‘It’s a Great Day!’ At Last, Ribbon is Cut on Morton Middle School

October 4, 2018 | Posted by: The Villager


Middle-schoolers were laughing, screaming and happily cavorting with each other. Humongous bubbles were blowing around everywhere and bursting on top of people. A girl was stiltwalking through the crowd while balancing a stack of schoolbooks on her head. Meanwhile, trying to be heard above the joyful din, politicians, community school activists and city education officials sung the praises of the new 75 Morton middle school and the determined, inspiring, years-long community effort that incredibly brought it all to fruition. Among them was Richard Carranza, the city’s schools chancellor, who was presented with a special plaque reading, “Just Believe.”
After all, that’s what local schools activists always kept doing, even when the project stalled and hopes of obtaining the building seeming to be slipping out of reach.
“It’s a great day. It’s a beautiful day and a day to celebrate,” Assemblymember Deborah Glick told the keyed-up crowd. “I thank you all.” It was Glick who originally identified the site for the school and kept stubbornly pushing to get the state to sell it to the city. “I am so grateful to the community to have the opportunity to work with you on this,” the assemblymember said. “Despite the bureaucracy in Albany and Downtown, we were able to prevail. You did banners, postcards and never gave up. … You know what it’s like to get a bureaucracy to make changes — you might as well set yourself on fire,” she quipped.
Former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was not at the ribbon-cutting, but it was under her tenure that the city finally sealed the deal and purchased the property. The block-party-like celebration was held Sunday afternoon on Morton St., between Greenwich and Hudson Sts., outside of the beautifully renovated former state-owned office building. The structure’s exterior has been handsomely sheathed in a special terra-cotta surfacing, and large windows have been added throughout to create an open, airy, light-filled place for youth to learn and grow. Part of Community School District 2, the new Village middle school has a capacity of slightly more than 1,000 students, serving grades 6 through 8. The renovation project was handled by the city’s School Construction Authority at a total cost of more than $98.8 million. The design was by John Ciardullo Architects.
Glick singled out Michael Mirisola for special thanks. A Village native and former Community Board 2 member, Mirisola is external affairs director at S.C.A., and was a key point person on the project. Mirisola stood among the crowd wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the school’s symbol, a thunderbolt. He was beaming. Everyone was feeling bubbly and upbeat about the beautiful new school building, its staff, the students and the overall sense of “mission accomplished” at having achieved the goal.
In a very unique process, from Day One, community activists were intensely involved in the planning of the school’s layout and uses and had many “asks” for it. It was Mirisola’s challenging job to mesh the community’s wants with what S.C.A. could actually deliver. “Mike Mirisola comes from this community,” Glick said. “He listened to us, disagreed with us, agreed with us, then came back and worked it out.” Receiving more accolades from parents in the crowd, Mirisola glowingly told them, “This is one of the finest days in my S.L.A. career — and certainly my life. To have this in my community…,” he added, at a loss for words to finish the thought.
Many hope the as-yet-unnamed school will be named for legendary Village activist Jane Jacobs. But looking up at the building and waving his hand across it, as if to indicate a super-long sign, Mirisola said it could be named for many, many people. “Everybody was such a big part of this,” he said. “They haven’t named it yet. They could put everybody’s name on the side. “It’s a beautiful building inside,” he added. Asked about its basketball court, he said, “Look, I’ve been here all my life, that’s the best gym south of 42nd St.” To accommodate the so-called “gymnatorium” — a gym that can double as an auditorium — the building’s existing roof had to be raised, no small feat, he noted. On top of it all, literally, the building also sports a green roof. Department of Education officials are already eagerly booking up the building’s attractive cafeteria and library for meetings, he added.
Mirisola said it was definitely Glick who salvaged the project when it seemed that the state was balking at selling it. In her remarks, Glick stressed that, in the end, the city bought it at a good price, too. “We got it at a discount,” she said. “We weren’t going to get it retail.”
