Charter Co-location: Where Parasite Is Meant to Kill Its Host
Network for Public Education (NPE) Executive Director and former New York principal, Carol Burris, regularly writes for Valerie Strauss’ “Answer Sheet” column of the Washington Post. On March 17, 2016, Strauss featured this article by Burris entitled, “What Can Happen When a Neighborhood School is Forced to Share Its Space with a Charter.” I have reproduced Burris’ piece in full at the end of this post because Strauss, who introduces the article, is correct in her assertion that most of America has no idea about the now-common New York practice of charter co-location, or of a traditional public school being required to share its facilities with a charter that has scoped out that school and targeted it for its “underutilized space.” In reality, what is often termed as “underutilized” by some distant authority able to force the current school into a situation of awkward functioning (dys-functioning?) is space that has a purpose, just not one that the authority recognizes as valuable.
And the situation does not stop with a simple move-in. Often, the original school (a traditional public school) is forced out by the parasitic charter. That might seem like hard language, but it is true. The traditional school must be forced to share common spaces (e.g., libraries, lunch rooms), and, as Burris notes in her article, it becomes as tedious as a family being forced to take another family into the first family’s home.
I first wrote about co-location in my book, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education, in my chapter about New York City charter maven, Eva Moskowitz. On one particular occasion, in 2008, Moskowitz was pushing for more rooms in a school, P.S. 7. Then-Deputy Chancellor John White sent her an email basically telling her that if she would just wait it out without a fuss and let time pass, she could shut out P.S. 7. As noted in Echoes (pages 26-27):
The “space-sharing” tactic of NYCDOE’s installing a charter school inside of an existent public school is to have only one school survive. Consider this email excerpt from then-Deputy Chancellor John White to Moskowitz. It is part of a greater exchange in which Moskowitz is demanding another classroom for her school, a short-term outcome according to White, who is attempting to refocus Moskowitz on a longer-term “strategy” to “play nice for now,” so to speak, in order to possibly gain the entire facility in the future:
Going back to the school and reopening the space allocation process… is not an advisable course of action when a longer-term discussion about how all students in this zone are served looms. It doesn’t take much investigation to realize that Harlem Succcess’s very place… in the P.S. 7 facility implies a question for 2009-2010: one school has to move or one school has to phase out or close. Given the immediacy of that very large question… I do not think that starting a dispute, in the school and in the community, about an individual classroom at this stage in the process is prudent.26 [Emphasis added.]
White is telling Moskowitz to let the single classroom issue go so as to not stir up the people who will eventually lose the entire school to the likes of Moskowitz if all goes as planned. It is clear that the “one school” to “phase out or close” is supposed to be the public school.
Charter co-location simply is not done to enhance or improve the situation of the host school. the welfare of that host school is threatened, and those affiliated with the host school– its teachers, students, parents, and administrators– know so full well.
I read Burris’ article just as my school was taking in for the day. I asked some of my students (sophomores) about their thoughts on co-location. First of all, I teach in Louisiana, and the idea of co-locating a school is foreign. So, I tried to have them imagine another school taking over one of our main halls. I asked them what the problem would be with that. “Fights” was the first response– that the co-location would breed rivalry. I asked about other unanticipated consequences. One student said, “Sharing the cafeteria.”
Another student walked in, and catching only part of the conversation, he asked if this were something that was going to happen to us, in Louisiana.
I said, “No, but it is happening in New York.”
Another asked, “Who decides this [co-location]?”
I responded, “A board. Some board removed from the situation and making judgments that might look good on paper.”
What looks good on paper often requires a very real fight from those who would be negatively affected. Such is true in the case of Meyer Levin School for the Performing Arts in Brooklyn New York, as Burris effectively details in her post, introduced by Strauss and featured below.
by Valerie Strauss
One of the features of the charter school movement that may be unknown to many is what is called “co-location,” when a charter is permitted to open up in a traditional school building to share space with a functioning school. The schools are run independently but resourced differently. In this post, Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is now executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education, explains how co-locations work and problems they can create. She was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year.
By Carol Burris
Imagine this. You get a call telling you that another family will now occupy the second floor of your home. After you recover from your initial shock, you complain. “Outrageous,” you say. That is where I have my office, our second bathroom and the guest bedroom for when my mother comes to stay.” You quickly learn the decision is not yours to make. This is a top-down order, and you must comply.
As far-fetched as the above might seem, the above is what principals in New York City and other cities around the country face when charter schools demand space. And although principals may not “own” their schools, the community that surrounds the school surely does. Yet, no matter how strongly they protest, community voices are nearly always ignored.
With increasing frequency, community-based schools, located predominantly in poor neighborhoods, are being hedged in, disrupted and derailed by charter school co-location, which is the forced insertion of a charter school into an existing neighborhood public school.
The students and parents of Meyer Levin School for the Performing Arts (I. S. 285) are learning this lesson now. Meyer Levin, which is located in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, is a magnet for middle school students who want to develop their musical and performance talents. Eighty nine percent of the school’s student body receives free or reduced priced lunch, and 93 percent are black. Nearly one in five have a learning disability. Although some students come from other parts of the city, the vast majority are neighborhood kids.
