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From the one-room schoolhouse to the neo-gothic university hall, we correlate schools with their buildings; but in New York City, that association is becoming undone. Over the last two decades, policies that break up bigger schools into smaller ones and locate myriad schools in one building have transformed the educational landscape. Often, privately-run charters with different resources, rules, and student populations are placed alongside traditional district schools that have to learn to make do with less. Geographer Caroline Loomis has been working with children, parents, and teachers in New York City schools to learn what this co-location means for them. Sharing school space is not just a logistical issue: rearrangements of people and resources mirror the neighborhood transformations of a highly unequal and segregated city. What are proximity and juxtaposition teaching young students about themselves and the city?
A decade ago, walking through the halls of a small, cinderblock-walled elementary school in New York City, I rounded a corner and encountered a line of children wearing unfamiliar blue uniforms, queued up by a fire door. Another line of children the same age, but without uniforms — students in the district public school — passed nearby, re-routed to another hallway.
The district school was an under-resourced but largely beloved neighborhood institution, primarily attended by children from the local housing projects. I’d been collaborating with the school for a number of years; after a summer away, the sight of these uniformed students came as a surprise. There behind the fire door, nestled in the stretch of hallway leading to the school library, was now a charter school. I wondered what to make of this new arrangement, curious about how the separate groups of children saw one another.
Co-location, or the practice of siting multiple schools in one building, was a minor part of New York City’s educational landscape until the early 2000s. The practice gained traction as Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein promoted the breakup of large high schools into smaller academies, and the unrolling of new charter schools. These trends echoed school reforms taking place across the country under the banner of “school choice” — the market-driven logic dictating that competition will improve schooling. Over the past 15 years, co-location has become commonplace in New York City, though parents and educators have also contested co-location proposals across the city, calling attention to potential sources of crowding and drains on neighborhood public school resources. While still most prevalent here in New York, co-location has spread to other cities large and small, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C., Newark, NJ, and Santa Rosa, CA. Co-location is not exclusive to charter schools, but the co-location of charter schools (public-private institutions) in public school buildings presents a spatially compressed version of a story playing out across the country.
While some school buildings have been constructed or renovated with multiple schools in mind, in New York City the process of co-location typically involves splitting up an existing school building designed to house one larger neighborhood school. When larger high schools deemed as failing were replaced with small public high schools aiming to offer more personalized education, large buildings were divided up and repurposed at minimal cost to the city. Meanwhile, broad underfunding of public education and racial and class segregation citywide have coupled to leave many elementary and middle schools struggling and facing declining enrollments. Wealthier, largely white neighborhoods make up for this disinvestment with extensive parent fundraising, resulting in a vastly uneven landscape of resources. Rather than see lower enrollment in certain neighborhood schools as a signal of a need for more investment and resources, or for school integration, the Department of Education (DOE) assesses it as underutilization of the building and an opening for the siting of another school.
In order to assess what it calls “building underutilization,” the DOE uses a rubric allowing a certain number of classrooms, rooms for special services, and offices based on the size of the school. For example, an elementary school with three sections (classes) per grade is allowed a total of two resource rooms for tutoring or other assistance. When the administration decides a school building is underutilized, it offers space on site to charters or small (recently formed) public schools. These buildings accommodate multiple schools through a series of space-time partitions: schools separated onto different floors or different ends of a hallway, with common spaces such as the gym and cafeteria parsed out across days or hours. Children pass one another in the hallways and watch each other playing on the playground. Co-location redefines what we mean when we say “school.” Though we’ve long used the term to refer to both the institution and the building itself — from one-room schoolhouses to New York City’s imposing, early twentieth century campuses — with co-location, that synonymy has been disrupted.
Once co-located, the often stark differences between schools lend themselves to comparative analysis, and journalists and researchers have tended to focus on questions of demographic differences and comparative test scores. The only peer-reviewed study considering the impacts of co-location focused largely on metrics, finding that traditional public schools co-located with charter schools saw improved test scores and rates of promotion to the next grade. 
Promotions and test scores are one way to measure children’s learning. But what does the spatial form of children’s schooling teach them about themselves, others, and the world in which they live? As geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, “edges are also interfaces.”  A partition between schools establishes separation while also creating relationships and making them visible. What kinds of relationships and interactions does co-location generate, especially between charter or magnet schools and district public schools? As “school choice” reshapes the school building itself, how do co-located children understand themselves and one another? How does this learning fit into their understanding of the segregated, economically polarized, and gentrifying city at large?
As a geographer, I have been conducting interviews and focus groups with parents, teachers, and students in co-located schools to understand how they experience co-location. I spent four months doing on-the-ground observation in a co-located district public elementary school which I will call “PS 999,” conducting mapmaking exercises and walking interviews with children there, as well as with children who attend the charter school that shares the building, which I will call “Neighbors Charter School (NCS).” Both schools have been given pseudonyms, all participants have been anonymized, and identifying features have been changed.
The aspects of co-located schools that have gotten the most public attention are the logistics involved in operating them. The noise of groups of students passing one another fills the halls and echoes into classrooms, drowning out the sound of a child reading aloud, forcing the teacher to pause a lesson. Lunch spans a wide range of hours. At PS 999, I ate with the class; even with my adult metabolism, holding out between breakfast before school and lunch at 1pm left me distracted and dreaming of food well before we lined up to leave the classroom. In the same building, the administrative office of the district public school fielded regular questions, phone calls, lost items, and deliveries for the charter school upstairs, demonstrating the small ways that co-location can invisibly tax already under-resourced public institutions.
