Cobble Hill’s charter battle: Two years later

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Was Success Academy Cobble Hill the invasion parents thought it would be?

Success Academy Cobble Hill playground area on Baltic Street. Rachel Lowry/The Brooklyn Ink

Success Academy Cobble Hill shares a building with three other schools on Baltic Street. Rachel Lowry/The Brooklyn Ink

It’s 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in Boerum Hill. The school bell rings and two doors burst open with a flood of children eager to begin their weekend. Rachel Porter searches for her son, a student at P.S. 261, and greets familiar faces of fellow parents. Save for one. A man with a handful of flyers touts a message: Join Success Academy charter school, set to open in the fall, and give your child a better education.

“It was completely inappropriate,” Porter said. “He was soliciting on public school grounds and, as an involved parent, I felt the right to protect the establishment of education we have worked to build up.”

Parents, teachers, and students confronted the charter representative outside P.S. 261, standing before him with signs and microphones. He left after three days. But the battle didn’t end there. After parents filed a lawsuit, and after mayor Bill De Blasio promised a full investigation, and after parents protested against approval of this branch of the charter school at town hall meetings and school information sessions, Success Academy Cobble Hill opened in the fall of 2012. Porter is one of many parents who feared the new charter would draw off many motivated parents from P.S. 261 and destroy its diversity balance, as well as harm the three public schools it would share a building with.

Now the question is, did it?

Unwelcome

In 2011, Eva S. Moskowitz, founder of Success Academy, announced plans to open a school on Baltic Street in Cobble Hill. She said the school, the first of 14 charters in New York City set to open by 2016, was part of her vision to expand the charter school network in mixed-income neighborhoods and, as she writes on her website, to provide a national model for education reform.

“Critics have questioned our motives for starting charters in these mixed-income neighborhoods,” Moskowitz wrote on WNYC’s website. “We do it in the name of diversity. Socioeconomic and racial diversity. It benefits everyone, and it is harder to achieve in this incredibly multi-cultural, racially mixed city than one might expect.”

Cobble Hill/Boerum Hill in Brooklyn is known for its high racial and socioeconomic disparities.Two housing projects—housing some 4,062 people in 17 buildings up to 21 stories high—stand north of a brownstone belt, about 35 blocks of luxury brownstones that hit the highest average sales prices in Brooklyn at $1.73 million in 2014, according to a recent report.

In a neighborhood that is struggling to integrate students from a range of diverse backgrounds, economic levels, and ethnicities, many parents were skeptical of Moskowtz’s intentions to promote integration. And some were vocal about it. Later that year, Moskowitz abruptly ended a town hall meeting when parents hissed objections to the school’s plan to move forward in Cobble Hill. After she left the meeting, a group called The Grassroots Education Movement, announced the screening of an anti-charter school film, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman.

In early 2012, parents in District 15 filed a lawsuit against the school’s opening, on the grounds that it had violated state law and also failed to fulfill New York City education laws. The lawsuit was dismissed. State Supreme Court justice, Peter Moulton ruled that the “statute does not require that charter applicants conduct such an exhaustive survey of support and opposition.”

At the heart of the resistance to Success Academy was a fear that the charter school would attract highly involved parents who would otherwise send their children to P.S. 261, and thus weaken it. They fear, in other words, that the charter school would attract highly motivated white parents from P.S. 261 and destroy its diversity balance, leaving them in a blacker, poorer, less integrated school.

“P.S. 261 is one of a minority of Brooklyn primary schools that manages to be truly diverse—racially, ethnically and economically,” wrote Lucinda Rosenfeld, a Boerum Hill parent in a piece that made it to a New York Times op-ed.“While 35 percent of its student body qualifies for free lunch, it also attracts and retains children from professional families of all races and creeds, who work in law, media and the arts. If Success Academy succeeds in luring away even a fraction of 261’s students, however, it could well create a snowball effect in which its middle-class population ends up fleeing.”

