To hear New York City schools Chancellor David Banks tell it, a bitter fight last year over the decision to swap the buildings of two Manhattan high schools had a happy ending.

Students at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School, an under-enrolled transfer school for kids at risk of dropping out, were forced to switch buildings with The Young Women’s Leadership School, or TYWLS, a crowded school occupying a smaller space across town. The move sparked an uproar last year from West Side’s community, who argued it would deprive already marginalized kids of critical resources housed in its long-time building.

In recent months Banks has shared an upbeat update, telling reporters and members of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a board that approves decisions to relocate schools, that he heard from West Side staff that “after the dust settled … everything worked out.”

“They couldn’t be happier,” he added last week, paraphrasing a letter from the principal and the school’s chapter leader, the official representative to the teachers union.

Banks’ update seemed to tie a neat bow on a messy public dispute. It also bolsters his argument for advancing other contentious school merger and relocation proposals and validates his decision-making at a moment when he’s urging the state legislature to extend mayoral control over schools.

There’s just one problem: According to teachers and students at West Side, the move has had anything but a happy ending.

Seven West Side teachers and a student who spoke to Chalkbeat said the move to the new space has worsened their school experience in almost every way. It has reduced access to organized sports and deprived students of the health clinic and on-site day care available in the old building. Forcing kids and staff into more cramped quarters has exacerbated tensions between students and diminished teachers’ ability to provide individualized support, teachers and students said.

“The chancellor was characterizing the move as being good and fine in the end … which is just utterly false,” said Joel Solow, a West Side teacher. “This has been an incredibly challenging year on almost every count.”

For students like Joel Gomez, 17, who started at West Side in October 2022, moving to the new space has felt like having the best part of his school experience “ripped away.”

Spending last year in the old building was “one of the best years of my life,” he said.

But “this year just feels like everything is dampened down,” he said. The move, for him, “did not work out in a great way.”

Even the city’s original justification for the move – that West Side needed much less space, while TYWLS needed much more – hasn’t panned out.

Last year, West Side had only 230 students last year in a building that can fit nearly 800, while TYWLS has hovered between 450-480 students in a building that could hold 560. Officials had predicted West Side’s enrollment would stay flat, while TYWLS would immediately grow when it moved to the larger space.

But the opposite has happened: Enrollment at West Side has surged, to 344 as of this month, thanks to an influx of migrant students and the addition of a bilingual program. Enrollment at Young Women’s Leadership, meanwhile, has shrunk to 363 – leaving the two schools now at almost the same size, according to Education Department records.

Education Department officials noted that despite its enrollment increases, West Side’s daily attendance still hovers around 51%.

An Education Department spokesperson attributed the drop in enrollment at TYWLS to smaller classes of entering 6th and 9th graders, and said the school couldn’t offer more new seats because the move was approved too late in the year. But state data shows that the drops in 6th and 9th grade classes account for only a fraction of the overall enrollment reduction at TYWLS, and other grades shrunk as well.

The West Side building swap reverberates beyond the two schools

The city Education Department is facing increasing pressure to move, merge or even close schools as a result of pandemic enrollment losses – and Banks will need the approval of the Panel for Educational Policy to advance those proposals.

A happy ending to the West Side saga, one of the most high-profile fights in Banks’ tenure, strengthens Banks’ case to move forward on other controversial proposals, offering evidence that dire predictions from angry communities don’t always come true. Already, several proposals on the docket in the coming months have spurred fierce community pushback, some of which echoes the concerns raised by the West Side community.

West Side also is relevant to the ongoing negotiations in the state legislature over if and how to extend mayoral control over city schools. The current governance structure gives Mayor Eric Adams power to appoint the majority of the Panel for Educational Policy, an arrangement Banks says allows him to “make the best decisions on behalf of the entire school system,” even when it means fighting through some opposition, he said last week.

But critics of mayoral control say the West Side move is a case study in the limitations of a system that allows officials to ignore community input to the detriment of kids.

“In mayoral control,” Solow said at a January town hall in Manhattan, “the people who have to deal with the consequences have no voice that needs to be listened to. And the people who get to determine the consequences need to listen to no one.”

Dueling interpretations of a letter

Part of the ongoing dispute comes down to dueling interpretations of a letter sent in the fall by West Side Principal Mara Rivera and chapter leader Mark Weller.

The letter, a copy of which was reviewed by Chalkbeat, thanked facilities officials for the “excellent job” in upgrading the new building, praising the “remarkable” difference in the condition of the facility now compared to last year, and calling the atmosphere in the building “much more uplifting … than we had expected.”

The principal and chapter leader didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Multiple staffers who spoke with the chapter leader said he had explained that the letter, which was written without the knowledge of staff and was not addressed to Banks, was meant to build goodwill with facilities staff to help secure future upgrades. It wasn’t meant as an endorsement of the move or affirmation that it had worked out for the best. The letter writers weren’t notified that Banks was going to share the letter publicly, staffers added.

It was a “fairly simple message about ‘thanks for making the move a little less bad,’” Solow said.

An Education Department spokesperson didn’t directly address criticism that Banks misrepresented the letter, but said he only stated that the “principal wrote a letter of appreciation for the work done to get the space ready for the students of West Side High School.”

Banks heard about the letter through a regular update from facilities staff, the spokesperson said.

“We promised we would ensure the building meets both our standards and those of the school community, and the upgrades have made a true impact in the way students and staff view their new learning environment,” spokesperson Chyann Tull said in a statement.

Enrollment numbers don’t tell the full story

West Side staffers and students argued that there were features of the old building – which the school has occupied since the late 1980s – that were critical to its success and would be lost in the new facility, a prediction they said has come to fruition.

The old space had a child care program and health clinic on site, as well as a full-size gymnasium and access to an adjacent sports field. Those amenities filled specific needs for the school’s students, who are older, often juggle competing responsibilities, and struggle with attendance.

The new space, located on the seventh to 11th floors of an office building, has none of those things. The difficulty of restarting organized sports, such as volleyball, has been a particular blow, since that’s what helps keep many kids engaged in school, staffers said.

An Education Department spokesperson said officials are working to sustain services for students in the new space, including connecting the school to a nearby Mount Sinai location.

Staffers said they appreciated the facilities repairs, but those can’t alter some structural differences in the new building, including classrooms that are often about half the size of their old home.

One teacher described moving into a smaller classroom with multiple students with emotional disabilities. In the old building, there was enough space to separate students during conflicts. The new room doesn’t allow for that, said the teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Gomez, the student, said the new building is “claustrophobic” and “dreary.” He misses the joy of seeing the little kids at the old on-site day care, the access to fields and a gym, and the spacious hallways and classrooms where kids could take a lap if they got overwhelmed.

He’s struggled to keep up his attendance this year. For one stretch, he missed a month of school.

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at