High-achieving Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Crown Heights is crammed with students, but has too few classrooms and no auditorium or athletic field.
Not far away, the long-struggling Boys and Girls High School sits inside a sprawling building with a big auditorium and a new football field, but has a dwindling number of students.
Last week, the principal who oversees both schools proposed a solution, according to several people he told about the plan: Combine the two schools.
A merger could provide Medgar Evers with much-needed space and facilities, said Principal Michael Wiltshire, who emphasized that the idea is still a hypothetical scenario that the education department has yet to approve. The plan could also help prop up Boys and Girls, considered one of the state’s worst-off schools, where enrollment has plummeted in recent years and recruitment this year fell far short of expectations, he said.
“Theoretically, it would make sense,” said Wiltshire, who ran Medgar Evers for over a decade before agreeing to take over Boys and Girls in October under the condition that he would maintain some control over his former school. “But I don’t know what the chancellor’s plan is.”
Wiltshire pitched the idea to Boys and Girls’ leadership team last week, where all but one of the members present voted in favor of it, according to attendees. The school’s politically connected advisory board discussed the concept at a meeting on Monday.
The proposal comes after Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña visited the Bedford-Stuyvesant school last month to tout early signs of progress under Wiltshire and repeat their pledge to revamp Boys and Girls, whose 42 percent graduation rate lags 26 points below the city average. (Medgar Evers, a grade 6-12 school that admits students based on their test scores and other factors, had a 92 percent graduation rate last year.)
It also follows news that Fariña plans to combine a struggling Brooklyn middle school with a high-performing one in the same building, and that she expects more mergers in the future. An education department spokeswoman said Tuesday that officials recently learned of Wiltshire’s idea and will discuss it with those involved, but that no decisions have been made.
Still, the possibility of a merger has already rattled some Boys and Girls supporters who see it as a covert way to shutter the troubled school and let its successful neighbor occupy the space. At the school leadership team meeting last Thursday, Wiltshire said a possible name for the combined school might be Medgar Evers College Preparatory School at Boys and Girls High School, two attendees said.
“They talk about a merger, but it’s not a merger, it’s a phase-out,” said Ray Haskins, a Boys and Girls graduate and tennis coach who heard about the idea but is not part of the leadership team.
Albert Vann, a former city councilman who is among the elected officials and community leaders who make up Boys and Girls’ advisory board, said Wiltshire came up with the merger idea after the board asked him how he could “expand his successful [school] model.” Stressing that this is still a “preliminary discussion,” Vann said any restructuring would protect the long history of Boys and Girls, which grew out of a school founded in the 19th century.
“Whatever changes occur with merger or no merger, we will definitely preserve the legacy of Boys and Girls High School,” Vann said, adding that the idea of a merger “has a lot of merit.”
In an interview, Wiltshire said that Medgar Evers, which is about two miles from Boys and Girls, is severely cramped.
Classrooms are overcrowded, even as some classes meet in outdoor trailers and his conference room, Wiltshire said. The school building has no auditorium or athletic field, leaving the track team to practice in the hallways, he added. Meanwhile, demand for the school is so high that it could quickly boost its 1,250-student enrollment if it had more room, Wiltshire said.
“Medgar could easily double its population in a year if they had the space,” he said.
On the other hand, Boys and Girls’ dismal ratings have scared away students, with its enrollment plunging from 2,000 students five years ago to 500 today. It and two smaller schools now share a building designed to hold thousands of students, which also boasts a new $400,000 football field. Wiltshire said the school aimed to attract 500 freshmen for next school year, but was able to recruit “considerably less.” (A staffer said only about 65 new students have enrolled so far.)
“What’s going to be the future of the building if Boys and Girls doesn’t have students?” Wiltshire said. “That’s something a lot of people are talking about.”
Meanwhile, the two schools have started to collaborate, Wiltshire said. The staffs have had joint meetings, some Boys and Girls teachers have observed their counterparts at Medgar Evers, and a handful of students from each school have taken classes at the other. Last month, more than 700 people attended a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance that featured student performers from both schools and was held in Boys and Girls’ spacious auditorium, Wiltshire said.
In fact, Fariña made Wiltshire an “ambassador principal” — which came with a $25,000 bonus and the ability for him to maintain a presence in both schools — with the hope of fostering such cooperation, she said during her visit to the school last month. She also suggested that principals in that special dual role might be able to restructure their schools in some way.
“The ambassador principal can decide to continue to work two schools,” she said on the March 10 visit. “Perhaps, depending on the size of the schools, come up with a different configuration ultimately, or not.”
Phillipe St. Luce, whose son is a sixth-grader at Medgar Evers, said parents and that school’s leadership team have spoken with Wiltshire about ways the two schools can benefit from one another. He said that while Medgar Evers is “bursting at the seams,” Boys and Girls is “under-subscribed and they have great facilities.”
“I think everything is on the table,” St. Luce said. “It’s all been mentioned.”