DOE wants West Side High to swap sites with foundation-backed East Harlem school
MANHATTAN — The public-school lifeline that saved Shauna O’Brien could soon disappear in a cross-town move.
O’Brien, now 22, attended half a dozen high schools before she found one that would support her through graduation and into college.
Navigating the foster-care system, extreme poverty and her mother’s immigration and disability struggles, she was 17 when she heard about Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School from a teacher who used to work there.
The school’s guidance counselors did what no others had—they sorted through her transcripts and mapped out a plan to get her the credits she needed to graduate. She had more than she realized, yet O’Brien—who became pregnant while attending West Side— would still need to be in school for an additional four years.
West Side is a transfer school, designated by the city Department of Education to accept and support students who are not thriving academically, socially or emotionally. More than 40% receive special-education services.
In particular, transfer schools are designed to serve high-school students who fall so far behind that they may never be able to graduate.
For students such as O’Brien, the suite of services West Side has offered from its specially designed West 102nd Street building—equipped with a gym big enough for Public School Athletic League play, a working kitchen for cooking classes, a health clinic, a childcare center and a youth employment program—can be transformative.
“There was one time when we had been kicked out of the shelter,” she told the NYCity News Service. “All of my belongings were thrown away. And the social worker…she was able to go to Target with me and I was able to get some clothes and hygiene items…stuff like that…Who wants to go to school if you’re wearing the same clothes?”
O’Brien, a mother of two daughters, is studying at Hostos Community College, with the goal of working in early childhood education.
“I would love to come back and work with LYFE as a teacher,” she said, referring to the DOE’s Living for the Young Family Through Education daycare centers, which include the one housed at West Side.
The school’s particular brand of wrap-around support is at risk now, staffers, advocates, parents and elected officials say. The DOE wants the school to swap buildings with the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem on East 106th Street. The city says the Women’s Leadership School needs more space and that West Side can operate in the smaller East Harlem building.
The 23-member Panel for Educational Policy, which includes 13 mayoral appointees who routinely approve DOE proposals on building use, is expected to vote on the plan Monday night.
Opponents of the switch say the East Harlem site, an office building that has other tenants, can’t offer West Side students, among the system’s most vulnerable, the direct services offered in their current building.
“I have visited the proposed new building,” one West Side teacher said at a DOE public hearing on April 4. “Everything is smaller…The cafeteria is small, the ceilings are low, the hallways are narrow. The gym is a quarter size, obviously not conducive for former PSAL high-school champions. There are no security cameras, many blind stairways. It is not laid out in a way that will allow us to ensure our students’ safety.”
In a letter to schools Chancellor David Banks, Council Member Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan) said that improving conditions for the East Harlem leadership school—to which she allocated funds when she was borough president—should not come at the expense of the transfer school students: “If the TYWLS building is not adequate to meet the needs of its current student population, then it cannot be adequate for the students now at West Side High School.”
The missions of the two schools differ in several ways, including the age of the students they serve. West Side students include young adults in their early 20s. The Young Women’s Leadership School is a college prep for middle- and high-school-age girls.
Some West Side supporters question whether the Andrew H. and Ann R. Tisch Foundation’s support for the Young Women’s Leadership School, its backing of the Eagle Academy Foundation led by Banks until he was appointed by Mayor Eric Adams in 2022 and its working relationships with both city officials—is playing a role in the DOE’s plans.
We saw @DOEChancellor and were able to hand deliver our letters! We await your reply, Chancellor Banks. We don't need a lobbyist, we have people power! #SaveEARWestSide pic.twitter.com/7XGsAwf4ja
— E.A.R. West Side HS – unofficial (@earwshs) April 18, 2023
Many students and alumni say they feel a deep connection to West Side, as a community and a location.
Playwright, author and performer Lester Mayers, who graduated from SUNY New Platz in 2019 and went on to obtain a graduate degree in poetics from Colorado’s Naropa University, recently presented his “Save Westside!” poem describing his experience at the school and what he thinks is at stake. It ends this way:
You see, it is a place to reimagine ourselves, to be young & safe during the middle passage of adolescence.
Take away West Side, remove us from that Building; & you diminish a community.
An “optics thing that must be discussed”
The East Harlem leadership school opened in 1996, launched as a DOE partnership with the philanthropists Ann and Andrew Tisch, co-chairman of the Loews Corporation conglomerate founded by his family. There are now six of the all-girls Student Leadership Network schools in the city. The network received $7 million from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott last year.
Tax filings show that from 2006 to 2018, the Tisch foundation gave nearly $50,000 to the Eagle Academy Foundation, where Banks was founder and then president and CEO.
The mayor’s press office referred a News Service inquiry about Banks and the foundations to the DOE.
“The chancellor has no current relationship with the Eagle Foundation, and the Eagle Foundation has no connection to this proposal,” Nathaniel Styer, a DOE spokesman, said in an email.
In 2015, the Tisch foundation gifted over $1 million to the Student Leadership Network and $10,000 to the nonprofit New Visions for Public Schools, which supports the East Harlem leadership academy. In 2022, the Student Leadership Network paid Kasirer LLC $10,000 to lobby Banks and four other city officials and council members, according to the Office of the City Clerk.
