Two years ago, the organizers of Shuang Wen School shopped around for a home for the first public elementary school in the nation intended to cultivate fluency in both English and Mandarin Chinese. They found an open door at Public School 134 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the two schools hoped to coexist amicably in the same four-story pink brick building.
But things have not worked out that way, and the welcome mat has been pulled back.
Some teachers at P.S. 134 on East Broadway have accused Shuang Wen of racial isolation, contending that the guest school’s largely Asian population keeps to itself in the five classrooms it occupies on the first and second floors and refuses to socialize with the more mixed population of Hispanic and Asian students at the larger school.
The teachers also resent Shuang Wen’s expansion into more and more classrooms. And they complain that Shuang Wen’s long school days — until 5:30 p.m. daily — have stirred further resentment from P.S. 134 teachers who are unable to earn overtime with such frequency.
The leaders of Shuang Wen defend themselves as good guests. The salaries for the longer hours that Shuang Wen’s teachers work, they say, are paid by private foundations. Their students would mingle with those from P.S. 134, they say, but cannot because they are barred under the sharing arrangement from using the gym, library and computer lab.
Still, the dispute is a reflection of the kinds of tensions that can occur when unconventional schools like Shuang Wen share space with traditional schools like P.S. 134. Sometimes, as in Shuang Wen’s case, the unconventional theme of the school itself can be the source of problems because it draws such a distinct group of students.
The phenomenon of space sharing became a serious problem citywide a decade ago, when small, alternative schools began cropping up in large numbers. About 150 now exist. The idea behind the movement was to replace large, overcrowded neighborhood schools with small experimental schools to increase opportunities for individual attention and parental involvement.
Michael B. Webb, vice president of New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit educational reform group that is leading the small-school movement and helped set up Shuang Wen and roughly 40 other schools, called the Public School 134 squabble disheartening but did not express surprise. “Some schools have moved three and four times because of space problems,” Mr. Webb said. “Some schools actually failed because they were unable to get their own individual space.”
To avoid conflict, some host schools schedule special times for their alternative schools to use the gym, cafeteria, auditorium, library and even classrooms. Some small schools have restrictions on when they can use the main staircase, and many have to endure the old-fashioned bell schedule of their parent school.
The Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Study Center for Law and Peace was never able to gain its independence from Junior High School 43 in District 5 in Harlem, which has caused friction between the two schools, Mr. Webb said. The center wants to be independent but does not have the support of the district, which has allowed J.H.S. 43 essentially to run the study center. The center is expected to close at the end of the year, he said.
But other schools have been able to work together, including the Essence School, a middle school in District 19, which is housed in Intermediate School 166 in Brooklyn, and KIPP Academy in the Bronx, which uses a floor and a half of Public School 156.
Some schools get along so well that they operate as one, holding staff meetings and student assemblies together. Most schools run by the Center for Educational Innovation, a group that helped set up 88 alternative schools, combine city and state reading and math scores to avoid tensions over achievement, said Seymour Fliegel, the center’s president.
But Shuang Wen, also known as Public School 184, prides itself on its autonomy, and one sign of this is that it would not allow its test scores to be absorbed by P.S. 134, said Ling-Ling Chou, its director.
Shuang Wen’s stay at P.S. 134 was always temporary, and it needs to find a new home by June 2001.
Its growth, though, has been faster than anticipated, and that has been part of the problem. When it moved into P.S. 134, it had 37 students in prekindergarten. This year, the school has a total of 110 students in prekindergarten and first grade. Next year, it expects to grow by 50 students when it adds two second-grade classes. P.S. 134 has about 440 students, and its enrollment is also expected to increase next year.
“Shuang Wen” means “double language” in Chinese. Almost all of the school’s students are of Chinese descent, though fewer than a quarter speak Mandarin, the main language of China and Taiwan. Many are fluent in Cantonese, which is still the predominant dialect in Chinatown, and a few speak no Chinese at all.
Shuang Wen students hardly stand out at P.S. 134, which is 52 percent Hispanic, 27 percent Asian and 16 percent black. But their isolation is most apparent at lunch, when Shuang Wen students are required to sit at designated tables. They are distinguishable by their solid gray uniforms in a school where most students wear uniforms of blue plaid jumpers and ties and navy slacks.
The majority of Shuang Wen’s regular school day, until 3 p.m., is taught in English and runs like any typical classroom, though the bulletin boards have Chinese characters.
In a prekindergarten classroom one recent morning, students wrote their names in English on lined paper and read from a picture book before going on a classroom trip to see a production of “Peter Pan.”
The bulk of the complaints, said the teachers’ union representative at the school, Phyllis Levy, center on Shuang Wen’s isolation and the fact that Shuang Wen parents donate $300 each to support the Mandarin Chinese program.
Loretta Caputo, who became principal of P.S. 134 in September, said last week that the separate schools created such an uproar that she and Ms. Chou were working on a plan to integrate the schools next year, which would include sharing the library, gym and other common areas. The change would make Shuang Wen’s last year at the school more comfortable, though most students and parents were apparently unaware that there was any tension.
“After the fact, we heard there was a misunderstanding, but my son loves this school,” Tina Ng said, speaking of her 7-year-old, Alexander, at Shuang Wen. “He has never had problems with students from the other school. But we do need our own building.”