West Harlem community leaders heralded the coming of the year-old Teachers College Community School yesterday as a new district school option for a neighborhood packed with charter schools.
The elementary school, which opened in East Harlem last year and moved to Manhattanville this fall, is managed by Columbia University’s school of education.
In recent years, many new schools have come to West Harlem in the form of high-profile charter school networks that have brought both educational opportunities and controversy to the neighborhood. Like those schools, the fledgling elementary school admits students randomly through a lottery process, and it relies on a mix of public and private funding to operate.
But it also has the widespread support of political leaders who have served as some of the most vocal critics of the city’s charter school policies, among them State Assemblyman Keith Wright. Wright has proposed legislation to give parent councils veto power over city plans to require district and charter schools to share space.
A range of Harlem community leaders, including City Councilman Robert Jackson and Donald Notice, president of the West Harlem Development Corporation, turned out to the school’s opening ceremony yesterday to laud the effort Columbia has made to support the school and help renovate its new, permanent home on Manhattanville’s Morningside Avenue.
Wright was sitting in the audience until Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch offered to give him her seat on the ceremony stage, which was shared by Chancellor Dennis Walcott and other leaders from Columbia University, Teachers College and the community.
Jackson said, “Every parent has a right to choose what’s best for their child—no matter who you are, you have to decide. Isn’t that right, Keith?”
“Yep,” he replied, grinning.
The leaders on stage said the school represented the fruits of a sometimes tense collaboration between the neighborhood and the university, and paved the way for more collaboration through Teachers College. Columbia has long been criticized by Harlem residents for developing land into university buildings that make the areas less affordable. University President Lee Bollinger said the school epitomized efforts to mend neighborly relations.
With an allusion to one of the Harlem Renaissance’s most famous poems, Wright suggested that the effort was slow to come, but very valuable:
“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up. like a raisin in the sun?” he said, quoting Langston Hughes. “No. A school gets built on 126th Street.”
The Community School opened in 2011 with 50 Kindergarten students, but because that location still needed renovations, the city placed it in a temporary home in East Harlem—about a mile from the neighborhood it was designed to serve. That design was set three years ago amidst a contentious university bid to expand into the Manhattanville part of Harlem. At the time, Columbia University agreed to help found a new neighborhood elementary and middle school, among other promises made to various Harlem leaders, to encourage them to to withdraw their opposition to its plans.
“This went through a lot of changes and a lot of negotiations here and there as part of a larger agreement with the community. And this is an experiment,” Jackson said to the audience, which was filled with families, teachers and students just out of school. “Is it going to work? You better believe it’s going to work, because all the [organizations] up here are going to make sure it’s going to work.”
Now that the school has settled into its new home, the principal Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, said the biggest logistical challenge is behind, but there is still more work to be done.
“Our challenge was finding a new home. Now, it’s just to make sure our children’s needs are met and make sure they’re settled. We’re making sure to include all those new families,” she said in an interview.
Parents who attended the gathering said they were very pleased with their choice, made after weighing options that consisted of mostly charter schools.
Julate Walker, whose daughter is in first grade, said she was directed to the Community School by the administrators of the nearby KIPP Infinity Charter School, which already had filled its roster when she looked into applying in 2011.
“I’m absolutely very satisfied here,” she said. “I feel very included, it’s like a family. Everybody is caring and considerate.”
Another parent said she heard about the school when she attended an information session for the French American Charter School, another nearby elementary school.