacher – was awarded space for her school from Chancellor Joel Klein. Hers was one of the smaller, more specialized schools that opened in 2006, as part of his initiative.

That first year, Melendez said, relations were fairly hostile.

Up to that point, I.S. 25 had been using the first and second floors of the building, and had turned the old third-floor classrooms into administrative offices. World Journalism came onto the scene and took over the entire third floor.

But that wasn’t enough space. Schneider soon had to ask I.S. 25’s former principal if she could have four more classrooms on the second floor.

For months, he wouldn’t budge. He was reluctant, Schneider said, to hand over what he believed was his turf.  It took a string of meetings and lots of butting heads to finally get those classrooms. And that tension started trickling down to the teachers, and even the students. Even the substance abuse counselor, Richard DeCosta – who is supervised by the principals but is paid from an outside organization – had to sneak World Journalism students down to the first floor of I.S. 25 for meetings.

“When we saw each other in the hallway, there would be some dirty looks and yelling matches,” he said, running his hand along the tiled walls. “And it was uncomfortable because it was like, yeah, we came into your school and we took half of your hallway.”

Today, the jostling and clashing has calmed down considerably. The schools still share access to the building’s library, gym, auditorium and cafeteria, but a new I.S. 25 principal, Mary Ellen Kociszewski, helped establish new boundaries this fall: the two schools have different exits, different schedules, different bells. Still, scheduling conflicts arise, Brian said, because the school’s periods don’t line up.

Brian peeked his head into the auditorium at the end of World Journalism’s fourth period. I.S. 25 was finishing up an assembly and students from World Journalism were waiting in the back of the room – some more patiently than others – for it to be over so they could start their gym class.

“See?” Brian said, pointing through the glass. “That’s what happens.”

Getting Creative

Once they got settled, five minutes late into the period, pairs of World Journalism students took turns on the stage, presenting traditional and modern dances they had researched and practiced. They did the waltz, the jitterbug and the Macarena.

“We had to get creative with our classes, because sometimes we don’t know where we’ll be,” said gym teacher Christian Maroney, who stood at the side of the stage, complete with whistle, wind pants and a water bottle. “We created this dance and drama unit because I.S. 25 will sometimes need the gym for a project and we’ll need to shift gears.”

Gym class for World Journalism consists of the entire grade, sometimes 80 kids with two teachers splitting the group in half. That’s a lot of bodies. The first year, the schools weren’t at the point where they could share the gym space so they came up with alternatives, such as yoga and ballroom dancing. But usually these  would be in classrooms, right next door to I.S. 25 classrooms.

“Teachers would come and tell us to turn down the music or constantly knock on the wall, saying we were a disturbance,” said 17-year-old senior Divya Diaz, whose dark bangs hair nearly cover her eyes. “The year after, we started to get more space in the gym. So things evolved.”

World Journalism students leave the schoolyard as I.S. 25 students come out for gym. (Photo by Scott Sell)

Wasted Space

To get to the World Journalism’s parent coordinator office, you has to walk down the aisles of the auditorium, up the risers, across the stage and through a maze of doors. The space used to be dressing rooms. Now it is home to copy machines, a PTA meeting area, and Helen Reed’s office, where the sink faucet is broken and there’s no natural light. But she feels lucky: most parent coordinators don’t get a space of their own. And nearly every World Journalism teacher shares  classrooms throughout the day.

“You walk into a room,” Reed said, “and you can’t tell if it’s the eighth-grade English teacher’s room or the ninth-grade Spanish teacher’s room or the art teacher’s room, using it third period on Thursdays.”

A couple years ago, the Adrien Block Campus was used for the first District 25 middle school fair. World Journalism was assigned a room in I.S. 25 to greet visitors and Reed  and Schneider came early to move the desks around. But Reed noticed something strange: every desk had a textbook and a notebook inside, all with kids’ names on them.

“And I realized, that room is only used once a day!” Reed said. “Here, they assigned us – of all people – a room that’s only used once a day. That would never happen at our school. The idea that a classroom is only used four out of the eight periods is crazy because that’s wasted space.”

Running Things Smoothly

Schneider took a notepad, a pen and a bottle of water and hustled down the stairs.  Two eighth graders coming back from gym class tugged playfully on each other’s WJPS hooded sweatshirts.

“Hey,” Schneider said, pointing as she brushed by them. “Knock it off and get to class, will you please?”

The boys straightened up and marched the rest of the way up the stairs in silence, smiling.

Downstairs, in Kociszewski’s office, Schneider joined everyone who was already gathered around a meeting table. There was Lisa McAllister, a school safety officer, in full uniform  representing the four security guards that man the front entrance desk and roam the halls of the building. There was John Kleiber, the head of the custodial staff. Brenda Roberts, a nurse at P.S. 233, came in late, excusing herself quietly.

“Alright,” Schneider said, waving her pen. “Let’s get this party started!”

“So is this a Building Council meeting?” Kleiber asked, turning from one person to another. “Or what?”

“I thought it was a safety meeting,” Kociszewki said, crossing her arms.

“I think it was supposed to be,” Schneider said slowly. “But we decided this would be the best day for Building Council. There were a few different memos floating around.”

“Okay,” Kociszewski laughed. “Since we’re all here, let’s get to it!”

All buildings that share space have Building Councils like these, said Mitchell. These Councils help school leaders sharing the same building to collaborate on sharing the campus, facilitating administrative decision-making and ensuring that all schools in a building operate smoothly and safely. Under Mitchell’s guidance, the Department of Education released a Building Council Tool Kit in 2006. The tool kit, which took eight moths to complete, is a  67-page guide on how schools sharing space should work together. All three schools are making a point to meet regularly and discuss problems as they arise and potential solutions for them.

Kociszewski and Schneider came to an agreement early on: because they were both public schools and all members of the Department of Education, they should do their best to meet each other halfway when it came to space issues.

“Thankfully, we can work together to strategize what can do to remedy any situation,” Schneider said. “There’s optimism about our combined vision to move the entire campus to a better place.”

Changing the Flavor

“W-J-P-S!”

World Journalism school aide Gino Myrtle’s voice boomed from the speakers and bounced off of the cafeteria walls. He held the microphone for a few moments while students finished their conversations and their lunches.

“Everyone make sure you clean up after yourself, clear your trays and trash,” he said. “And, if you want to go to the dance tomorrow and you haven’t bought your ticket yet, come right up and here and get one.”

Richard DeCosta, the substance abuse counselor, sat on the stage with a mini treasure chest on his lap, paper tickets and a pile of dollar bills overflowing. He organized the dance as a way for I.S. 25 and World Journalism students to interact in a way they ordinarily weren’t able to.

“We had our first dance three weeks ago with 520 kids from both schools and there were zero incidents,” DeCosta said. “Everyone is starting to accept each other. Once the staff and students get to know everyone from the other school, the flavor around here is going to change. And I think we’re already heading that way.”

The fifth period bell rang and the kids shot up. The din of I.S. 25 students could be heard coming down their stairwell. It was now their lunchtime. Brian Melendez picked up his tray and sighed.

“Things have gotten better,” he said, stepping aside as seventh graders filtered into the cafeteria. “But, you know, it’s just taken some time.”

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Youth and Culture - Technology World Journalism Preparatory School, Flushing, Queens
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