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, Zakiyah 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,” Zakiyah Ansari said. “And we are gearing up for the fight.”