Education

Local school squeezed for play space

Annie Nova

Students from the Bronx Charter School for the Arts compete with parked cars for play space on Longfellow Steet.

On a tiny Hunts Point cul-de-sac, cars and students compete for the street

On a dead end street of windowless warehouses near railroad tracks one block east of the Bruckner Expressway, there is a school where children learn to dance salsa while the trucks and trains whiz by. And paint their self-portraits. And memorize the tunes to a Broadway play.

But when it’s time for recess at The Bronx Charter School for the Arts at 950 Longfellow Street in Hunts Point, there is an obstacle that all of the staff and students’ creativity hasn’t been able to overcome.   

“We don’t have anywhere for the children to play,” said Pochereth Payne, the school’s executive assistant. As the kids poured out of the school and onto the sidewalk one school day, she said, “They’re literally about to play in the street.”

Previously the site of a sausage factory, the multicolored brick elementary school is an anomaly in this heavily industrial part of the neighborhood. Every day, school staff mount a portable fence and a stanchion at the Garrison Avenue entrance to the street for a half-hour, to prevent cars and trucks from coming in and competing with students for the slivers of street space. Hastily, to take full advantage of their 30 minutes of fresh air, students draw hopscotch grids in chalk on the sidewalk. Hula-hoops are handed out and bases are laid out so the kids can play ball around the parked cars.

“It breaks my heart to see,” said Rafael Salamanca, Community Board 2’s district manager. “I wouldn’t want my son playing between cars.”

Now the community board is siding with the school to urge the city to provide more space for the children. Together they plan to ask the Department of Transportation to make the half-block of Longfellow a non-standing street for vehicles between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.

The Department of Education encourages principals to provide elementary school students with space and equipment for at least 20 minutes a day of outdoor recess, though it is not mandated. The school received an A for “student progress,” but a C in “school environment,” which factors in safety, according to the DOE.

Although happy to be outdoors, the students regularly contend with the hazards of playing in the middle of the street.

“If you fall it hurts a lot,” said Eric Boykin, 10, recalling a time he fell during a game of kickball. “We won, but it wasn’t worth it. My knee was all bloody.”

The school’s status as a one-of-a-kind provider of the arts for children in a low-income neighborhood hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year it received 616 applications, including many from families in other boroughs, Westchester County and even as far away as Florida. Just over 50 students are admitted every year.

“I get the screaming and the hollering,” said Jackie Santiago, the school’s manager of student affairs, describing her phone calls to parents whose kids have just been accepted to attend.

A 2014 report by City Comptroller Scott Stinger revealed that 28 percent of public schools lack a full-time arts teacher, and only 21 percent of elementary schools offered visual arts, music, theater and dance. Students at The Bronx Charter School for the Arts learn those every day.

“Arts are in all of the disciplines,” said Hannah Kohl, a theatre instructor. “When you have an arts basis, when it comes to a chemistry class, your brain is used to thinking outside of the box.”

If students didn’t have to compete with cars and trucks every day, said the school’s executive director, Miriam Raccah, the school would try to give the street the feel of a schoolyard.

“We just want a safe environment,” said Myisha Taylor-Myke, the school’s operations manager.

While leaving dance class one weekday afternoon, 8 year-old Daiania Tiburcio put things in perspective.

“My sister goes to public school and she doesn’t have arts,” she said. “I feel really bad for her. But she plays in a playground. We don’t get to play on monkey bars or slide. I wish we had that.”

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