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Parents, teachers criticize DOE response to failing facilities of Columbia-affiliated high school

The ongoing space problems and inadequate facilities of a local high school affiliated with Columbia have gone unrecognized by the NYC Department of Education, according to parents and community members who lodged formal complaints four months ago.

Columbia Secondary School is a public STEM school that serves 659 middle and high school students. Columbia University partnered with the city in 2007 to found the school, and continues to give it $100,000 annually.

CSS, which is currently colocated with two other schools in a building intended to be an elementary school, lacks a library, adequate science labs, classrooms for special education instruction, and a sufficiently large cafeteria and gym, according to CSS’s School Leadership Team.

The SLT, a body which includes the principal, PTA president, parents, and school staff and typically focuses on curriculum concerns, wrote a letter to local politicians in November calling for “a long-term plan to address the needs of all three schools” in CSS’s building.

Community Board 9 wrote a letter of support the following month, noting that, “as a school with a population of over 500 students, there is a state requirement for the school to have a library” and “with no available classroom space to service [special education] students, Columbia Secondary School is currently in violation of federal and state law.”

But according to teachers, parents, and students interviewed, they have yet to see a response to either letter.

CSS’s current location was initially intended to be temporary, and Columbia offered to provide land for CSS to have its own building as one of the community benefits associated with the Manhattanville expansion. But since the DOE declined the site Columbia offered in 2011 due to budget limitations, Columbia Secondary School has been forced to make its current location a permanent solution.

The elementary school colocated with CSS had a library until it was converted into three CSS classrooms in the 2012-13 school year. Now, none of the schools in the building have a library.

“My son is in 11th grade, and he’s been there since sixth grade, and he will have graduated without having a library,” former SLT chair Janet Miller said.

Another pressing issue is scheduling lunch times in the building’s two cafeterias, which can only hold 149 students. Some high schoolers eat lunch as early as 9:30 a.m. According to CSS social studies teacher Kimberly Terranova, the cafeteria is overcrowded and overwhelming.

“The biggest issue with the school is that it’s unhealthy psychologically. There’s no letup,” Terranova said. “You never get a quiet space, and you can never relax. It’s very stressful.”

According to CB9’s Youth, Education, and Libraries Committee Chair, Judith Insell, the school’s facilities issues are compounded by the fact that CSS, as a young school, is just starting to be assigned special education students whom the school doesn’t have the space to serve.

CSS did not have a classroom for special ed classes at the beginning of the year, but has since repurposed a storage closet to provide these classes, according to special education teacher Alicia Crawford. She added that she expects the school to be assigned more special ed students next year, which would require her to teach up to 12 students in the converted closet.

Crawford said that she provides individualized instruction for students in stairwells and hallways when there aren’t any free classrooms.

“Adults might not like it, but the kids actually do, since it’s more relaxed and laid back, but it’s a big-time privacy concern,” she said. “Some of my students have occupational therapy in the hallway.”

The school also struggles with finding space for science classes—students are currently using a chemistry lab that was installed in the school’s basement a few years ago.

“Our ability to offer different types of science classes is limited because of the space. We can’t offer an AP biology and a regular biology because we don’t have the classroom space for it,” Miller said.

Principal Miriam Nightengale responded to requests for comment by deferring to the DOE press office.

School District Five Superintendent Gale Reeves and DOE Office of Space Planning representatives attended a December School Leadership Team meeting in response to the SLT and CB9 letters, but parents said the DOE did not acknowledge that CSS has a space problem. A Department of Education spokesperson did not provide comment at press time.

Reeves will address parent and community member demands for a long-term plan to address Columbia Secondary School’s space constraints in a meeting hosted by Community Board 9’s Youth, Education, and Libraries Committee on April 13.

Former CSS parent Tina Glover said that the DOE is “actively refusing to recognize that there’s a problem,” and will not consider potential solutions, including turning the sixth floor community center into a library or the School District 5 offices on the third floor into classrooms.

But parents also acknowledged that the problems faced by CSS students are shared by students across the city.

“If I’m trying to be sympathetic to [the DOE], I would say that the problems with facilities are citywide, and they are dramatic and terrible. They are underfunded overall. However, they would like us to not talk about issues because they are difficult for them to solve,” Kevin Daly, a current CSS parent, said.

Alumnus Fabian Stute, SEAS ’18, said that the overcrowding of CSS classrooms is partially alleviated by the fact that CSS juniors and seniors can take up to two classes per semester at Columbia. Additionally, Stute said that “once you start taking classes at Columbia, you have the Columbia ID, so you can swipe into Butler and access CLIO,” meaning CSS’s oldest students do have access to a library.

Despite the numerous complaints, CSS parents and teachers spoke positively about the school’s performance. Engineering teacher Philip Hubbard said that although CSS does not have the “state of the art facility” originally promised, “we’re succeeding, even with our hands tied.”

Crawford also praised the team of teachers, who “do what they have to do to help kids succeed and learn, no matter the obstacle.”

Still, according to Insell, CSS’s many challenges remain pressing.

“This isn’t a climate for academic or social success for any kids in that building,” Insell said. “CSS is supposed to be a model on how to do it right, and this is not a model. It’s a marvel that they’ve had such great success academically.”​ | @ColumbiaSpec


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