This school year, Banks and Adams each spoke at network events.
We have to keep fighting so women never have to take a second seat to any man, in any space. @DOEChancellor #WomensHistoryMonth #womenleaders @StudentLeadNet pic.twitter.com/r909XiM9Qf
— Dr. Allison Persad (@apersad) March 17, 2023
Ann Tisch declined a News Service request for comment but cited the Student Leadership Network’s response to a letter from the Save West Side Coalition: “We are optimistic that the New York City public schools will address all concerns and find a mutually beneficial solution for both of our school communities.”
Vanessa Leung, a Staten Island parent and a former Panel for Education Policy chair who was an appointee of Mayor Bill de Blasio, said she would want questions about financial connections between Eagle Academy and the Tisch foundation answered before a vote—even if that meant asking for a delay.
“I’d want to make sure there was a clearing of the air of even the potential of impropriety,” she said, calling the history of donations an “optics thing that must be discussed.”
She said she doesn’t recall any school re-siting that involved evicting one school and replacing it with another during her tenure. When a building move was considered, she said, she focused on what would continue to be available to students.
“If there is a difference, is that an equivalent?” she recalled asking. “Or is there a kind of different access, different availability of these resources for those students?”
A place to feel safe
For five decades, West Side has been a haven for many students. Now, like schools across the city, its enrollment is down. Systemwide, it has dropped nearly 10% since the start of the pandemic. The 10 largest of the city’s 50 transfer schools have smaller student bodies, collectively serving 22% fewer students. West Side’s enrollment, now 239, according to the DOE, is down 37% since the 2019-20 school year.
“The pandemic really impacted the transfer schools very significantly,” said Paul Rotondo, former superintendent of transfer schools. He expects enrollment to rise as students who left school for jobs return to transfer schools to restart their education.
Elected officials—including Brewer and fellow Manhattan council Democrats Diana Ayala, Kristin Richardson Jordan and Shaun Abreu; Democratic state senators Robert Jackson and Cordell Cleare, and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams—have asked Banks to allow West Side to stay in its home, help the transfer school rebuild its enrollment, and find an alternative space for the leadership school.
At the April 4 DOE hearing, all of the dozens of speakers opposed the building swap.
West Side students talked about their school as a place where staff and classmates treat them as family, with love and respect. They dread a move to an office building a mile and a half away, a site with no direct subway connection to the Frederick Douglass Houses, where many students live.
“Why break up a happy home?” one student asked.
Students are begging to stay in their schools. @DOEChancellor do you hear them? @NYCMayor do you hear them? #WestSideStays #SaveEARWestSide pic.twitter.com/nT4HEb0BYK
— E.A.R. West Side HS – unofficial (@earwshs) April 17, 2023
Jean McTavish, who led the school for 16 years and taught there under its namesake founding principal Edward A. Reynolds, said West Side’s current building was designed specifically for its students’ needs.
“There’s all kinds of reasons that the kids need extra support and the building has spaces for that support to take place,” she told the News Service. “What is of most concern in this move is that it’s like dismembering the system. It’s taking the arms and legs.”
The city contends that few students now are served by the daycare center and they can bring their children to alternate sites after the swap. However, McTavish said she is confident that any rise in enrollment would bring more young parents who will want to have their babies close at hand.
West Side students, parents and teachers, including Joel Solow, demonstrate in March.
Many students said they would not feel safe going to school on the East Side, where they would not be recognized as belonging to the neighborhood. Young mothers, in particular, said they would be loathe to leave their child in a center far from their school. Those who have experienced a lot of trauma feel a heightened urgency about their children’s safety, McTavish said.
“They’ll say, ‘I’m not leaving my child with anybody. Like nobody. I don’t trust anybody to take care of my baby. I would rather drop out of school than leave it with strangers in a daycare center that’s not near me.’ I’ve heard that many times.”
At a West Side school community meeting on April 24, one student said she will soon need the in-house childcare support.
“I’m currently pregnant…” she said. “And since I’m going to be here for three years…just be here with my baby and do school at the same time. So how am I supposed to do that in a new school?”
Similarly, in place of West Side’s on-site clinic, the DOE has said it will build a relationship with Mount Sinai Hospital for student health care.
In public testimony and interviews, teachers and staff say that will be inadequate.
“Just because you tell our kids they can go to a clinic ten blocks away,” said Sarah Frank, a special-ed teacher at West Side for more than a decade, “it’s not at all the same thing as being able to be walked to the clinic…in your building,” She calls this a “soft handoff.”
Dr. Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine’s appointee to the Panel for Education Policy, agrees that the leadership school’s current site “is not conducive for growth.” But she also said the “building is also not right for West Side.”
Salas-Ramirez has discussed alternative sites with the DOE, including charter and Catholic schools that are closing.
“We know that there are options now,” she said, adding that she hopes the city will decide to pull the swap proposal from Monday’s meeting and focus on finding a different site for the East Harlem leadership school.
“I’ve tried to look at this from all angles,” Salas-Ramirez said. “But I’ve really come to a place where I just can’t approve this proposal.”