Millennium High’s gymnasium hopes are fading

Millennium High students on the school’s fencing team are forced to practice in the cafeteria because they do not have a gymnasium. Photo courtesy of Angela Benfield

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |    After years of fighting for a school gymnasium, parents and administrators at Millennium High School have lost hope.

The school and community began to fiercely rally around the cause in the early 2000s and have since managed to raise $2.5 million for the gym. Kathleen Grimm, the Department of Education’s Deputy Chancellor of Operations, pledged to supplement the funds with an additional $4 million if the Department found a suitable site for the facility.

But none of the possible gym sites the D.O.E. has looked at — including a space on the school building’s 34th floor — were deemed viable options, and a chunk of the $2.5 million was reallocated to other schools.

The promised sum of $4 million fell through as well.

“At this time, due to the city’s economic situation, the Department can no longer set aside additional funding when projects relating to more basic city needs, such as building more seats and upgrading our aging buildings, are being deferred,” Lorraine Grillo, president and chief executive officer of the School Construction Authority, wrote to the school’s Parent Association last spring.

“We were a little surprised and very disappointed,” said Millennium’s parent coordinator, Angela Benfield, of the news. “When we didn’t take [the funds] in a timely manner, they went to other expenses for other schools.”

What remains from the original pot of money is a sum of $350,000 secured by former District One Councilmember Alan Gerson; and $750,000 from Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office.

Despite the setbacks, Community Board 1 is vowing not to stop its lobbying efforts on behalf of Millennium and is crafting another resolution this month in support of the gym.

“I don’t blame the school for being tired with it, but the school needs a gym,” said Paul Hovitz, chair of the C.B. 1’s Youth and Education Committee. “We respect that the S.C.A. has rules and regulations to follow, but point of fact: there has to be some space in Lower Manhattan, with all the empty vacant commercial space down here, that would be accomplishable.”

Assembly Speaker Silver is also holding out hope for the gym.

“I strongly encourage the S.C.A. to explore all possible options for building Millennium High School a long-overdue gymnasium,” said Silver. “I am disappointed that this gym, for which I secured funding four years ago, has still not been built.”

Rather than continue to fight what they see is a losing battle, however, school administrators and parents are hoping to salvage the remaining monies for other school-related expenses, such as student lockers, technology upgrades and proper maintenance of equipment in the fitness center.

“We’re not getting anywhere with [the gym]. We’ve spent enough time on it,” said Millennium H.S. Principal Robert Rhodes. “We’ve moved on to focusing on spending money on the school.”

“If the community board would find us a space and get the S.C.A. to build a gym for us, we would love that,” said Benfield. “As far as the school administration and the parent association, we just can’t dedicate any more time to it. We can’t keep working on an issue when we keep getting stonewalled.”

The school’s decision to abandon its plea for a gym is a matter of pragmatism rather than satisfaction, according to former P.A. President Tom Moore.

“We’ve got other fish to fry,” Moore said. “The parents and administration need to put our energy into things that’ll yield benefits for the school. You can only beat your head against the wall so many times.”

For example, the school needs more laptops, which students use during and after school to do research and homework. Now, there are only 80 laptops available for a student body of 650. There is also a locker shortage, forcing the students to share compartments with one another. And the fitness center’s treadmills and bike machines, which are abused from overuse, require maintenance work.

But the school’s team sports program would continue to suffer without a gym, according to Millennium’s athletic director, Aaron Silverman. Ironically, Silverman said, the school’s athletics are growing, not diminishing, in popularity. The program now offers basketball, baseball, soccer, cross-country and fencing to its students.

“Every year, we’ve been adding a team or two teams to meet the demand, and the sad reality is we’ve been forced to make really difficult choices as far as where and when to have practices,” said Silverman. “The fitness center is very nice, but it’s not adequate for the quantity of students and what we’d like them to be doing athletically.”

Lacking a gym forces the various teams to practice at a range of locations around the city, including East Side Middle School on the Upper East Side, the Y.M.C.A. in Chinatown and Millennium’s other campus in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Due to scheduling conflicts at the different venues, Millennium teams must begin practice as early as 6:45 a.m. and as late as 7 p.m. on weekdays.

“It’s very annoying,” said Millennium junior Alisa Allen, who has been on the basketball team since freshman year. “Last year, I’d have to leave my house at 6 [a.m.] in order to get [to practice] at the right time.”

On nights of evening practices, Allen said she wouldn’t get home until 9 p.m. “I’d have to start my homework then… and it’s a lot of work,” she said.

The team’s demanding practice schedule was a deal breaker for Allen’s classmate, Taneice Williams and her family. “My dad wasn’t comfortable with me traveling that early in the morning or that late at night to practice,” Williams explained.

Williams, now 16 years old, is going to give sports a try this year, but she feels she’s at a disadvantage by joining the team as a junior. “I was upset — I really wanted to be able to come to high school and play on a team,” she said. “It just feels like I missed out, ‘cause I’m starting in 11th grade.”

Not having a gym also eliminates the possibility of introducing indoor sports to the school such as volleyball; and moving last-minute scrimmages indoors during bad weather, Silverman said.

“For the baseball team, if it rains, we’re done. There’s no practice,” said Silverman. “Same goes with soccer.”

Despite the inconveniences, however, Silverman backed Rhodes and the others in their decision to let go of the prospect of a gym.

“I’d love to keep fighting, but it really appears as though the gym is not going to happen for whatever reason,” said Silverman. “There’s no shortage of space where the money could be put to really good use.”