Another parent in a town hall meeting expressed fear that the charter would handpick children who come from affluent home, who are typically white.  “It is racist,” he said. “It displaces children from the Gowanus and Wyckoff and Red Hook projects with children who do not have the same ethnic background.”

Others were concerned about three other public schools—the School for International Studies; the Brooklyn School for Global Studies; and Public School 268K, a special education program—that the charter would share a building with. They worried that the charter would drain resources from its neighbors and disrupt existing programs.

“Space is a premium when it comes to citing a school,” Porter, a parent who protested the school, told The Brooklyn Ink. “They move into a building with three schools that served not the best and the brightest in the district, but decent schools. They think that maybe they share space and maybe these shitty schools close and maybe they keep growing.”

Jim Brennan, New York City Assemblyperson in the 44th District, agreed. “Every time we fragment the public school system further, with another co-location such as here, we continue to sever, fragment, and divide the remaining number of public schools and harm the base of public education.”

Some parents from P.S. 261 and other local schools claimed that Moskowitz “gamed the system” by applying for school approval in District 15, rather than District 13, for which she originally submitted. Without community consent or forewarning, the proposal was revised at the last minute.

Rallies and protests and town hall meetings brought outraged parents to vocalize their concerns. But despite opposition, the school opened in the fall of 2012.

Success Academy Cobble Hill playground area on Baltic Street. Rachel Lowry/The Brooklyn Ink

Success Academy Cobble Hill playground area. Rachel Lowry/The Brooklyn Ink

The Upshot

This month, six schools within the two neighborhoods will open their classrooms to some 2,800 kids. That includes Success Academy Cobble Hill. Two years since its opening, the impact of the charter reverberates throughout the community, though parents disagree on just what that impact is.

For some parents, the upshot in P.S. 261 was negligible.All the fuss was for nothing, said Judy Corless, the parent of two P.S. 261 students and a PTA member. Many parents she knew feared that Success Academy would draw highly involved parents to their school, she said. “I haven’t seen this happen.”

For Corless, P.S. 261 remains a diverse environment, with highly motivated parents who help contribute to the growth of the school.

“I don’t know how it has changed things,” said Linda Holmes, mother of a first grader at PS261. Her son had one of the most diverse classes in the school, with Spanish, Arabic, and Danish classmates who spoke little English the first day. P.S. 261 remains her top school, she said, because it’s so diverse.

Zipp Mills, The principal of P.S. 261 said the school has seen no difference. Success Academy “has not had a negative or positive effect on us, really,” she said. “It is really nice that parents have the ability to choose what they believe is best for their children and family, and what compliments their belief about education and education systems.”

For others, however, the effects of Success Academy seem crippling. “Half of our families went trotting off to their school,” said Rachel Porter, a parent with a son in P.S. 261. “Success Academy preyed on the anxieties parents have around the public school system and around affluence, providing an easy answer to those who want to opt out of the wisdom and the cooperation and the learning together that is the public school system.”

Parents take advantage of resources through free Pre-K at a public school, then leave for Success Academy, she said, adding that the effects can be worse in the upper grades.

Sashy Bogdanovich, a parent and PTA member, said P.S. 261 was under-enrolled this year, which led to less funding.

In addition to enrollment and funding hitches, Bogdanovich says, Success Academy threatens an integration balance that principal Mills has worked for ten years to build. “They should be landing in communities with schools that don’t have that balance.”

A look at the numbers, however, shows that the diversity issue is not such a big issue. In 2012, P.S. 261 had a student body of 28 percent African Americans, 25 percent Hispanics, 37 percent white children, and seven percent Asians, according to the DOE. By 2014, those percentages have fluctuated less than 2 percent more or less, to a 27 percent African Americans, 26 percent Hispanics, 38 percent white children, and six percent Asians.

Class diversity, too, saw only a slight decline, from 46 to 44 percent of students eligible for free or discounted lunch.

