A City School’s Uphill Fight Over Sharing Space With a Charter
It has a substantial number of poor children, with about 75 percent receiving subsidized lunches. And because it is in a gentrifying neighborhood, Prospect Heights, the school also has a sizable number of yuppie children.
The co-presidents of the parent-teacher organization are Nelly Heredia, a single mother with two children who is out of work, and Penelope Mahot, a married mother with two children who owns a product design company and a gift store. The mothers like the same things about P.S. 9: the principal, Sandra D’Avilar, makes herself available to parents; the school is full of experienced teachers; the parents’ groups are thriving; the children are learning; there are classes in art, music, theater and dance.
The parents also share a concern: P.S. 9 ends at fifth grade, and the district’s middle schools are weak. “The middle school my older daughter goes to is nothing like this,” Ms. Heredia said.
There is a middle school in the P.S. 9 building, M.S. 571, but it is low-performing, and on Dec. 6, the Department of Education announced plans to phase it out.
That got P.S. 9 parents thinking. Why not use the soon-to-be-vacant space in their building to expand to eighth grade? “I talked to several people about the idea,” said Christina LaBrie, a lawyer who has two children at P.S. 9.
But on Dec. 20, city officials unveiled a holiday surprise. The department said it planned to move a middle-grade charter school — Brooklyn East Collegiate, a member of the Uncommon Schools charter chain — into the space opening up at P.S. 9.
In the four months since, P.S. 9 parents have fought City Hall, scoring a few upset victories. But they have also learned a hard lesson: once the mayor’s people set their sights on a location, the chances of successfully challenging a charter are slim. Supporters of district schools fear that once a charter moves in, it will take over the building. They resent being compared academically, when on average, charters in New York City have fewer poor, immigrant and special-education students.
Even before the P.S. 9 parents got started, they were too late.
To add a middle school, department regulations required P.S. 9 to have filed a letter of intent by April 13, 2010; the final application was supposed to have been filed by July 15, 2010.
A classic Catch-22: There was no reason to apply until space was available, but by the time space was available, it was too late to apply.
When the department proposes adding a school to a building, it must create a plan for the shared spaces: the cafeteria, gym and library. It was the department’s plan for the library that galled P.S. 9 parents most.
The parents had spent the previous two years rebuilding that library, which had been closed for years and was in bad shape. They had won $450,000 in grants to be used for the library, thanks to Councilwoman Letitia James and the Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz.
A parent who is an architect, Ilya Azaroff, and another who is an interior designer, Kiki Dennis, prepared renovation plans. A freelance copy editor, Maria McGrath, spent months figuring out which books to save and which should be discarded because they were out of date.
Last fall, the library finally opened.
A few months later, the department unveiled its building usage plan: The new P.S. 9 library would be available to the charter school for 6 hours 45 minutes a week; P.S. 9 would get its library for 4 hours 30 minutes.
If ever there were a metaphor for the balance of power between district public schools and charters under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, it is the charter’s extra 2 hours 15 minutes of library time.
A chain like Uncommon Schools, which operates 22 charters, has a big advantage. When it applies to expand, it does not have to limit itself to a school zone or a particular building.
It has far more money and staff members for developing new schools than does a district principal. Besides the $13,527 per student in public money the charter receives, Uncommon Schools also receives millions of dollars in corporate donations from, among others, the Broad, Walton and Jack Kent Cooke foundations. According to its most recent tax filing, from 2008, the charter chain has five executives making between $162,427 and $191,109 and another five between $106,833 and $132,844.
The P.S. 9 principal has parent volunteers. District schools are so outgunned that Advocates for Children, a nonprofit organization, has posted a do-it-yourself kit on its Web site for parents fighting a co-location battle.
When the Uncommon Schools principals go to public meetings, they speak passionately about their schools and bring along buses full of children and parents dressed in charter school T-shirts.
District principals would not dare. They are scared to death that there will be repercussions if they challenge the department. The P.S. 9 principal would not even come to the phone to say, “No comment.” “She’s afraid of what they’d do to her,” said Ivana Espinet, a parent.
A department spokesman said there was no favoritism, that the charter was chosen because of Uncommon’s excellent middle-school test scores and ratings. It is true about the test scores and ratings. The chain’s three middle schools that have been operating long enough to have ratings get all A’s on the department report cards. One of those schools, Williamsburg Collegiate, ranks in the 99th percentile among city middle schools.
Two Uncommon elementary schools have been operating long enough to have ratings. Excellence Charter School of Bedford-Stuyvesant got a C and an A on its last two report cards; Leadership Preparatory School got a B the year it was rated.
P.S. 9 got a C and an A the last two years.
Comparing a district school with a charter can be apples and oranges. Charters have more freedom to push out troublesome students. In 2008, Kings Collegiate suspended 46 percent of its students. In 2008, the Kings fifth grades had 81 students; when those children moved up in 2009, there were 55 sixth graders.
A spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools said that only a small part of the reduction was due to attrition; most can be explained by students’ being held back for lack of academic skills.
In 2008, P.S. 9 suspended 1 percent of its students. In 2008, P.S. 9 had 76 third graders; the next year, it had 76 fourth graders.
P.S. 9 has more children who are poor or foreign-born or have special educational needs than the two Uncommon elementary charters.
For a month, P.S. 9’s parents prepared to present their case to the Panel for Educational Policy. The mayor appoints a majority of the panel, and it functions as his rubber stamp.
“We actually believed we could win,” said Faye Rimalovski, a parent.
They did not.
The parents thought that was it. But three weeks later, Ms. LaBrie, the lawyer, found the do-it-yourself co-location kit and realized they could appeal.
The deadline was 10 days away.
Ms. LaBrie knew nothing about education law; she is an immigration lawyer. But by using the kit and getting help from other parents, she wrote a brief.
It was due March 5, a Saturday. The parents filed the following Monday.
Three city lawyers prepared a response brief. The charter was represented by Carrie E. Flynn, an education specialist for Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, a firm of 75 lawyers.
Ms. Flynn argued that the parents’ brief should be thrown out because it was late. The state education commissioner, David M. Steiner, rejected her argument, saying that if a deadline fell on Saturday, Monday was fine.
On March 31, the commissioner ruled that the city’s shared-space plan was inequitable.
P.S. 9 won. Ms. Rimalovski, who had worked in corporate public relations, put out the word, and the news spread across the city.
The victory may be short-lived. The commissioner directed the mayor’s three lawyers to make revisions and file a new plan. If accepted, the charter will move in.
Last week, the city posted a revised proposal for the shared space. P.S. 9 would get almost four full days of library time. The charter is reduced to 4 hours 30 minutes.
M.S. 571 is also involved. Though it is being closed, the phase-out will take three years. The middle school will shrink each year as its students go on to city high schools.
Under the old plan, M.S. 571 got two full days in the library; under the new plan, it gets five hours a week.
The children of M.S. 571 — who are the poorest, with the lowest test scores, and do not have three city lawyers, 10 executives making over $100,000 or even one volunteer immigration lawyer — lost the most time.