East Side

One Woman's Dream: A Schoolhouse Switch
Published: June 5, 2005, by the New York Times

The simple idea: Sell the first, use part of the money to renovate the second, move the children there and add the remaining profit to the school system's coffers.

Gwen at P.S. 198 Photographs by Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times
Gwen Goodwin wants to send students from crowded P.S. 198, above, to P.S. 109, top.

This is the thought that Gwen Goodwin, a 20-year East Harlem resident who sells cosmetics at high-end department stores, has hatched. She was at the forefront of the fight to save the unused Public School 109, which is on 99th Street between Second and Third Avenues and was slated for demolition in 1999, and since then has fought to preserve the building. But turning it into a working school again would cost $25 million, she said, and school officials have consistently told her that local schools are not overcrowded.

"P.S. 109 is a bigger space, and a much more beautiful space," than the crowded P.S. 198, Ms. Goodwin said. "P.S. 109 makes you feel good when you go in. When you walk through P.S. 198, you feel dreary."

Few parents are overjoyed with the building that houses P.S. 198 and the Lower Lab School, on the corner of 96th Street and Third Avenue. Distinctive for its powder-blue exterior and wholly undistinctive for its shoebox shape, it sits on prime real estate, surrounded by towering apartment buildings.

"This is a less valuable building on a more valuable lot," Ms. Goodwin said. "It's basically a no-risk plan."

Soon after receiving a letter from the School Construction Authority rejecting another request to restore P.S. 109, she sent a letter suggesting the switch on May 27 to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein.

As it turns out, the Department of Education does have plans for the schools - but not Ms. Goodwin's. Jamie Smarr, executive director of the department's educational construction fund, hopes that within two years both sites would be leased to developers to construct combination schools and residences.

"They're so valuable that we feel both of them should be redeveloped," Mr. Smarr said. "It would be a real win for both communities if we could get two new schools instead of one."

Parents at P.S. 198 and the Lower Lab School had mixed reactions to the idea. "We're here already and everything's fine, so why upset everybody?" said Jacqueline Samuels, a resident of Greenwich Village whose son attends Lower Lab. "It's not gorgeous, but it's a public school." And, she noted, it is only a block away from the 6 train.

P.S. 198 parents, who are mostly local residents, seemed more open to the idea. "I've always wondered when they were going to use that building," said Gabrielle Evans, who grew up in East Harlem. "I think it's a great idea."