UPPER WEST SIDE, Manhattan (PIX11) — After nearly seven hours of hearing input from the public and education officials, a city board decided to proceed with a controversial plan to move one of the country’s premier public high schools for at-risk students out of the Upper West Side location it has occupied for decades.
By a vote of 12 in favor, nine against, one abstention, and one absence, the city’s Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) decided around midnight Tuesday morning to approve the New York City Department of Education’s proposal for a school building swap. It will move the Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School to a building on the east side of Manhattan, in East Harlem.
The DOE plan will place West Side High in a building currently occupied by The Young Women’s Leadership School (TYWLS), a public school that’s part of a network of schools founded and funded in part by billionaire benefactors Ann and Andrew Tisch. TYWLS will be relocated to the building occupied by West Side High on the Upper West Side.
The building on 102nd Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, was custom-built in the 1980s to meet the needs of West Side High. The school serves a student population that’s at a greater risk of not completing high school, including teen mothers, former dropouts, and people with undiagnosed emotional and mental issues, among other students.
Over the years, it has hosted tours for former first lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, and other supporters of schools for at-risk students. The facility has a child care center, a health clinic, a state-of-the-art gym, a student-run catering program and more student-focused facilities, all located on site.
The building to which West Side High must now move does not have any of those facilities within it.
The school has been at its Upper West Side location for most of the last 51 years, first in a formerly abandoned school building that was revitalized. That building was razed to make way in the mid-1980s for the custom-built facility that West Side High now occupies.
The vote came at the end of an online PEP meeting, during which more than 100 people — both for and against the school location swap — spoke, followed by comments from each of the PEP members expressing their feelings about the proposed change. A large majority of speakers urged the panel to vote against the school swap.
Almost all of the people who testified at the Monday night hearing called for West Side High and TYWLS to not swap locations. Some of the speakers, including City Councilmember and former Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, pointed out that a school building which currently houses the Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, is becoming available.
It’s located between the two schools, in central Harlem, and is set to close at the end of this academic year, due to low enrollment. A variety of people are joining with Brewer in the call to have TYWLS relocate to the Harlem Hebrew Academy building.
“It has the room. [They] could move in tomorrow,” Brewer said in an interview. “But the Department of Education will not do it.”
Councilmember Brewer said that she’s part of efforts to figure out next steps that could prevent West Side High from having to relocate. Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, a professor of medicine at City College and member of PEP who voted against the proposal to move West Side High, spoke with PIX11 News about action on the issue, going forward.
Asked specifically if legal action could be a potential next step, Salas-Ramirez replied, “Absolutely. 1,000 percent. It’s happened before. There’s a precedent for that.”
For its part, the DOE issued a statement on Tuesday evening:
“New York City Public Schools is committed to serving all students, and we take pride in engaging with communities to make sure every member of our school communities is seen and heard. The recent PEP meeting allowed us the opportunity to hear personal anecdotes on safety and resources that will be taken into account as planning begins to make this change successful for everyone. We are grateful to the PEP for seeing the vision that we have for West Side High School and The Young Women’s Leadership Academy, and for standing alongside us as we work to provide more [of] our city’s children with the education and supports best tailored to their needs.”
A DOE source also indicated that the Harlem Hebrew Academy building may need some upgrades that would not make it possible for it to serve as a home to TYWLS, or any school, by the beginning of the 2023 – 2024 academic year.
The Harlem Hebrew Academy building was built in 2013, and was recently renovated by the charter network that founded it.