MOUNT HOPE — Earlier this year, a teaching artist asked a group of sixth-grade girls in an after-school filmmaking class at The Young Women's Leadership School of the Bronx to choose an injustice in their lives to explore on film.
Instantly, the students knew what it would be: the taunts, slurs and even water balloons lobbed at them by peers at I.S. 117, the decades-old middle school whose building their new school had moved into that fall.
But during production, the budding filmmakers met with some students from I.S. 117 and the real-life plot veered in a different direction.
Eventually, their documentary evolved from an exposé about bullying into a meditation on making co-location work.
“It might not be easy trying to share a school with other people,” Aria Hoyte, 12, one of the six student filmmakers, said recently. “But you can get through it by just talking to them.”
TYWLS (which students pronounce, “twills”) is part of a highly regarded network of five public all-girls schools in the city, with affiliate schools in other states.
The Bronx branch opened last year with 90 sixth-grade girls confined to half of the fourth floor of a yellow-brick building on Morris Avenue that I.S. 117, or Joseph H. Wade Junior High School, had occupied since its construction in 1937.
The city Education Department said that even with I.S. 117’s more than 700 sixth-to-eighth-grade students, the building had room for more than 460 more.
But as soon as the new school moved in, tensions began.
Some longtime I.S. 117 teachers were forced to switch classrooms, while students there suddenly had to share their cafeteria and auditorium and give up a gym and a restroom.
Meanwhile, the new school, though crammed into a handful of classrooms, was outfitted with Smart Boards and a technology room, which was funded by an outside group that also paid for a school camping trip in New Jersey.
Some I.S. 117 students expressed their resentment by “verbally abusing” the new-school girls and even some staffers in the stairwell, said TYWLS co-director LeMarie Laureano.
Two of the TYWLS filmmakers said I.S. 117 students tossed water balloons filled with urine at them outside the school building. (I.S. 117 principal Delise Jones did not respond to interview requests for this article.)
Both Laureano and co-director Devon Eisenberg are quick to point out that I.S. 117 students had real reasons to feel frustrated with the changes, that Jones and her fellow administrators were welcoming and helpful to the new school and that TYWLS students likely spurred some of the clashes.
Still, Eisenberg admitted, “The first few weeks were rough.”
The TYWLS filmmaking club was run by Vivianne Njoku, at the time a teaching artist in the Tribeca Film Institute’s Tribeca Teaches program.
When the half-dozen students settled on co-location as their documentary subject (after first considering candy factories), their initial idea was to record the mistreatment of the building’s new students by its original occupants.
However, Njoku spoke to them about balance and objective reporting, and the co-directors asked the students to imagine co-location as someone strange entering their house and plopping down their belongings — how would they like it?
But the greatest shift in their thinking came after their on-camera meeting with a small group of I.S. 117 students and Principal Jones, parts of which appear in the video.
At first, the discussion centered on conflicts between the schools — “It’s like a war between each other” one TYWLS girl said — with each side claiming it was shortchanged by the co-location.
But soon, the students started to look beyond their own interests.
An I.S. 117 boy said it wasn’t fair for TYWLS only to get a corner of one floor, while the TYWLS students realized that the other school had lost some of the space they were used to.
And each side reconsidered its assumptions about the other.
“After this, I feel bad for the stereotype I had of 117 kids,” said Josephine Lewis, a TYWLS student.
An I.S. 117 girl added, “I think that, after hearing what you’re saying, it changed my mind about y’all.”
At the end of the video, the young newscaster explains that all co-located students would like more building space, but that they must learn make do with what they have and get along.
Njoku, the teaching artist, said “the whole point” of art education “is to let students process what’s going on in their lives. And that is exactly what happened.”
Last month, the filmmakers trotted down a red carpet into a Manhattan theater to see the premier of their documentary, called “Co-Located…And Loving It?”
Next year, the TYWLS directors hope the students film a follow-up, perhaps of a joint project between the two schools, to document how they are continuing to adapt to co-location.
It would also show, co-director Laureano said, how the students themselves have evolved.
“They come in so little,” she said on the last day of school. “And they still are little. But they’re not the same people that came in 10 months ago.”