Schoolhouse Shuffle

Sharing is as fundamental to the early elementary school curriculum as the alphabet or counting, part of the social arithmetic of coexistence. In many New York City public schools, sharing is a lesson for principals and administrators too. On co-located campuses, one building might house as many as six separate educational institutions. These arrangements — in hundreds of school buildings — are the result of almost two decades of transformations in the New York City school system. In the early 2000s, Mayor Michael Bloomberg began closing, shrinking, or breaking up “underperforming” and under-enrolled public schools, while increasing the number of privately-run charter schools. New charters often move in with an existing, downsized district school. Sometimes multiple schools move into a building retrofitted for the purpose — a historic spice factory or, in one case below, the former offices of an after-market trading firm.

What do these policies mean for an individual building, institution, or student? When schools with different resources, philosophies, and student bodies share a building, what young children see can shape their understanding of the city and society at large. But on a day-to-day basis, coexistence means managing cafeterias, custodians, security protocols, and gym space. Who fits through the doors, who gets recess when and where, who is loud in the hallways? The Department of Education has guidelines for scheduling and sharing resources, and co-located campuses have building councils and designated coordinators to work out the details. Every building is different, and in every case, there are more than two sides to the story. We sent A+A+A and Gail Robinson to three school campuses to see how educators and administrators manage the complex dance of colocation.

800 Gates Avenue

A district middle school, a charter middle school, and a charter elementary school all share a four-story brick building in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Each school occupies its own floor of the building, but all three share the schoolyard, cafeteria, gym, and auditorium.

Compromise and taking turns using common spaces are key to fitting each schools’ needs into a limited footprint. Entrance and lunch times are staggered. Bedford-Stuyvesant Collegiate Charter holds gym class in the auditorium.

"I just think that this building is too big for one school. I don’t mind sharing, I like sharing." – Dr. Patricia King

In 2008, La Cima Charter School and Bedford-Stuyvesant Collegiate School (BSC) moved into a district school building at 800 Gates Avenue after MS 267, the original school there, was downsized by the City’s Department of Education. The change was difficult for MS 267. According to Dr. Patricia King, its principal, the charter schools’ model “wasn’t one of collaboration — it was a competition. The charters didn’t come to integrate, they actually came to displace.” This dynamic didn’t shift until the arrival of a new principal at BSC, who brought with him a new model of collaboration. “When you have leaders who are really open and willing to embrace the opportunities that co-location present, then it can yield some beautiful collaborations,” says Jeanne-Marie Hendershot, Senior Director of External Affairs for Uncommon Schools, who manages BSC’s co-location relationship.

The three schools co-designed a schoolyard they all share. Every year, they jointly host “Spring in the Stuy,” a block party with local bands and artists that brings together students and families from all three schools. Teachers from the two middle schools observe each other’s classes and discuss strategies they may borrow and implement. “Whenever teachers come together and collaborate, they automatically grow,” says Dr. King. She hopes that, in the future, the students will be more actively integrated: “We want to get away from separate . . . this is one place of learning.”

26 Broadway

The 31-story Standard Oil Building, a landmarked office tower in Manhattan’s Financial District, also houses two high schools and a middle school on the second through seventh floors, along with a charter middle school on the twelfth floor.

The building’s landlord doesn’t allow students in the main lobby, so for the last year, three of the schools have shared a single entrance and four-elevator bank at the rear of the building. Only six kids can fit in an elevator at one time, and the elevators frequently break down. The schools staggered their start times to alleviate congestion, with protocols for who can get on the elevator and when.

Students from the Charter School of the Arts wait with a teacher in the vestibule at the rear entrance until their entry time begins at 8:15 a.m. Students from Urban Assembly School of Business line up to check in with school security and wait for elevators. Students from Lower Manhattan Community Middle School who arrive late are able to jump to the head of the line.

"While it may not feel like there is enough space to go around, there is always a schedule to be made. There are always ways to structure one’s day." – Jamie Davidson

When Jamie Davidson, Founding Principal of the New York City Charter School of the Arts (CSA), signed a lease in 2018, she had no idea CSA would be moving in with three other schools. The other schools were blindsided, too. Lower Manhattan Community Middle School (LMC) and Urban Assembly School of Business were already struggling with congestion and maintenance of their elevators. “We’ve been dealing with nine years of them breaking down constantly . . . so I kind of lost it,” says Kelly McGuire, Principal of LMC. To address the issue, the schools put a system in place to stagger arrival times. “The kids know who’s entitled to go first. There are norms we taught explicitly in the beginning of the year . . . we didn’t have to explain it twice,” says Davidson.

CSA invested in fixing a freight elevator that now provides a separate entrance for the school. But elevators are not the only point of friction. In one instance, one of the schools put up a large sign on a shared wall without consulting anyone. In another, LMC’s parent-teacher association wanted to install a flag on the building’s exterior at a cost of $20,000. Since LMC’s student body and PTA are more affluent than their neighbors, McGuire tried to get a fairer price so that the schools could split the cost evenly and each have a flag representing them. He ultimately opted out of the project: “I can’t just put up a flag outside that says ‘Lower Manhattan Community’ when there are two other schools here.”

411 Pearl Street

Since 2014, four high schools have shared a five-story, triangular building at 411 Pearl Street, sandwiched between the Brooklyn Bridge and NYC police headquarters in lower Manhattan. Developed in conjunction with a 32-story former telephone switching center, it was built by the Educational Construction Fund in 1977.

For the most part, each school occupies its own floor of the triangular building. A central core houses the cafeteria, library, gym, and auditorium shared by all four schools.

Students from each of the schools use many different parts of the building over the course of a day. The top-floor gym is divided in half by a plywood wall so that two schools can have class at the same time. Students from all four schools have separate science labs along one wing of the third floor and share the central library in the core, while Manhattan Early College School for Advertising classrooms occupy the rest of the floor. Lunch starts as early as 10:45 a.m. so that each school has a turn in the second-floor cafeteria. All schools use the auditorium by reservation. Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management’s classrooms, on the cellar level, have no windows.

“For a new school, I wanted to have my own little area that was mine.” – Luke Bauer

In the fall of 2014, three high schools moved in with a radically downsized Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers at 411 Pearl Street. Without even visiting the site, the incoming schools chose their spaces by working from the building’s original blueprints. Principal Luke Bauer of Urban Assembly Maker Academy selected the fourth floor because, at least initially, it would not be shared. “We were much more territorial in the first couple of years,” Bauer explains.

Maker Academy now shares the fourth floor with Manhattan Early College School for Advertising. The schools have different passing times and bell schedules, and there have been noise complaints as students from one school move between periods while the other school is still holding class. But so long as “we’re being respectful and not socializing too loudly,” Bauer thinks the situation is manageable.

The schools use separate entrances, but “we probably don’t need to do that anymore,” Bauer says. “That was just one of our silly ideas early on — that we needed to be separate, not close to each other.” Students from all four schools share the library and partake in after-school activities and sports programs together. All the same, another school administrator suggests that every principal would rather have their own building, which provides flexibility that can’t be found in a shared campus.

A+A+A is a design studio and consultancy led by Andrea Chiney, Arianna Deane and Ashely Kuo. As a collaborative practice, the studio focuses on community driven processes that yield creative solutions for the built environment.

Gail Robinson is a freelance writer focusing on policy and politics, particularly as they relate to public education. She is also and an adjunct lecturer at Baruch College. Her work has appeared in Inside SchoolsCity Limits, Hechinger ReportThe Carnegie Reporter among other publications.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.