HARLEM — Parents and administrators look at the closed-off space outside P.S. 180's cafeteria, filled with thick brush and weeds, and envision an expansive oasis where kids learn about nature by planting a garden, practicing yoga or relaxing in the sunshine.
"I call it a tranquility zone," said Sylvia Weir, a parent leader at the school
All they need to make that happen is $325,000 — but so far, they've been unable to raise any of the money, in what those close to the 600-student K-8 school say is indicative of their position trapped in the middle of Harlem's school hierarchy.
Unlike their failing school counterparts, P.S. 180 doesn't get the influx of attention and funding from the city that "turnaround" schools do. But school leaders are also unable to tap into the resources commonly found on the other end of the spectrum, the privately-funded charter school networks that draw on hedge-fund and other deep-pocketed backers, advocates said.
"We get passed over because we don't need it that bad. We are achieving with less," said Weir.
"We want someone to say you are doing great and help take us over the top. That doesn't happen because we are competing with schools that are struggling and charter schools with private money."
A recent grant request by P.S. 180 to the City Council was not approved. And although many parents at the school are professionals, they simply don't have the financial wherewithal to fund the project themselves.
While almost 72 percent of students qualify for free lunch, the school also has parents who live in the new condominiums that have sprung up along the rapidly gentrifying Frederick Douglass Boulevard corridor in recent years.
An overall grade of C on its last Department of Education Progress Report is contrasted by the A it received in learning environment and the 93 out of 100 score it received for school performance instruction, management and preparing students for college. The school is well-regarded for its level of parent involvement.
And P.S. 180 isn't the only school voicing similar concerns.
Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts librarian Paul McIntosh, who has fought to keep the school from closing for several years, said he couldn't believe his eyes when he saw how the school's fifth-floor space was renovated after Harlem Success Academy charter school recently moved in.
"It's like the Palace of Versailles. They have carpeted rooms and aesthetically what your eyes see is amazing," said McIntosh. "They have funding to do these things while we are struggling just to keep teachers."
After nine years of writing to get funding to improve the library, McIntosh said he found it odd that the city announced plans for a gut renovation just as Harlem Success took over more of the building.
Nicky Kram Rosen, principal of the Hamilton Heights School, said she feels the same way as the parents at P.S. 180.
When parents wanted an afterschool program, she solicited a grant from the City Council to pay for a theater arts group to program the time. To compensate for cramped recreation space that her students have to share with another school co-located in the building, she applied for and received a play street next to the school.
"They want me to compete with charter schools because they think that will make me better. But I don't have a board of directors to raise money for me," Kram Rosen said.
Parents at P.S. 180 have also had to rely on their own ingenuity for the garden project.
They found David Mabbott, an architect with a son and daughter at the school, who waived the 10 to 12 percent fee he would typically charge on top of the $325,000 construction costs to design the project.
"I did it for free because I'm invested in this school," Mabbott said.
Officials at the school found construction firms willing to donate volunteer construction hours and materials. But with no cash in place, they said it's hard to solicit money from others.
"We need that first donor in to start it," said Mabbott. "If we could just get money to do the doors that would help a lot."
Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens said she isn't sure why the school's grant request through the City Council wasn't filled. However, she understands why the school feels stuck in the middle.
"All of our public schools should feel the way P.S. 180 does. The charter schools have the ability to raise money while other schools have working families and working moms who don't have the ability to easily raise $10,000," Dickens said.
"That doesn't mean they don't want the same great schooling for their kids."
Proponents say the garden would be a low-maintenance way to provide kids at the school new opportunities to learn about the environment.
The 1,100-square-foot space, currently accessible only through the guidance counselor's office, would become accessible from two new doors in the cafeteria.
"Good public schools need good amenities such as outdoor space, fresh air and light. This will improve the school," Mabbott said.
Weir said parents at the school are about to embark on a grant-writing campaign to find the money for the garden. The parent garden committee has already agreed to help with upkeep. Dickens said she's willing to entertain funding for the garden again this year.
"Success is something that has to be nurtured," said Weir. "When you stop paying attention to schools that find a way to be successful they wither on the vine."