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Teachers College Community School Moves to Permanent Home

By Jeff Mays | September 21, 2012 3:49pm

HARLEM — After years of negotiation with the community, a public school affiliated with Columbia University has moved into its permanent home.

The Teachers College Community School, a school for students from Kindergarten through eighth grade, held a ribbon cutting Thursday to mark the opening of its facility inside the former home of the shuttered St. Joseph of the Holy Family School at 126th Street and Morningside Avenue. The school had been temporarily housed in East Harlem.

For many, the opening brought a positive end to years of sparring between neighbors and the Department of Education-Columbia partnership, as both sides disagreed on the scope of the school and whether it should be open to immediate neighbors or a larger section of the community.

Founding principal Jeanene Worrell-Breeden gently hinted at the past friction during Thursday's ceremony.

"Our children are from this community. We are truly a community school," Worrell-Breeden said, adding, "We are not a charter school. It was important for Teachers College to say you can have a good public school and you don't have to reinvent the wheel."

The school was conceived as part of Columbia University's $150 million community benefits agreement in conjunction with the school's plans to extend its campus 17 acres into Harlem.

Along the way, residents fought organizers with Columbia and the Department of Education as they tried to limit the school to the fifth grade and to kids from Community School District 5. There was also a plan to offer only half-day Pre-K.

Eventually, the DOE, Teachers College and community officials agreed that the school would go through the eighth grade as originally planned and accept students from both Community School Districts 5 and 6.

The school now has 125 students in Pre-K, kindergarten and the first grade, and will grow by one grade per year. Teachers College Community School is non-selective and kids are admitted by lottery.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott hailed the school as a boon to the neighborhood.

"I want to offer up as many choices as possible to parents," Walcott said Thursday.

Parents and community members said Thursday that they were happy with the school's current mission, adding that they wished they could have skipped the conflict that preceded it.

"Most of the struggle and conflict to get us to this point could have been avoided and that time and energy could have been spent creating a national and innovative educational model," said Community Board 9 member Vicky Gholson who was involved with the negotiations.

Although issues remain to be resolved, "we have turned the corner," added Gholson.

The school model seeks to integrate academic and non-academic support services, including early childhood education, family engagement and afterschool programming. The school will also serve as a development site for educators-in-training as well as experienced teachers and administrators.

Teachers College officials want the school to serve as a model that can be duplicated both on the local and national levels.

"Can you imagine the improvement we'd see in public education in America if universities worked closely with public schools," said Susan Fuhrman, president of Teachers College.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who attended Thursday's ribbon cutting, agreed, calling the school a "great opportunity" and part of an ongoing effort to repair and strengthen the university's relationship with Harlem.

"I'm so happy we stayed the course and worked hard," said Rev. Georgette Morgan-Thomas, chair of community Board 9. "We listened and heard and they listened and hear and we got to today."

During a welcoming ceremony Thursday dozens of first graders waved nervously to their parents as they sang "What a Wonderful World." In the audience, parents dabbed at the corners of their eyes with tissues.

"This school is going to be a great collaboration with all the available resources," said Diane Tinsley, who 6-year-old son Xander is in the first-grade.

"It was the name that attracted me initially but the focus on high quality education is what drew me in," said Tinsley.

Some classrooms in the school were still under construction and scaffolding covered some parts of the building. Some parents also expressed concern about the backyard play area being completed just in time for school.

But for Mike Parker, a photographer and Rachelle Davenport, a research analyst, the school seems like a perfect fit for their daughter Najah, 5, who is in kindergarten.

The family applied to dozens of private and charter schools in a process Davenport described as "hectic and stressful" before settling on Teachers College Community School. They heard about some of the earlier concerns and lived through the transition to a new school building.

"Now, everything seems to be moving in the right direction," said Parker.