By Gus Saltonstall
Few groups bond as tightly as school communities. And often, for children, parents, and teachers, a school building and yard are like a second home.
This is especially true of West Prep Academy, a middle school on West 105th Street that was instrumental in creating the school’s unique and acclaimed playground and schoolyard. Shared with the P.S. 145 Bloomingdale elementary school, West Prep’s current building has not just a large yard, it has the Bloomingdale Inclusive Park and Playground, with state-of-the-art equipment designed specifically for children of all abilities and needs.
West Prep Academy currently serves around 170 sixth through eighth graders, including children from the Department of Education’s Autism Nest Program. Thirty percent of its students come from the nearby New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Frederick Douglass Houses. More than 40 percent of West Prep’s student body is made up of special-education students, which contributed to the site being selected for the accessible playground.
All of these factors make it harder for West Prep families to accept a pending Department of Education (DOE) proposal to move the school to a new facility three blocks away, which has no dedicated outdoor space at all.
The proposal calls for West Prep to move into the now-shuttered and empty Ascension School building, at 220 West 108th Street, in time for the 2024-25 school year.
Nicole Millan, the parent of a student with a disability within the community, centered her opposition to the move on the importance of consistency for this population.
“West Prep is the only ASD [Autism Nest Program] middle school in District 3 and to move [it] would traumatize an already vulnerable school community,” she wrote in a letter to the DOE. “Maintaining the correct environment to foster the social-emotional, academic, and sensory-integrating environment required by the ASD Nest Program is integral to an autistic scholar’s development.”
In the new building, West Prep Academy would go from having a portion of one floor to having five floors for itself. The added space would allow room for both West Prep and P.S. 145 to grow their enrollments, the DOE contended.
But the West Prep Academy community is adamant that it does not need the extra space, nor does it want to uproot its student community from its 13-year home.
“We never asked for more space,” Cidalia Costa, a faculty member at West Prep Academy, told West Side Rag. “Our children are thriving in our beautiful space that we helped build.”
Current students share the sentiment.
“I feel like we should stay here and not relocate because we have a lot of access to things that are useful, such as a yard, gym, garden, sports teams,” Taylan, a 7th grader at West Prep Academy said during a meeting earlier in January with District 3 Superintendent Kamar Samuels at the current school, as seen in a video shown to the Rag. “In the football league, there would be no point in joining, because we could never practice. We have an upcoming baseball team. How would we practice? How is this fair to the student athletes?”
India, another 7th grader at the school, wrote in a letter to Samuels that she worried about the students’ well-being without a proper outdoor space. “If students don’t get to play outside, it can distract them from learning,” she said.
But there is a caveat, according to the DOE. Page 10 of the department’s proposal says if the relocation is approved, “the West Prep community may continue to have access to the outdoor space and auditorium at M145 [the 105th Street building].”
Cidalia, the West Prep Academy faculty member, called the offer like “rubbing salt on a wound.”
“For an adult to walk the distance between the proposed building and our building, it takes at least eight to 10 minutes,” she told the Rag. “We would have to take a field trip, it becomes incredibly challenging when you’re walking a distance with many children, some of whom are special needs.”
Rita Genn, a founder of the Bloomingdale Inclusive Park and Playground and a current co-director of the group that oversees it, told West Side Rag that Community Board 7 selected 150 West 105th Street as the site for the playground, “primarily because of West Prep and P.S. 145.” Genn is a former member of the board.
The Ascension School building also does not have a separate auditorium; its auditorium is shared with the gym.
“I believe this decision may have significant consequences on our academic performances, and I would like to bring some specific concerns to your attention,” 7th grader Amir wrote in a letter to the DOE, shared by West Prep Academy faculty with the Rag. “The absence of a separate auditorium in the new location may hinder the opportunities to expand our programs and keep the programs we currently have.”
Asked for comment about the relocation and the pushback from West Prep parents and children, a spokesperson for the DOE told West Side Rag in an email, “Both West Prep Academy and P.S.145 have seen an increase in enrollment and need space to grow.” DOE’s statement noted that the move was still only a proposal, “and we are continuing to engage the community and gather feedback before there is a final decision.”
P.S. 145’s enrollment rose from 400 in 2018-19 to 458 in 2022-23, while West Prep Academy enrollment dropped from 204 to 168 in the same time frame, according to data from the DOE.
P.S. 145 did not respond to the Rag’s request for comment.
Following a walk through of the Ascension building last month that left members of the West Prep Academy community questioning the condition of the building, the DOE has said it will make upgrades to the property, including adding a science lab and “extensively enhancing” the building to meet safety standards.
The Ascension building has already been acquired by the School Construction Authority, though, and is expected to be ready with the upgrades by the start of the 2024-25 school year.
Timeline of Communication
In spring of 2023, the city’s Department of Space and Facilities visited the West 105th Street building to assess the level of available space.
Shortly after this visit, a DOE employee wrote in an email obtained by the West Side Rag that it found “neither P.S. 145 nor West Prep” was “operating with excess space,” but that the elementary school “has been and continues to be able to accommodate” the demand for students.
In December, members of both the West Prep Academy and P.S. 145 communities were informed that the DOE was formulating a proposal for the middle school to be moved to the empty Ascension School building.
A multitude of meetings and walkthroughs were held over the next two months, including between members of both school communities and the Department of Education to discuss the proposed move.
The official proposal came on January 26, 2024, and this time deployed stronger language about the amount of available room within the current West 105th Street building.
“This proposed re-siting will allow both schools to meet demand, continue to grow, and have access to the space they need to serve all of their students,” the proposal read. It also stated that both West Prep Academy and P.S. 145 “do not have the full complement of instructional, specialty, and/or administrative spaces they are entitled to based on current enrollment and programming.”
West Prep Academy parents are scheduled to meet Superintendent Samuels on Friday, and a joint public hearing on the proposed move will be held in the coming weeks. The Panel for Educational Policy, appointed by city officials, is scheduled to take a final vote on the move at its meeting during the last week of March. The panel has final say on whether a school relocation takes place.
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