Five weeks ago, the phone call arrived that a new Uncommon Elementary Charter School wanted to move into Meyer Levin, which the New York City Department of Education claims is an underutilized building. The Uncommon Charter would take over the third floor where the school’s dance study, two band rooms, theater production room, choral room, lighting room, sound room, computer labs and community offices for special programs are located. In other words, they would take the floor that is the heart of this performing arts school.
Shortly after the call, the charter school came to the building for a walk -through. When she heard about the visit, community activist, Zakiyha Ansari, was outraged. Four of her daughters had graduated from the school and she understood its deep ties to the community. “It is like someone coming to your home to figure out what piece of furniture they want. And this happened even before approval. “
Ansari remembers Meyer Levin with great fondness. “My daughters had so much when they were there. They had a science lab, a steel pan orchestra, one of my daughters got into poetry. They had access to amazing things that I thought all schools had, until I learned that what they were experiencing was rare.”
Ansari’s praise for the school was echoed by other parents—as was her outrage that a charter school would come in to claim space. Kianne Guadeloupe, the mother of a seventh grader speaks with pride about her older daughter who graduated and went on to Brooklyn College Academy. She credits the school’s arts program for giving her confidence and helping her to succeed. Her belief in the transformative power of the arts was shared by parent and PTA member, Donna Rose, who is the mother of an eighth grader with special needs. “If they take that floor they will take away what the school is all about—the performing arts. My daughter learned her dance skills here. Getting into dance brought her out of her shell, and now she is on the honor roll. She always wants to be in school now.”
Make no mistake: Meyer Levin is not a failing school. Its scores are above the district average, and above the state average for students who are black and economically disadvantaged. The school’s focus on the arts has helped support academics in the school. And the performing arts program anchors the community, and is a source of great pride.
To understand why the performing arts matters so much to this East Flatbush community, I spoke with Eddie Gentile, who was principal of Meyer Levin from 2001-2008. Before he became principal, Gentile was a teacher in the school. He spent 31 years in total nurturing the program in the arts and helping it grow. He told me that the school began its performing arts center in 1978. During the 1980s, it was supported by a neighborhood group, the Friends of Education. Eventually a rich program in performing arts became an integral part of the school day.
Teacher and school programmer, Rocco Romano is certain that the performing arts will suffer if the school is co-located. Romano creates a special “breakout period” that allows nearly every student to take classes in the performing arts, including the school’s special needs students. “We run an inclusive program. It is during the breakout period that students engage in their specific arts discipline. We put on three large performances a year for the community in addition to performances by the individual groups. Beyond losing our performing arts floor, if we are forced to share space, our program will lose the flexibility that allows for our intensive arts programming. Fewer kids will be able to participate and the quality of the performances will suffer,” Romano said.
The third floor is also the home of Higher Levin, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) youth organization based in the East Flatbush that was founded in 2006 in order to provide an alternative to the streets. Its intent was to keep Levin alumni connected to the performing arts even after they graduated middle school. It is now open to all teens in the community. Program director Tichard Chapman, cannot imagine the program without the third floor. Not only does it provide office space, it provides the program with performance space. The third floor is also the home to East Flatbush Village, a youth development community organization that offers mentoring and sports to the neighborhood kids.
Former principal Gentile describes himself as “heartbroken” and fears what may come. “East Flatbush is a hardworking community where people have two or three jobs. This school is known for sports and arts and 90 percent of the kids come from the community. It is a second home.” He is also worried for the school’s future. “I’ve seen this with similar situations. Once it [charter school] gets in it will grow and will phase out Meyer Levin. [Success charter school network operator] Eva Moskowitz and her group have a keen sense of what is going on.”
Ansari agrees. “There is a pattern to these co-locations. We see it. The charter school kids do not want to play with ‘those kids’- it creates tension and anxiety. They say it will be three grades, then they say they want to expand. Meanwhile the community public schools lose enrollment and high-achieving kids to the charter. It is sabotaging the school. We need to call it out, saying ‘enough is enough.’”
Ultimately the city’s PEP (Panel for Educational Policy) committee makes the decision on whether the co-location will take place. But the timeline is short and while parents are ready for the fight, many worry that PEP just goes through the motions. There is also a suspicion that charters target communities like theirs because they expect less resistance from parents who are poor.
Former District 30 Board President, Isaac Carmignani, does not disagree that charters seem to target communities with fewer resources to fight back. During his tenure, the board of the more diverse and more affluent District 30 was able to stave off, or at least control, many charter co-locations. Last year’s bid by the Success Charter chain to co-locate in the Andries Hudde Middle School in the Midwood section of Brooklyn was tabled and then ultimately rejected. More often than not, however, the co-location goes through.
Despite parent protests, the Achievement First charter chain was able to secure space in a Bushwick, Brooklyn school building that was the home to two public middle schools. Councilman Antonio Reynoso spoke out against the co-location, referring to it as a systematic displacement from the community. Other school districts located in the poorer sections of Brooklyn are being totally overwhelmed by charters, with neighborhood schools forced into mergers or closed as enrollment drops.
Despite the tough road ahead, the community around Meyer Levin intends to keep the Uncommon Charter out. They never asked for a charter school and they want the school they are proud of to stay intact. An emergency meeting sponsored by the PTA in late February was packed with alumni, parents, teachers and community members, and next Wednesday’s meeting is expected to draw an even bigger crowd.
“This is basically bullying,” Zakiyha Ansari said. “And we are gearing up for the fight.”