By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — When the Choir Academy of Harlem was removed from the Department of Education's list of failing schools to be closed last year, Principal A. Ellen Parris breathed a sigh of relief.
The East Harlem school had been through a tumultuous several years, following news that the founder of the Harlem Boys Choir, who co-founded the Choir Academy, had covered up charges that a student was sexually abused by a counselor.
Parris thought after the school severed ties with the Harlem Boys Choir, and survived the failing schools ranking, that the city's attempts to close the school down had come to an end.
But the school community now fears the city is trying another tactic in order to eliminate them — by shrinking the amount of space they take up in their school building on Madison Ave. near 127th Street and handing over the rest of the space to the heralded Harlem Children's Zone charter school program.
"Every year we are being phased out in terms of space," said Parris after a Monday night hearing on the issue at the school. "I'm concerned about how we will have the ability to grow. There is no way to run a school with grades six to 12 in just two corridors."
The city Department of Education's Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote Wednesday on a plan to temporarily relocate the fourth-grade class of Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy I to the same floor of the Madison Avenue building where 350 Choir Academy of Harlem students currently take classes.
If the plan is approved, the Harlem Children's Zone's Promise Academy II would also be allowed to add new classes for seventh and eighth graders inside the same building. Kindergarten through sixth-grade students at the Promise Academy II charter school already share space at the Harlem Choir Academy.
A new K-12 school for Promise Academy I is currently being built on the grounds of St. Nicholas Houses. When it is complete (officials estimate late 2012), Promise Academy II would return to serving only K-6 students in the Choir Academy of Harlem building, according to the Department of Education.
Harlem Children's Zone spokesman Marty Lipp defended the move, adding that his school is currently at capacity and has been working with the city's Department of Education for several years to provide adequate space.
In addition, he said, the move was only temporary, and would leave room for the Choir Academy once a new school building opened up.
"The DOE’s plan is temporary and will not prevent Choir Academy from having adequate space for its growth plans. Until our new building is open, we will use our allotted space as creatively and efficiently as possible," Lipp said.
"We consider all of the students in Central Harlem to be "our students," which is why we provide afterschool programs and other services to seven local public schools," Lipp added.
The city's Education Department also defended the plan, saying that the Choir Academy School building is underutilized. The building has a capacity for 1,252 students but is only serving 910 students this year, the DOE said in a statement.
Parents, teachers and administration disagreed with that assessment. They pointed to the fact that the first lunch for students begins at 10:24 a.m. because of space limitations. If the move is approved, Parris said she may have to end the Choir Academy's honors program and SAT preparation courses the school offers its students.
History teacher Joshua Kaplan said he has been moved from his classroom each of the past two years to make room for Promise Academy students. He said the changes are insulting to public school teachers.
"I'm tired of people telling me I'm not doing my job. I'm here until they turn the lights out on me, I'm here on the weekends. The only way they will get me out of my class this time is to take me out in cuffs," said Kaplan.
Amber Harrison, another teacher at the school, said she did not believe the Harlem Children's Zone relocation would be temporary.
"This is an attempt to close our school. When Promise Academy leaves they'll want to bring in another school," she said.
Harlem Choir Academy seventh-grader Bernadetta Sarpong, 12, said she and her classmates were already "crammed onto one floor and can't move around," and added, "I don't know why they are trying to close our school."
But Harlem Children's Zone parent Onilda Acosta, who has a child in Promise Academy I, said she felt as if public school and charter school parents were being pitted against one another and instead needed to work together to get more resources for all students
"We are all from this community. We are not going to get anywhere by fighting one another. We all live on the same blocks," she said. "We have to make the best of the situation."