Doors Open On Redesigned School, Inside and Out

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Risha Harata, Finn Mcardle and Risha Harata will begin sixth grade at the Dock Street School for STEAM Studies on Thursday.

In the Dumbo section of the Brooklyn waterfront, which has seen an intense development boom, even the students are getting new construction. 

Approximately 140 children will start school on Thursday in a sparkling new middle school facility equipped with science rooms, original artwork and a music suite with practice rooms. The "gymatorium" is outfitted with both basketball nets and a stage — along with acoustic sound panels to stifle the echo of typical gymnasiums. Each classroom houses new desks and orange chairs, tidily arranged for students' arrival. 

The Dock Street School for STEAM Studies occupies the second floor of a luxury apartment building developed by Two Trees Management Company. The company agreed to build a middle school in the building, providing the core and shell. The city's School Construction Authority took over the rest. The building also houses an adjacent site for pre-kindergarten. 

At a ribbon-cutting for the school on Tuesday, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she was thrilled with the new middle school and the partnerships it represented.

"I generally don't do ribbon-cuttings, but this one to me was very personal," she said. "It's personal because it brought together the best," referring to the collaboration between the city and developers, along with outreach to parents on what they wanted out of a middle school for District 13. 

Now, as it readies to open for students, the Dock Street School represents the city's attempt to bridge communities in gentrifying Brooklyn, in part by including families in the process.  

While the building is new, the school, technically, is not. M.S. 313 Satellite West moved from the top floor of P.S. 307 Daniel Hale Williams in nearby Vinegar Hill where it enrolled mostly low-income students of color. The school, small and academically struggling, went through a "redesign" process: community members weighed in last winter on what they wanted out of a middle school in a rapidly gentrifying part of Brooklyn.

The school's number stayed the same; the name "Satellite West" was dropped in favor of The Dock Street School for STEAM Studies. As its title suggests, the school will focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

The majority of students enrolled at Dock Street so far are incoming sixth graders, who were screened for admission according to grades, test scores, attendance and behavior. While there was not demographic information on the students immediately available, education officials said they represented a range of academic abilities as measured by state test scores. 

Some community members feared that the school would favor middle- and upper-income families over the low-income families with a history at the school, especially over time as the demographics of downtown Brooklyn continue to shift. 

But the purpose of the screen was to maintain a mix, said Barbara Freeman, the district superintendent.

"It's really to create a balanced environment of students by need and all different kinds of demographics," she said, noting that the school would also have a class of students in the ASD Horizons program, for students on the autism spectrum. 

As for the small percentage of seventh and eighth graders who are transferring from their previous site in Vinegar Hill to a new building at the foot of luxury apartment buildings, Freeman said the school had been reaching out to them to ensure that they have a sense of belonging. 

"This is not two separate schools running," she said. "Those are Dock Street kids as well."

The new middle school was part of a larger debate over how to re-zone the area of Dumbo and Vinegar Hill to counter overcrowding and, as a result, stitch together two distinct neighborhoods with vastly different income and education levels, as well as different racial and ethnic backgrounds. For more, check out this WNYC series.