When charter and magnet schools are co-located with disinvested neighborhood elementary schools, the disparities in resources can be glaring. Furniture and rugs, signage, smart boards and new computers are all highly visible indicators of differences between institutions. The differences in student populations — along lines of class, race, and disability — can also be readily apparent. Charter and magnet schools have long been criticized for serving more limited groups of students by “creaming” (serving children whose families can invest the time and energy of navigating school search, lottery, and enrollment processes) and “cropping” (failing to serve students with the highest needs such as English Language Learners and special education students, and pushing out other students for behavioral reasons).
Researchers have shown that students perceive the structural, pervasive inequalities impacting their schools once they reach the high school level. However, in my experience, the disparities between co-located institutions can present such a stark contrast that children as young as early elementary school age may perceive the differences and wonder about them. These perceptions inform their sense of how the world works and their place in it.
I’ve heard children and adults in both public and charter schools describe racial segregation and economic disparities between co-located schools, and differences in disciplinary styles and school norms, such as how children are expected to behave in the hallways, and whether teachers yell. In a pilot study at another charter elementary school co-located with a longstanding district public school, I asked children in kindergarten through second grade to draw maps of their school building and playground and, afterwards, to add emotion stickers (smiles, frowns, etc.) to the maps. Working in pairs, they talked as they drew, and their words and images told stories of the “bad” public school children: profane gestures, swear words glimpsed on a bulletin board, hairstyles and hair extensions with negatively-viewed class connotations. Several students added frowny-face stickers to the areas allotted to the other school, speaking directly to perceived differences and their own value judgments.
A similar dynamic exists at PS 999, a primarily Black and lower-income neighborhood public school co-located with NCS, a multi-racial and largely middle- and upper-middle-class charter school. The two schools share a large public school building in a lower-income area of an economically polarized neighborhood. Once, walking through a hallway with a group of public school students, we passed a group of charter school children coming down the stairs. One of the girls walking with me spotted a friend from the neighborhood and called out to tease him: “Why are you hanging out with all the white kids?” PS 999 children told me they felt jealous of the resources available to NCS. Meanwhile, a charter school student described strict discipline and yelling from teachers in the public school, expressing how she’d feel at a total loss if she were enrolled there. Children saw and internalized the disparities around them: One PS 999 administrator recalled receiving extra funding to hold a drumming class, and when a drummer arrived at their hallway carrying his instrument, one of the public school students told him “the charter school is upstairs.” When I asked this administrator what she thought co-location taught the public school students, she told me, “what they learn is where they belong” — where they’re allowed to be, and what they get to have.
Issues of belonging, segregation, and access to unevenly distributed resources extend beyond the school into the neighborhood and the city as a whole. Several parents and staff whom I interviewed compared co-location to housing, using the metaphor of an apartment building. “My home is co-located,” one apartment-dwelling adult said, and others likened co-location to learning to live amicably with neighbors. While this metaphor suggests co-location as workable and unremarkable for city residents — as educators across the city strive to make it work each day — the relationship isn’t so simple. Adults in both charter and public schools talked about co-location as an “invasion” or “colonization.” When the DOE was considering co-location in the building, a teacher at PS 999 described papering over the doors of a sparsely furnished dance room so that the room wouldn’t be assessed as underutilized space and taken away. Meanwhile, parents at NCS described rooms like this as “empty,” identifying them as a wasted public resource ripe for reallocation.
There are current efforts to encourage co-located schools to work together towards smoother uses of shared space. But how can schools achieve real collaboration — a relationship between equals — when they often have differing access to resources, differently valued student bodies, and distinct trajectories in a vastly unequal city? The space of the school is inseparable from the city’s broader geographies of power and partition: who has access to what space, who benefits and who is displaced, and what spaces and institutions are gutted or shuttered while others expand and thrive.
Sentiments around schooling are complex, varied, and personal. Families I’ve talked to have expressed love, a sense of strong community, and deep appreciation for their schools, whether they be charter, district public, or magnet. They’ve switched schools for their children when one felt like a bad match, and within the framework of school choice and the gutting of public education, they consistently describe efforts to do the best for their children. Yet these families are being asked to navigate an inequitable school system, in which large numbers of students will always lose. In other words, school choice cannot save students from a citywide baseline of educational inequity.
Co-location is a spatial manifestation of the logic of school choice. Beyond a lesson in sharing, co-located schools reflect existing disparities and make them more visible, even to younger children. An inequitable system of education is a disservice to all children, whether they attend a coveted school or an under-resourced one. What students see and say about co-location shines a bright light on the impacts that segregation and resource disparities have on education, and on the need for a more just model as part of producing a more equitable and integrated city. The answer is not to hide the disparities between institutions, but to address them — because whether lived up close or seen from a distance, the inequitable context of schooling shapes children’s learning and lives.
Sarah A. Cordes, “In Pursuit of the Common Good: The Spillover Effects of Charter Schools on Public School Students in New York City,” Education Finance and Policy 13, no. 4 (September 2018): 484-512.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2017).
Michelle Fine, April Burns, Yasser A. Payne and Maria E. Torre, “Civics Lesson: The Color and Class of Betrayal,” Teachers College Record, 106, no. 11: 2193-2223.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.