Navigating New Boundaries in Shared Space

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SchoolBook reporters spent Thursday morning on campuses that were in the news last year. Here is another in a series of dispatches on how things went on the first day back to school.

The whistles blew at 8:45 a.m., cutting through the gymnasium’s hubbub of squealing hellos, post-summer compliments, and the first-day business of pulling student schedules from alphabetical stacks.

“Let’s go, ladies and gentlemen,” announced the principal of the Choir Academy of Harlem, A. Ellen Parris. “Second period class.”

Amid the swirl of students in maroon, grey and white school uniforms, a bit of welcome news had already started to circulate. A charter school that shares the Choir Academy building, Harlem Children's Zone/Promise Academy II, had been steadily taking more space. But on Wednesday, the charter announced it would not also take part of the third floor, as planned.

For Choir, a middle and high school whose enrollment has been shrinking in recent years, that means an extra special education classroom, replacing honors classes it would have lost, and likely a room devoted to fitness and weightlifting, Dr. Parris said.

“That’s great, because we need our space as well,” said Ashlynn Hill, 16, a Choir Academy senior. “They can’t take up all of our space and leave us with nothing.”

In dozens of schools across the city these days, part of orientation is navigating the barriers between different schools that share the same space: which stairway and bathrooms are off-limits; why lunch periods are super early or late; when the gym is available and when it is decidedly not. In a crowded city with limited facilities, under an administration that emphasizes the creation of new small schools and charter schools, up to six schools can occupy one address.

Promise Academy II, an elementary school, started classes on Tuesday; at lunchtime, students from both schools share the cafeteria, each with their own side.

Well before noon, the Choir dean told the sixth graders this was the first day of their journey to a good high school. Eleventh graders reviewed the code of discipline, learning which infractions would land them in detention. Two female school safety officers in police blues patrolled the third-floor hallway, walkie-talkies blaring.

"White. Grey. Black," Carolyn Bovell-Box, an English teacher, admonished her seniors, listing colors allowed under the school's dress code. “Let me model for you," she said, striking a pose. White (she gestured to her crisp white shirt). Grey (she touched her dress slacks). Black (she took off one of her heels and held it up high). The students laughed.

At Choir, with 340 students spread across grades 6-12, there is often a family feel. But for newcomers, particularly the youngest ones, it can still be scary.

Kareem Lilly, 11, arrived at the auditorium late, searching for his schedule. He was so soft-spoken he nearly whispered his last name, and his small mouth was set in a frown.

“I’m afraid I’m going to be a laughing stock on the first day,” he said. “I always get picked on by different kids in different school years, and I've never had friends." A volunteer from the parents association tried to reassure him: “We’re going to change that,” she said.