Last year, while renovation of the building was still being completed, the school’s first sixth-grade class was incubated at the Clinton School on E. 15th St. With 75 Morton having opened earlier this month, nearly 600 sixth- and seventh-graders are now filling the building. The general-education part of the school will be at capacity, with all three grades, next September. In addition, the school has classrooms for 40 to 50 students from District 75, which serves youth with special challenges, such as autism and other disabilities. Former state Senator Tom Duane noted that, as a child, he was considered a slow learner, too. “I was a late bloomer,” he said. “All children learn in unique and special ways. … It used to be there weren’t enough kids for Greenwich Village’s schools and kids came here from other districts,” he added. But that’s changed and the neighborhood now needs the school seats that 75 Morton is providing, he said.
Jacqui Getz, principal of the “gen-ed” school (M.S. 297), and Ewa Asterita, principal of the District 75 school (P751), frequently shared the stage together. One student from each school gave a statement. “We are family,” the District 75 student said, referring to all the pupils from both schools. The gen-ed student handed Carranza the “Just Believe” plaque.
The saga of the school’s creation stretched over the tenures of successive C.B. 2 chairpersons. Among them was current state Senator Brad Hoylman. “I was fortunate to be community board chairperson when a group of parents thought it was time that Greenwich Village had its own middle school,” he said. As he spoke, Glick dandled Hoylman’s younger daughter, Lucy — a possible future student of the school — on her knee as City Council Speaker Corey Johnson fed the toddler snacks. Terri Cude, C.B. 2’s current chairperson, gave shout-outs to her predecessors, including Jo Hamilton, Tobi Bergman and David Gruber, who all helped shepherd the 75 Morton project along, as well as key schools activists on the board, including Keen Berger and Jeannine Kiely, who were among the project’s fiercest advocates and kept the dream alive. Shino Tanikawa, former president of Community Education Council District 2, was another one of the core members during the school’s planning process. “Wow, it has been an incredible ride,” she said. “I’m touched deeply. If you work diligently and you push and push and push — this happens.”
Afterward, several 75 Morton activists noted that City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who was formerly Manhattan borough president, should also have received praise at the ceremony since he, too, was part of the effort. Another parent who fought for the school’s creation was Nick Gottlieb, who now has a daughter at the school and is a leader of its parent-teacher association. “Two hundred fourteen people attended our first P.T.A. meeting,” he told the crowd, to a wave of applause. “We have eight people running for one position” on the P.T.A., he added. “That’s a testament to the enthusiasm.” Afterward, parents and students spoke about why they liked the school. my Cheung said it was the zoned school for her son Niilo, who said he really likes the gym. Cheung likes that school has “great dance, arts and humanities.” Heather Campbell, a former C.B. 2 member who was also part of the group of advocates behind the school’s creation, said, “So far, so good. I am in love with it.” Campbell said she toured the school with the project architect, who explained about the school’s outfitting, “ ‘Everything about it is normal. But the bones here are good — we could make it sing.’ ” Asked what she likes about the school, her daughter Shelby said, “The arts, the lab. The gym’s awesome.”
Clearly, Mirisola was right: The gym is a big hit. Campbell added of the parent activists during the planning process, “We worked for a long time on the [school’s] mission statement: diversity and inclusion.” After the celebration had wound down, Irene Kaufman and others were reminiscing a bit while looking at an “archives” display of newspaper articles — more than a few from The Villager — and other letters and documents about the 75 Morton campaign that she had compiled. She recalled how she and fellow schools advocate Ann Kjellberg had started the process of finding the site in 2008, back when Joel Klein was the schools chancellor. “Ann and I were photographing sites all over the Village,” she said. “Joel Klein had said, ‘If you find a site, we’ll build a school.’ He thought that would be the end of it. He thought there would be no real estate available in the Village. You don’t say that to Village moms and dads.” It was Glick who ultimately decided 75 Morton was the best, most achievable site for the school.
Kaufman never had any illusions that her own kids would be able to attend the new middle school, knowing it would take years to become a reality. One of her children is a high school senior now and the other is in college. But that didn’t stop her selfless activism on the issue. “We knew it was never going to happen,” she said. “We just knew it was the right thing to do.” Sporting a thunderbolt cap and T-shirt, Bob Ely, another early parent activist in the effort, said the same: that he knew his own children would be too old by the time the school was ready, but that pushing for its creation was simply the right thing to do for the community. “This is great,” he said, with a grin. “This is such a great day.”