Charters Target Middle-Class Brooklyn

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The Success Academy, the city's largest group of charters, opened a Williamsburg branch (above) this summer and is planning on starting Fort Greene and Prospect Heights locations next.

Photo by: Pearl Gabel

The Success Academy, the city's largest group of charters, opened a Williamsburg branch (above) this summer and is planning on starting Fort Greene and Prospect Heights locations next.

The fifth graders, dressed in white shirts and navy slacks or shirts, sit in neat rows as the teacher offers up some basic principles of division. “How can you divide 0 into 64 pieces?” she asks, before telling them to write a definition in their notebook–taking care to write neatly and use complete sentences.

Down the hall, an English teacher offers explicit directions to another group of children. “If you do not have your written material, wait and put your hand in the air,” she says. “Every binder should be zipped and standing next to your desk.”

This middle school, Brooklyn Ascend in Brownsville, goes beyond academic basics–students read Shakespeare and study art, Spanish and music. But it smacks of discipline and tradition. The school’s founder, Steven Wilson, says such routines avoid wasted time.

“We have a tremendous amount of work to do here to overcome deficiencies” that the school’s largely low-income, black students arrive at the school with, Wilson says. “Teachers leading very purposeful activities are the way to allow our students to catch up and make a middle-class life.”

For almost a decade, schools such as Brooklyn Ascend have represented the face of charter schools in New York City. Overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, they stress academics and discipline in their efforts to push children in the city’s most blighted neighborhoods to excel academically.

Now, though, charter schools in Brooklyn have entered a new phase. Led by Eva Moskowitz, whose Success Academy network is the city’s largest and most controversial group of charters, operators have started to open charter schools in more diverse and affluent parts of the city, including Williamsburg, Cobble Hill and Fort Greene. To attract parents in these areas, some schools now stress diversity and a more progressive curriculum.

This trend is most evident in Williamsburg. James Merriman, executive director of the New York City Charter School Center, estimates that among all the charters in the city, only five currently open or approved to open next fall have intentionally marketed themselves to white parents in an effort to create an integrated school. Of those, three are in Williamsburg: Moskowitz’s Williamsburg Success, which opened in August, and two schools scheduled to launch next fall that were brought to the area by the Tapestry project, which works to create charter schools in North Brooklyn. Tapestry’s executive director, Eric Grannis, is Moskowitz’s husband.

Supporters of these new schools say they will provide parents with more choices and counter the racial segregation endemic to urban public education. Opponents charge the city has promoted charters, giving them a leg up on the competition for space, funding and students, in an effort to privatize the city’s public schools.

Where the charters are

Since New York City’s first charter school opened in 1999, the movement has spread rapidly, boosted by the Bloomberg and Obama administrations, hard-driving charter operators and backing from Wall Street. Parents, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods, have responded enthusiastically, flooding the schools with applications and creating demand for seats.

Some 159 charters now operate in New York City, with Brooklyn home to more charters–61–than any other borough. With 11 schools, Community Education District 14, which includes Williamsburg, and Greenpoint, has the largest number of charters. “We’re inundated with elementary charter schools, and the city continues to give us more and more charter schools,” says Tesa Wilson, president of the district’s Community Education Council and a parent whose daughter attended district schools before going on to Stuyvesant High School. (She is not related to Steven Wilson.)

Charters also have become a major presence in District 16, which encompasses much of Bedford Stuyvesant. Across the borough, District 21 (Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Borough Park) has no charter schools. The swath of South Brooklyn that is District 20 has one. Overall, only 4 percent of city public school students attend a charter school.

While the city and state encourage charter schools, they do not dictate where the schools will be or what kind of programs they will offer–after all, each school, while publicly funded, is privately run. “Chartering is a choice movement in two ways,” says Merriman. Parents choose whether to go to a charter, for one. For the other, “It’s a choice movement in the sense that charters don’t exist unless people choose to start them.”

In reviewing applications to open schools, the authorizers—the State Board of Regents, the city Department of Education or the SUNY Charter School Institute—consider whether the operators can do what they say they will. The level of demand in the community plays at most a small role. That is more likely to come into play in the discussion about where to locate the charter, particularly if the new school wants space in an existing public school building.

While nationally charters have a spotty record–they do not perform better than conventional public schools, according to many studies –students in New York City charter schools generally score higher than students in traditional public schools on standardized tests, despite the charters’ high concentration of low- income students. The Charter School Center calculates that 72 percent of charter school students scored proficient in math on standardized tests and 51 percent in English language arts, compared with 60 percent and 47 percent respectively for district schools.

Critics including the United Federation of Teachers, on the other hand, argue that charter schools, exempt from many Department of Education rules, have a less challenging student body, with fewer English language learners and special ed students than nearby district schools. They also charge that some of the charters shed lower performing students who might bring down test scores.

