Years after co-location controversy, two principals say sharing space has made both schools better

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

For many people, the word “co-location” brings to mind crowded classrooms and conflicts around shared spaces. But as principals of two New York City schools that have shared a building since 2014 — Success Academy Bensonhurst, a charter elementary school, and I.S. 96 Seth Low, a district middle school — we have found there is much more that unites us.

Although some members of the community objected to Success Academy’s co-location, as school leaders, we felt it was our responsibility to make the best of sharing our space. When our schools work together, we’ve found that our students reap real rewards.

Here’s how we’ve made that happen.

Two years ago, our schools initiated a “Reading Buddies” program where middle-school students from Seth Low read to kindergarten, first, and second-grade students at Success Academy once a week. The program has benefitted students from both our schools.

At Seth Low, middle-school students feel a sense of responsibility for helping to develop the reading skills of their younger peers, the program has boosted both student attendance rates and reading scores. Success Academy students benefit from having reading role models, and parent demand for the program is high.

It was during a discussion of co-location that Principal Lynch had a chance to brag to schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the Reading Buddies program, prompting a visit last month where she praised the program after seeing it in action. We hope the chancellor can come back to observe the pride that Principal Lynch’s middle-schoolers have when touring younger Success students through Seth Low’s zoology lab — they love describing the animals’ habitats and teaching the younger students what they know about each one.

Our schools also work together to celebrate the arts and participate in public service projects together in a way that truly benefits the entire Bensonhurst community.

Last year, SA Bensonhurst students attended Seth Low’s productions of the musicals “Annie” and “Shrek.” Together, the two school communities have planned blood drives, canned food drives, and toy drives that help not just our schools, but the community at large. During Teacher Appreciation Week, SA Bensonhurst parents brought in breakfast for Seth Low staff and students hand-delivered cards to the classrooms of Seth Low teachers.

We have found that there are opportunities for charter and district schools to work together to improve shared spaces and complement each other’s academic programming. A good example is how Seth Low spent the matching funds the school received for Success Academy’s renovation. (When a charter school spends more than $5,000 to renovate, state law requires the city to provide the same funding for every district school in the building.)

Principal Lynch chose to use the matching funds to add air conditioning to our cafeteria, improving a shared space. This summer, Success is installing padding to the walls of our gym. Everyone benefits!

We each have our different theories about why our partnership works. Principal Lynch believes that things are easier for us because, as one middle school and one elementary school, we don’t compete for the same students. Principal Dant thinks building strong relationships between co-located schools from the start is key.

But we both agree that our goal is to do what’s right for all kids. By combining resources and collaborating, all children in our building benefit.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.