Natalie Rodriguez

Two middle schools that share a building at 120 East 184th St. in the Bronx will merge next year into one school, according to a Department of Education plan.

This story was produced through the City Limits Accountability Reporting Initiative For Youth (CLARIFY), City Limits’ paid training program for aspiring public-interest journalists.

Starting this fall, two separate Bronx middle schools that share the same building in School District 10 will merge into one— what officials say will maximize the strengths and resources of both, though some parents and students have expressed concerns about safety and other possible changes the merger may cause.

The Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy approved the proposed merger last month of East Fordham Academy of the Arts with the Academy for Personal Leadership and Excellence (APLE), two Bronx middle schools sharing the same building at 120 East 184th St. in Fordham Heights.

The merger will take place this upcoming 2019-2020 school year, bringing staff and students from East Fordham to APLE in an attempt to combine the best practices of both schools and provide more programs to East Fordham students that wouldn’t be available to them otherwise, according to the city’s proposal. APLE is part of the city’s Renewal School Program, which provided low-performing schools with additional funding and resources. Though Renewal Schools are being phased out , APLE will still receive many of the resources it got from the designation, including extra funding, an additional hour in its school day and a partnership with a local community-based organization that provides after-school programming and mental health services, according to city documents.

At the start of the new school year this fall, East Fordham—which served nearly 300 students this current year—will no longer exist as its own school, instead merging into APLE. The two combined schools are estimated to enroll about 830-860 students during the 2019-2020 school year, according to the DOE’s plan.

“We’re drawing from the same population,” one DOE staff member, who wanted to see the merger approved, said at a public hearing about the proposal in April, a week before the PEP’s vote on the plan. “This is a positive thing for the community.”

At that same meeting, however, parents and students expressed their concern about the effects that the merger may have on the students’ education and even their safety. Julio Colon is one of the parents who disagreed with the merger, saying he was worried about potential conflicts that might arise by combining the two student populations.

“There is gang presence in both schools,” Colon said during the hearing. “Before trying to unite both schools, why don’t we eradicate the two gangs that are inside the building to give our kids a safe place.”

The DOE, however, said its Office of Safety and Youth Development “has not received any reports of gang activity” at either school, according to documents published on the DOE’s website in response to the public hearing. “Comments relating to gang activity have been shared with OSYD,” the DOE says, noting that such reports are “addressed swiftly” by school safety personnel.

Other parents of students at the two middle schools also said they were worried that the building would be overcrowded following the merger, and felt that students weren’t getting a voice in the decision to merge the two facilities. The DOE, however, said in its proposal that there is “sufficient instructional and administrative space,” in the school building to house the merged schools’ projected population, and will be working with staff at both schools “to ensure that the newly merged school is set up for success and will continue to serve as a quality educational option for students and families in the community.”

At the April hearing about the plan, APLE’s principal, Angelo Ledda, assured parents that steps will be taken to ensure a smooth transition into the next school year. This will include the creation of committees made up of students, parents and staff to “allow for voices from both schools to be heard in regards to what they would like to see in September.”

In a statement, the DOE made a similar assurance.

“We believe that this change will benefit families and raise the bar for all students,” Spokesman Doug Cohen said. “Community empowerment is central to all our work, and we’ll continue to address any questions from the community.”