Principal Mills came to the school in 2005. Three other public schools in the building were strained on finances and they merged into one school, Mills said. “It was already pretty integrated.”

Since the school is not filled to capacity, Mills offers variances, which allow parents in other zones to request attendance at P.S. 261.

“There is no magic to it, really,” she said. “We don’t sit down and scientifically take three white children, and the same number of children of color. We don’t have time for that.” Diversity, she said, is inevitably achieved.

But there are other ways the charter is affecting neighboring public schools, parents said.

Some argue that charters have done harm by soaking up resources of non-charter schools. New York is one of several urban public school districts threatened by the rise of charter schools, according to a report by Moody’s last year. The report found that charters in poor urban areas pull resources and students away from school districts faster than non-charters can reduce their operating costs.

About 70,000 students—6.8 percent of the public school population—in New York attended a charter school in 2013, the report found.

Along with threatening diversity, Success Academy Cobble Hill was also accused of unfairly sucking resources from the three other public schools—School for International Studies, Brooklyn School for Global Studies and Public School 268K, a special education program—that share the same building with Success Academy.

Before opening in the fall, Success Academy had spent approximately $340,000 on building upgrades for its portion of the building, DOE spokeswoman Marge Feinberg and the school told WNYC. The charter had replaced lighting fixtures, renovated its bathrooms, repainted its walls, removed asbestos floor tiles, installed new doors and carpeting, and brought in new furniture.

Later in 2013, Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, wrote a letter to schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. He demanded a look at Success Academy’s financials, to see where the money was coming from. Bill De Blasio, then the public advocate, responded, calling on the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District to examine reports of inequality between Success Academy and the three public schools that share its building, according to a press release.

“This is worse than unfair,” he wrote. “Time and time again, we’ve seen a Tale of Two Cities, with resources lavished on Success Academy while traditional public schools in the same building lacked the most basic necessities.”

He said the renovations, which were made without city approval, were paid out of Moskowitz’s own pocket, something the three public schools are unable to do, as they must abide by a contract under DOE regulations. He called for a moratorium on closures and colocations until fair policy is implemented. Later, as mayor, he denied space to other Success Academy charter schools on the grounds that they are disrupting programs run by traditional schools, a decision he later reversed with a compromise. This was after Moscowitz flexed her political muscle in Albany.

“It’s as different as black and white,” Coleen Mingo, the parent of a seventh grader at the School for International Studies, told DNAinfo. “My son has sat in a hazardous classroom for years, while Eva Moskowitz’s charter school immediately gets new light fixtures before their school year even started.” Success Academy’s bathroom was newly renovated, while public school bathrooms were not, she said.

Jean E. Gazis, a parent with two boys who attend public schools Brooklyn Tech and M.S. 88, said Success Academy also has created a socioeconomic stratification.

“You have these children in uniforms, using Ipads for lessons, mingling with children from a poorly funded school that can’t even afford copy paper. These kids notice the differences,” said Bogdanovich. Students in the School for International Studies are only allowed to use certain staircases and water fountains that won’t disturb classes at Success Academy, she said. “Is this really altruism or is it an opportunity to undermine public education?”

But the DOE is required by law to spend the same amount on each non-charter public school sharing the building within three months of improvements made by the charter, DOE spokesperson Marge Feinberg told the Brooklyn Eagle. The city matched that with more than $2 million in improvements for the public schools, with electrical and classroom upgrades. “We not only met but exceeded compliance,” she said, noting that the city will increase monitoring of such projects.

The Placement of Charters

Some policy experts argue that charters could be a weapon for diversity and social equity instead of against them, but that it depends on where they are placed.

“Charters need to place their schools in a more strategic location where they can attract different students on, as they say it, the other side of the track,” said John Kuscera, author of a UCLA study that found that New York has the most segregated schools in the nation. “They need some kind of choice policy or civil rights standard that keeps a school from mirroring neighborhood segregation, but also doesn’t disrupt the integration within neighboring public schools.”

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