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UES Principal Maintains Community While Straddling Two Neighborhoods

 Michèle Solá in front of the Upper East Side School.
Michèle Solá in front of the Upper East Side School.
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DNAinfo/Shaye Weaver

UPPER EAST SIDE — The Manhattan Country School on East 96th Street is embarking on a new chapter next fall with the opening of its new building on the Upper West Side.

The new facility at the former Mannes College of The New School for Music on West 85th Street will have enough room to double the school's enrollment from roughly 208 to 400 students and allow it to finally run its basketball program in its own gym, rather than renting two gyms on the east side.

While the promise of a bigger school — which will open in August — is exciting to the school community, it's been a challenge to make an entrance into the Upper West Side neighborhood after roughly 50 years serving the Upper East Side and East Harlem neighborhoods, according to Michèle Solá, the director/principal of the school.

Solá, who has been with the school for 34 years and served as its director since 1997, has a lot of irons in the fire these days, as her school slowly transitions to another neighborhood.

DNAinfo New York sat down with her recently to discuss her philosophy, challenges as a director and expectations she has of moving to a new school building. This interview has been edited for clarity.

The school will go through a major transition in the fall. How are you hoping to facilitate the move and what are you looking forward to?

In the beginning, the focus was on the building, but more and more it's on taking the community with us, as well as our educational program, our diversity and our public mission as we increase the capacity for each of those things. We're so much more focused now on aligning the things we're taking with us in the way we're renovating the building.

Our new building used to be a music school, so the top four floors were little music rooms and we're trying to double each of the existing classes. We worked with architects to make room for where two classes of the same grade could be adjacent and have plenty of light and air. We're excited about the design that resulted.

We always send the kids to the park every day and now we're going to get to know another side of Central Park. It's exciting to start over with a new neighbor contingent there and get to know people.

What are some challenges you've faced recently with this?

Whenever one is moving into a new neighborhood, the introduction can make for a challenging moment. Some neighbors on the Upper West Side didn't know who we were [when we were pitching the new school], but we listened and made some adjustments and we're aiming to make new friends.

The Manhattan Country School is known for being active in advocating for social issues. What are some recent examples of how students have taken a leadership role in this arena lately?

A piece of our curriculum asks that the seventh- and eighth-graders select an activism project and learn about an issue that is important to them. It's a conversation a small group of kids have to define the project and the purpose of it is to take some kind of action. It's about informing yourself first, educating this community and deciding how to interface in some way that reflects a vision of a more perfect democracy.

This year, our students were very disturbed about things they saw in the media about how the Syrian refugees have been treated. They get really upset when they hear some of the comments. Islamaphobia or anything that reflects bias is anathema to their sense of calm and purpose in the world, and they want people to be respected.

Sometimes they choose really complicated or difficult topics. Last year was "sexual violence on campus." When they started thinking, they realized that college ... is only four years away for them, but we asked "How are you going to talk to 4 and 5 year olds about this?" And they had a good answer. They said it, "It all starts with respectful relationships."

They researched what laws have been proposed at the state and the federal levels to address sexual violence and chose Congress people to visit and share their thoughts with. As a group, they had very important discussions about the differences of opinion.

What are some goals you have for the school for the next few years?

Last October, we were the host school for the Progressive Education Network, which is a conference of 800 educators. My goal is to continue this kind of dialogue with a regional group.

Additionally, if our history is an example of what the Civil Rights movement produced, I want to bring into the frame the whole sensibility around food. Where does food justice and environmental justice get defined as the civil rights issue of this particular era? I think it's really important.

Do you have anything you want the community to know?

After 50 years of being in this place, we feel so embraced and really thankful that we’ve grown together. To think that the Upper East Side and East Harlem embraced us over and over, including the cultural institutions ... it's a lot to leave behind. We're excited about rebuilding, but this has been an amazing place to be.