When Gan Miriam Early Learning Center closed its doors at the Riverdale Jewish Center with little notice last month, no one seemed sure who would take over the Independence Avenue space.
The mystery didn’t last long, however, as Gan Miriam has made way for the incoming eighth-grade class at Atmosphere Academy Public Charter Schools. Hezzy Jesin, the Jewish center’s executive director, shed light on the new tenant, which surprised elected officials and at least one resident.
“As costs of maintaining the building and providing services have increased, leasing became a preferable option to reduce some of the burden from our member families,” Jesin told The Riverdale Press in emailed comments.
The Jewish center had three priorities when looking for the right tenant, Jesin said: How much the new tenant and the Jewish center could benefit each other, flexibility of the space on weekends, and of course, money.
That had become a problem when it came to Gan Miriam, Jesin said. The Jewish center was subsidizing the learning center by providing the space below market rent — a move the Jewish center could no longer afford.
Gan Miriam’s closure left eight teachers unemployed and parents scrambling to find new nursery schools for their children amidst daycare centers that already had considerable waiting lists.
Jesin declined to say how much Gan Miriam paid for the space, nor did he disclose how much Atmosphere was paying in its new lease.
For Atmosphere founder and principal Colin Greene, moving his eighth-grade class to the Jewish center in Spuyten Duyvil solved his immediate need for additional space. The middle school first opened its doors during the 2015-16 school year at 22 Marble Hill Ave.
“Spuyten Duyvil was not on our radar, but a real estate agent approached us about this possibility, so we followed up,” Greene said in an email. “We chose to move forward with this building because the space was simply the best option available to us in terms of size, cost, location, and many other factors.”
Greene declined to give details on how much the school spent to acquire the space. The charter’s school most recent financial audit does not include expenses for the 2016-17 school year.
“To suddenly toss a school down in an overcrowded area is really shocking to me,” Vicki Auerbach, a co-op owner who lives near the Jewish center, said. “Traffic, drop off and dismissals, it is a miracle that no one has been hit yet — especially on the 237th Street intersection, which is where RJC is. There’s no traffic light. There’s just a stop sign, and one crossing guard has to deal with everything.”
Atmosphere’s eighth-grade class would bring 130 students and 20 staff members to the area. The students won’t take school buses, Greene said. Arrival and dismissal times also would not coincide with P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil and The David A. Stein Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy M.S./H.S. 141. On top of that, students would enter the school at West 237th Street, not Independence Avenue.
P.S. 24 and RKA, both located just a block away and directly across the street respectively, have a combined population of more than 2,400 students, according to the city’s education department.
Despite the fact the Jewish center said it alerted members about the new tenant in a June 28 meeting, Auerbach said this was the first she and her neighbors have heard about Atmosphere coming in.
“I don’t understand what happened there,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz after hearing the news. “The elected officials weren’t consulted or even informed about what was going on until it was a done deal.”
Although Dinowitz concedes the Jewish center has the right to decide who uses its space, he had hoped officials there would consider P.S. 24 or RKA as possible tenants to help alleviate overcrowding at the schools.
At the same time, Dinowitz openly wondered if Atmosphere’s decision to split up its school so far geographically was the right one. About a mile and a half separates the school’s Marble Hill Avenue location and the Jewish center’s Independence Avenue site.
“What I find disturbing … is that they must have known when they moved into that (Marble Hill) space in the first place that they wouldn’t have enough room for three grades,” Dinowitz said. “If that’s the case, then they actually planned for the school to be in two different and distant locations from each other.”
Legally, an established charter school is not obligated to inform a community when it moves into a neighborhood, according to the Michelle Bianchi, spokeswoman for the SUNY Charter Schools Institute.
Because the school just signed the lease June 30, Greene said it would have been presumptive to meet with neighboring schools before finalizing its agreement. Now that it’s done, he’s would be “more than willing to meet and collaborate” with neighboring schools.