Back to Brooklyn

By many accounts, the charter movement in New York City got its start in Williamsburg in 1992 when Joe and Carol Reich fought a corrupt community school board and opened Beginning with Children, a forerunner to today’s charter schools, on Bartlett Street.

Since that time, Tesa Wilson says, the district schools have changed along with the neighborhood. In addition to zoned schools, the district now has eight magnet schools, created at least partly to spur integration and provide more progressive choices for parents.

But there are other options, too, and they’re multiplying. Across the five boroughs, 24 new charters opened this year. Among them are two new Success schools in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods, Cobble Hill Success and Williamsburg Success. Another elementary charter–Beginning with Children II–also opened in Williamsburg this year.

More schools in such areas will begin classes next school year. Williamsburg will see the two schools midwifed by Grannis. New Success schools are slated for Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. Success will continue its push for diversity with two new schools in Manhattan’s highly regarded Community Education District 2. (An Ascend school will also come to Williamsburg, though Steven Wilson says it will be in a low-income area and he does not anticipate an influx of white students.)

Some parents welcome these choices. “I think parents need more options,” Grannis says. “I don’t think parents in Williamsburg think they have all the options they would like.”

Henry Mazurek, a lawyer with two young children, is one. He does not deny there are good district schools in District 14, but they are not, he says, on the south side where he lives. So he is seriously considering Williamsburg Success, impressed by what he sees as its strong leadership and organization. “The energy in the classroom is impressive,” he says and “the kids—beautiful brown, black and Asian faces and a couple of white faces—are all engaged.”

Seymonnia Cutkelvin, who* attended PS 21, has already chosen Williamsburg Success for her son, now in kindergarten. About two months into the school year, Cutkelvin is convinced she made the right decision. “So far, we love it,” she said of Success.

Shifting to aim for whites

Like so much in New York, the battle over charters in Williamsburg and Cobble Hill involves race and real estate.

Blacks account for about 60 percent of all city charter school students, according to the New York Charter School Center, compared to about 30 percent in the public schools as a whole. On the other hand, while 14 percent of all city public school students are white, less than 6 percent of charter school students are. Even though only about 9 percent of all city public schools are charters, a full third of the city’s most highly segregated schools are, the New York Times recently found.

This is no accident. Charter operators saw it as their mission–or opportunity, skeptics might say–to go into communities where regular public schools seemed to be failing their students. In New York and much of the country, those tended to be black and Latino neighborhoods. ((This, Merriman says, does not include some charters in Queens that, by virtue of where they are, have a large number of white students.)

“People interested in starting charter schools have a social mission and see the least amount of need in affluent areas,” Grannis says, adding many in the charter community believed “that every seat that goes to a white child is wasted.”

Families in largely minority neighborhoods took a close look when charter operators came to their neighborhoods offering a no-cost option. They bought into charters, Tesa Wilson says, because “the slightest breeze is a breath of fresh hope.” In the minds of many—such as the makers of “Waiting for Superman,” the 2010 documentary film about the frenzied competition for charter school seats—the large number of applicants also served as a damning indictment of district schools.

Many charters still concentrate on poor neighborhoods–Steven Wilson, the founder and president of Ascend, says he has no interest in moving into affluent parts of the city. But Moskowitz, after years of focusing almost exclusively on black and Latino communities, has begun seeking out white students.

The organization is going into more diverse districts, says Jenny Sedlis, Success’ senior managing director of external affairs, because even high achieving districts have some areas where test scores, graduation rates and academic performance lag. Success’ goal remains what it has always been, she says: “We have an incredible commitment to serving children in low income communities.” At the same time she adds, “we feel strongly that schools across the country are segregated and that integrated schools are hugely beneficial to children.”

Merriman sees this as a trend in education today. After years when integration was virtually ignored, the pendulum has swung back–and charters are part of that. People, he says, are rejecting “this notion that schools should be that segregated, that somehow that’s a good thing or something we should tolerate …. I think there’s an increasing sense that we’ve got to do something about it.”

Grannis, a former teacher and attorney, is a longtime charter school advocate who has done legal work for some charters. He serves on the board of Bronx Preparatory Charter School and Girls Preparatory Charter schools. Both are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic and feature the kind of structured approach long emblematic of most New York City charter schools. Over the years, Grannis says, he began thinking that communities should play a bigger role in the planning of charters and that charters needed to be more diverse as well.

Williamsburg struck Grannis as a good place to launch diverse, progressive, carter schools. To move the project along, he contacted white, middle class families on a listserv frequented by them. He talked to them about charter schools, telling them, he says, “I’m here because I believe in this.” They told him what they wanted in a school.

The goal, Grannis says, is diversity. To achieve that, he says, “you have to deal with where people are coming from,” and many white parents, he says, don’t feel comfortable sending their children to a school unless there are other affluent white children there.

