This story was originally published on Oct. 11 by THE CITY.
A newly-renovated playground and field to be shared by three West Harlem schools has remained unopened and unused for months, as some officials say it’s tied to a fight over after-school access.
For more than a year, over a thousand students have been barred from the space next to 425 West 123rd Street — a 101-year-old building that houses P.S. 125 The Ralph Bunche School, M 362 Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering, and the charter KIPP STAR middle school.
Over that time it underwent $1 million worth of work funded through two rounds of participatory budgeting. The renovation was essentially completed in July, faculty members told THE CITY.
The field was slated to open in time for the new school year but has been locked up since, with just a few “punch list” items left, according to Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the city’s School Construction Authority. That includes adding soccer goals and nets, additional padding to the turf mat, and leveling off sections of the field, Ortiz said.
“There’s this brand new space that’s right there that everyone’s locked out of,” said P.S. 125 parent Mara Tucker, whose two kids, a fourth and second grader, have been playing in an overcrowded schoolyard instead of on their brand-new field.
A spokesperson for the city Department of Parks and Recreation said it’s expected to open in the next few weeks. The field is a “Jointly Operated Playground,” which means it’s maintained by both the Department of Education and the Parks Department.
“We thank New Yorkers for their patience as we work with the SCA to finish this playground project – we anticipate opening the park to the public in the coming weeks,” Parks’ Kelsey Jean-Baptiste said in a statement.
Some officials at the school, however, said the delay is tied into who will get to use the field after the dismissal bell — and fear the space will be gobbled up by pricey private sports leagues.
Adding to the confusion is the field is listed as “open” on the Parks Department’s website, and still says it has a baseball field. The Parks Department plans to update its website, which is outdated, an official said.
Who gets dibs?
A March email reviewed by THE CITY from the Parks Department to school officials states that the field would be exclusive to the schools from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., at which time Parks staff would take over its care and maintenance.
Harold DeLucia, the dean and athletic director at Columbia Secondary School, was on the early committee that applied for $1 million in participatory budgeting funds to build the park starting in 2016. The school community banded together to get the funds, and should have control of the field after school, he told THE CITY.
“If you left it open to the school campus until 6 or 5:30 or anything after hours, you would now have students from the communities here having access to field space for extracurricular activities — things they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to,” he said.
He fears expensive sports clubs will instead apply for the field space, which could block students from using it. The Parks Department spokesperson said the field schedule will be released once it opens — with no definite date.
Any request to have the DOE solely operate it for students would require approval from Parks Department commissioners, according to the email.
A spokesperson for the DOE declined to comment, but noted there are 272 jointly-operated playgrounds and parks across the five boroughs that are shared between schools and the public.
The principal at Columbia Secondary referred questions to the DOE press office. The other two schools’ leaders didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
Meanwhile, the lack of access has been painful for students, who’ve gone over a year without the field. It’s also frustrated faculty and parents who told THE CITY they’ve been unable to get any clear information on what’s happening with the field due to bureaucracy and multiple agencies involved.
“To add insult to injury of already having such an overcrowded space and having to make do without it for so long already, it just feels really unkind to continue to keep the space from the whole campus, said Tucker.”