Monday, November 30, 2009

City’s Schools Share Their Space, and Bitterness by Jennifer Medina -

Read original...
Public school parents protested the proposed expansion of a charter school in New York City. As charters take up more space in public school buildings, resentment is growing. Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Suzanne Tecza had spent a year redesigning the library at Middle School 126 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, including colorful new furniture and elaborate murals of leafy trees. So when her principal decided this year to give the space to the charter high schools that share the building, Ms. Tecza was furious.

“It’s not fair to our students,” she said of the decision, which gives the charter students access to the room for most of the day. “It’s depriving them of a fully functioning library, something they deserve.”

In Red Hook, Brooklyn, teachers at Public School 15 said they avoid walking their students past rooms being used by the PAVE Academy Charter School, fearing that they will envy those students for their sparkling-clean classrooms and computers. On the Lower East Side, the Girls Preparatory Charter School was forced to turn away 50 students it had hoped to accept because it was unable to find more room in the Public School 188 building.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has made charter schools one of his third-term priorities, and that means that in New York, battles and resentment over space — already a way of life — will become even more common. He and his schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, have allowed nearly two-thirds of the city’s 99 charter schools to move into public school buildings, officials expect two dozen charter schools to open next fall, and the mayor has said he will push the Legislature to allow him to add 100 more in the next four years.

In Harlem, parents have chafed and picketed against an expanding charter school network, the Harlem Success Academy, which is housed in several public schools. In Brownsville, Brooklyn, a plan to close a failing elementary school and let a charter take over the building was shelved after a lawsuit. At P.S. 15, teachers and parents were furious about plans for PAVE to expand next year, after having been told the school would be gone by the end of this academic year. Several hundred parents filled a middle school auditorium in Marine Park, Brooklyn, in the spring to rail against a proposal to house the new Hebrew Language Academy there. The school eventually found a home in a yeshiva.

Charter schools, privately run but publicly financed, are generally nonunion, freeing them from labor restrictions. They have gained traction with their promise of innovative teaching methods and more flexible work rules for teachers. Arne Duncan, President Obama’s education secretary, has told states that they must remove impediments to charter schools as a condition of winning so-called Race to the Top grants.

In New York, as in most states, charter schools receive no money for construction, forcing them to raise millions on their own — or find a willing host. In other cities, where charters are only begrudgingly accepted by public school officials, tensions between public and charter schools sharing a building would be unheard of, because the charters are forced to find their own homes.

But Mr. Bloomberg has embraced them. In his speech last week on his third-term education goals, Mr. Bloomberg called on the Legislature to lift the state’s limit on charter schools. He also called on Albany to provide money for charter school facilities, even threatening to sue the state if it did not.

In the meantime, Mr. Klein has aggressively eased the way for charter schools, citing their popularity — most have far more applicants than seats. “There are so many talented people out there, and I want them to come to New York,” Mr. Klein said in an interview. “Why would we want to put up barriers to that?”

Todd Ziebarth, the vice president of policy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, called support like Mr. Klein’s “extremely rare.”

“In starting a new school, you are also launching a small business,” Mr. Ziebarth said. “Space is the most difficult and challenging thing to think about and figure out.”

Despite its constraints, Girls Prep is eager to expand, so city officials are proposing to move it or a small special education program into another building, possibly P.S. 20 or P.S. 184, the dual-language Shuang Wen School.

This month, more than 500 people packed into the P.S. 20 auditorium on the Lower East Side to complain about the proposals. Hundreds of parents rallied outside, shouting “Save our school!” over the buzz of traffic on Essex Street.

None of the schools, it seemed, had the more than 20 classrooms that Girls Prep needed. “Nobody wants to give up the space we have fought so hard for,” said Ann Lupardi, a Shuang Wen parent. “These are science labs and art rooms that we helped find the money to get because we think they are essential.”

Miriam Lewis Raccah, who oversees Girls Prep, said charter operators are not looking for fights but are enthusiastically trying to create successful schools in areas that have lagged for years.

“Nobody wants to give up a school that’s part of a neighborhood’s identity,” she said. “The reality is that there is still a need for better schools, and the question is: Where are we going to go? It’s not as if we’re creating new kids.”

Officials estimate that over all, the city’s schools are 80 percent full. But figures vary widely school to school, with some bursting while others have as many as a dozen classrooms not being used for teaching. Even determining how many rooms are free is contentious — most schools use open space for activities like dance, tutoring and computers — but Education Department officials often treat those rooms as “underutilized space” to allow another school to come in.

Schools that share space often have other tensions just below the surface. In some cases, as in Brownsville and Harlem, the regular public school has not performed well and has seen enrollments shrink while parents flock to the charter on the other side of the building. Charter schools that have had success raising private donations have new desks and computers to show for it. And most charter school teaching staffs are not unionized, giving them vastly different work rules and pay scales.

Sometimes life inside the schools simply resembles life in New York City, with mismatched neighbors learning to tolerate each other. In the P.S. 16 building in Williamsburg, the public elementary school uses the gym most of the day while Williamsburg Collegiate, a charter middle school in the building, waits until the late afternoon. And when the charter school expanded to ninth grade this year, there was little fuss, just a move into four more classrooms.

At M.S. 126, despite the librarian’s dismay, the principal, Rosemary Ochoa, has worked out what she considers a viable plan with the Williamsburg Charter High School and its two small spinoffs, which also occupy the building. The charters get the library for most of the day, and Ms. Tecza is expected to travel to individual classrooms to teach the public students library skills.

In Red Hook, Spencer Robertson, PAVE’s founder, said he expected to stay in P.S. 15 for two more years because his plans for a new building fell through. He said that while community meetings about the school have often erupted in shouts, “they’ve been a very good neighbor in general, and we don’t even know there’s a conflict most days.”

“But the issue of space really plays on that emotional level,” he said. “Everything is about ‘they are taking your space’ even if it’s not clear who ‘they’ are.”