By Maggie Astor
PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 19, 2007
Since city schools opened this September, Harlem’s P.S. 125 has played host to a Columbia-sponsored public magnet school.
The newly-established Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering began its residency on the fifth floor of the building for its 81 sixth graders, and will expand onto the fourth floor over the next three years. Eventually, the school will encompass grades six through 12, and be located in its own buildings on Columbia’s proposed Manhattanville campus. It plans to remain at P.S. 125 for three years.
The opening marked the culmination of a lengthy controversy over the location of the selective secondary school. Initially, the Department of Education planned to host the school at P.S. 36, which serves students ranging from pre-kindergarten to second grade. That idea was rejected after protests from parents about overcrowding and intermixing young children with much older students.
P.S. 125—also known as the Ralph Bunche School— includes children from kindergarten to fifth grade. It was built to accommodate up to 1,200 students and houses only a few hundred.
While parents at P.S. 36 objected vociferously to the prospect of Columbia Secondary moving in, those at P.S. 125 were more receptive.
“It seems to me that there isn’t an issue right now in terms of overcrowding,” said Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences employee Erika Gaynor, whose son is in third grade at P.S. 125. The building “is a larger space that can in fact accommodate more children,” she said.
As the school year enters its third month, administrators say the arrangement is working better than expected.
Jose Maldonado, principal of the secondary school, added: “The kids don’t interact enough to have real issues. As we grow into the fourth floor there may be more problems, but right now they’re so trivial it’s not even worth talking about.”
The fact that two schools are sharing the building “is not on the radar of most parents and students,” Maldonado said.
“I haven’t seen the difference,” Franklin Rodriguez, whose son is in kindergarten, said.
“I don’t see that many older children mixed in with the younger ones.”
But some parents did remain concerned, voicing fear that the Columbia school might move in permanently.
“I believe it’s going to be a subtle takeover,” P.S. 125 after-school art instructor Margo Braxton said. “I don’t believe they’re going to leave after three years. I think they’re going to take more and more and push us out completely.... There’s too much money involved. There’s no way.”
“We fought tooth and nail” against the P.S. 36 proposal, Braxton said. “Evidently the fight wasn’t strong enough.”
Maldonado insisted the arrangement would be temporary. “The agreement is we will go up to eighth grade,” he said. “There’s no space for us to move beyond that.”
Columbia Secondary has a student body that is roughly 55 percent Hispanic, 15-20 percent African-American, 15 percent white, and 7 percent Asian, according to Maldonado. The core curriculum includes engineering and philosophy, in what Maldonado calls an effort to “develop these kids as whole beings” rather than teaching “basic, rudimentary skills in math and literacy.”
“It’s a diverse and rich curriculum we’re offering these kids,” Maldonado said. “People think middle school kids aren’t ready for that, but we’re taking a completely different approach.”
Maldonado said the space-sharing arrangement benefits everyone involved. “We try to provide everyone with a great education,” he said. “Excellence can be defined in many different ways, and we have different goals, but we can still work together.”
Several P.S. 125 fifth graders said they may attend the Columbia school next year. For now, “We’re very happy being able to share our curriculum,” Maldonado said.