Girls Prep charter wants more space, but doesn’t want a fight

In the tug-of-war between charter school advocates and opponents over building space for the city’s charter schools, emotions frequently churn and bubble over; protests and shouting matches are not unheard of. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, a team of district and charter school administrators who share a Lower East Side building said today.

Gearing up for a community meeting tonight about space issues in Manhattan’s District 1 that will feature their own building, administrators said they want to emphasize the need for a neighborly conversation.

“I’m not going to say it’s easy,” said Mary Pree, the principal of P.S. 188, which shares space with another district school and the Girls Prep Charter School. “Everyone would always like 10 extra classrooms.”

But Pree emphasized that her school’s relationship with the two schools is vibrant, and that the schools are working to develop even stronger connections between the parent associations at the school. “We’re a place where this collaboration is working,” she said.

Girls Prep is requesting more space in the district to expand its middle school program. The middle school launched this August with one fifth-grade class of 25 students.

While the school’s request is not specifically on tonight’s agenda, Girls Prep administrators said they wanted to take the opportunity to spread information about their needs and plans for more space.

“We’re going to explain our plans for expansion and parents will speak to how much we want to be part of this neighborhood,” said Girls Prep founder and Executive Director Miriam Raccah.

The school is requesting space not in the current building they share with P.S. 188 and P.S. 94, a special-needs school for students with autism, but rather elsewhere in the district, school administrators said.

The school had to turn away 50 fifth-grade students this year for lack of space, administrators said. And Raccah pointed out that next year, as 50 current fourth-graders graduate into the middle school program, the need for space will intensify.

“Space is a challenge. It is the challenge,” said Girls Prep middle school principal Kimberly Morcate. “It affects instruction. It affects how we can get the girls to focus.”

The middle school occupies one room of the third floor wing of the building that Girls Prep shares with the two other schools. The elementary school classes and an administrative office take up the rest of the wing, as well as a portion of the second floor of the building.

Today, Morcate led half of the fifth-grade class in a discussion of how to draw conclusions from inferences in a reading passage. The rest of the class was divided into two smaller groups, who worked on practice worksheets in circles on the floor of the school’s yoga classroom around the corner.

The class breaks into small groups like this every Wednesday, but Morcate and teachers said that usually the yoga room is used by the elementary school students. On those days, the students break into small groups at tables tucked into corners of the hallways.

The single classroom must fill the functions of an entire school for the fifth-graders in it. Desks are gathered towards the front of the room, to make room for a “library” area fitted with a couch and bookshelves in the back. All four of the middle school teachers share desk space in the back of the classroom as well.

Girls Prep administrators and teachers said that they wanted the middle school program to stay in the Lower East Side. Fourth grade teacher Elizabeth Ballard said that when she visited families of children slated to move to middle school next year, a main concerns was that the school would have to move out of the neighborhood. Just under half of the school’s students live in District 1.

Girls Prep teachers and administrators said they wanted to highlight the school’s relationship with the community at the meeting tonight.

Pree said that she also planned to attend tonight’s meeting, to emphasize that there are civil and productive ways that schools can share space together.

“I want these kids to look back and say, ‘I now that diverse communities, with sometimes conflicting needs, can work together well,’” Pree said. “And I want them to say, ‘I know that because I lived that.’”