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Delayed DOE Construction Leaves Harlem Art School Without Working Theater

By Jeff Mays | April 4, 2014 9:27am
 The Department of Education has spent tens of thousands of dollars on a fitness room, black box theater and photography lab at  Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts , the only arts high school in Harlem. Yet the work remains unfinished months after it was suppossed to be completed. Principal Tyee Chin said that puts his students at a disadvantage as he tries to turn the school around.
Unfinished Rooms at Wadleigh Puts Students at Disadvantage, Say Officials
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HARLEM — The room in the basement of Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts was supposed to be a fitness center by the start of this school year.

Instead, demolition in the space didn't start until October. Five months later, a tangle of wires hangs from the ceiling just feet from a bin filled with old math books and mounds of debris.

On the second floor, half of the newly opened photography studio is useless because the shades don't completely block out light.

Up on the third floor, the walls of the newly-built black box theater are filled with white scuff marks because contractors used the wrong type of paint. The sound system has not been installed and a massive coil of electrical cable sits next to a hole in the wall. The dressing room is unheated.

"We are an arts school. How can you put on a production without the sound?" said Wadleigh principal Tyee Chin, 39.

The Department of Education has spent tens of thousands of dollars on these projects at Wadleigh, which is located on 114th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr.Boulevard and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. It is the only arts high school in Harlem and draws students from the Bronx and Queens. Yet the work remains unfinished months after it was supposed to be completed.

"This impedes what the students can learn," said Matt Bresler, Wadleigh's drama teacher. Construction on the black box theater began in the summer of 2012 and was supposed to be completed in April 2013. Students started using the unfinished room in September.

"It keeps them from reaching their full potential and being able to walk out of here and perform on a college level."

Department of Education officials admitted that work on the fitness room had been halted due to "excessive costs," but refused to divulge how much had been spent on that or other projects inside the school so far.

DOE spokesman Harry Hartfield said the agency was "working with the contractors on a plan to complete the upgrades as soon as possible." He expected work on the theater to be completed this week or "soon after."

Hartfield was unable to give DNAinfo New York a date when all of the school's renovations would be completed.

In the meantime, because of the lack of sound equipment and lighting, Bresler can't teach students production skills.

At the photography studio, teacher Gretchen Gibbs had to scavenge around to find old equipment and rig up makeshift blackout shades in an effort to help students complete her class.

Equipment for the black and white photo lab never arrived so Gibbs scavenged around the school to find old equipment. Developing black and white photos is impossible because the space lacks ventilation equipment to disperse developing fumes, and the blackout shades let in light.

"At first glance it looks good, but the functionality is not there. It doesn't work," said Gibbs, adding that the space was supposed to be finished in September 2013 but students didn't get to use it until October. "I just make it work the best way I can."

Wadleigh students said the incomplete rooms send the wrong message.

"When you come in it's really cold," said Yesenia Mejia, 16, a 9th grade student in the drama program. "This is a brand new space but the floors got ugly so fast, even after we clean it."

Ray Rodriguez, 15, a 9th grade drama student, said, "the look of the room is cool but I don't understand why the walls have all these marks already."

Chin said he's grateful for the new spaces but when he made inquiries to officials he was told the classrooms are "substantially complete."

"They are not transparent. Everyone keeps talking about transparency but I can't get a straight answer," said Chin, who sees the lack of facilities as one of the reasons Wadleigh is listed as a struggling school.

The arts emphasis at Wadleigh is a big part of turning the school around, said Chin. The middle school received a D on its most recent progress report and the high school ranked worse with an F.

"We have our problems and issues, but this is not an F school," said Chin.

Making matters worse, Wadleigh has been sharing space with other schools — Frederick Douglass Academy II Secondary School and controversial charter school Success Academy Harlem West — since 2005. The DOE tried to close Wadleigh's middle school in 2012 as they announced plans for Success Academy Harlem West to expand their middle school grades in the building.

Only protests from residents and elected officials gave the school a last-minute reprieve.

Chin said the fitness room and black box theater might not be necessary if Wadleigh wasn't experiencing scheduling conflicts over the shared gymnasium and auditorium with the two other schools.

Wadleigh also does not have the same access to privately-raised funds as charter schools do, he said, so Chin is forced to sit by while Success Academy Harlem West quickly completes projects in the building, such as new bathrooms, while he's left waiting.

"Anytime Success needs construction it's done on time and before school starts. That's not my experience," said Chin.

Wadleigh's long-time librarian and advocate for the school Paul McIntosh, agreed.

"We are always asking why we can't get things done on time, but we've received no explanation," he said. "I don't understand how one school in the same building can get everything they want done on time and another can't."