The charter operator he contacted, Citizens in the World in Los Angeles, currently has only two schools, both in California and one of which has only been open for a few months. But the network has a particular interest in diversity, according to Tara Phillips, its senior director of community relations. The plan in Williamsburg, she says, is for “creating a school that really reflects the diversity of the community–economic and racial.”

According to Grannis and Citizen of the World, Grannis has no official connection to the schools themselves. The schools will open for the 2013-14 school year

Picking winners?

But some question the couple’s motives, and the impact their focus on white students will have. The Grannis-Moskowitz connection itself makes some uneasy. Critics talk about whether the couple is working together to divvy up desirable students and communities.

One critic is Noah Gotbaum, a charter critic who served as president of the District 3 Community Education Council and is now running for public advocate. In his view, having inundated black communities and taken the best students, the charters have turned to white areas to build political support and attract more students likely to score well on standardized tests. Moskowitz’s combative personality—in an interview with New York Magazine, Grannis compared his wife to “the sand in the oyster”—and her possible mayoral ambitions fuel suspicions.

Critics say she advertised for Williamsburg Success mainly in the whiter parts of district 14. Success Academy Upper West on 84th Street in Manhattan, which welcomed students in 2011, first launched a marketing campaign in the largely white areas south of 96th Street, according to Gotbaum.

Rather than bringing diversity to schools, many activists fear the charters’ effort will undermine what little integration exists in the regular public school system. Put bluntly, in an overwhelmingly black and Latino school system, there may not be enough white students to go around. Even with gentrification, only about 12 percent of District 14 students are white. The district has received federal funding to try to integrate its schools through several magnet schools but, as the Times recently reported, has made little progress in attracting white parents.

Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents for Our Public Schools, or WAGPOPS, which has opposed the charter proposals, contends the Citizens of the World schools will make the situation even worse. The schools, the group argued in a lengthy letter urging SUNY to deny Citizens of the World’s charter request, will “do a profound disservice to our educational landscape by siphoning the diversity out of our public schools, re-segregating our only recently diverse schools, and ensuring socio-economic and racial isolation in the schools that most desperately need diverse families.”

“One of the few benefits to gentrification is that the schools can improve and you finally get diversity in the classroom,” says Brooke Parker, a former Community Education Council member now active in WAGPOPS. She means that as areas like Williamsburg have become more popular destinations for white parents, the district schools there have become less monochromatic. Now she feels Moskowitz, Grannis and others are chipping away at that progress.

Criticized in the past for running segregated schools, Grannis, Moskowitz and others say they now face attacks for trying to integrate, “If we serve poor students, then we’re bad for segregating kids, but if we serve affluent kids, then we’re criticized for that,” Grannis says.

Other charters in the coming years also may reach out to white parents. Children of the World hopes to eventually have eight schools. Grannis has been helping three onetime teachers who have embarked on what they call the Odyssey Initiative which aims to open a diverse, progressive school in northern Brooklyn, probably by 2014.

Meet the New School, More Like the Old School

Many charters, located in low-income black communities, have offered the traditional approach with long school days heavy on reading and math and light on frills. Now, though, as they look to attract progressive white parents, some operators have found a different model at Community Roots Charter School in Fort Greene.

There students sprawl on rugs or break into small groups as they embark on a study of the civil rights movement or look at slides of the Brooklyn waterfront. Children always seem to be up and about, moving from one class or activity to another. They call teachers by their first names and wear pretty much whatever they want. Students work on interdisciplinary projects beginning in kindergarten when they focus on themselves and their families, then as students advance in school they move outward to look at the bigger world, now and in the past.

Children of the World hopes to model its schools partly on Community Roots. In addition, the three former teachers spearheading the Odyssey Initiative once taught at Community Roots.

To Parker, such charter schools are a lot like reinventing the wheel. “They are now creating charter schools that will mimic what is in the public schools,” specifically in the magnet schools that now exist in District 14.

WAGPOPS fears the charters will damage the progressive public schools that many of the newcomers to the neighborhood might otherwise choose. In its letter to the Regents, WAGPOPS writes, “Our district families can choose from a variety of public schools …. Creating additional choices for the sake of choice … will generate white flight from our public schools and undermine our Magnet schools.”

Phillips denies any such conflicts. Citizens of the World, she says, wants “to make District 14 stand out as a community that is trying to balance the existence of charter schools with district schools.”

Merriman says if the charter schools don’t fill a need, “then those charters will fail. To my knowledge in the history of the state of New York no parent has ever been forced to attend a charter school.”

No one denies, though, that in attracting students Success, at least, has one huge advantage: advertising. Although estimates vary, the organization spends at least hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to attract students.

“It’s marketing, marketing, marketing, and the parents they market it to believe it–and why wouldn’t they?” Parker says.

War for space looms

The next round in the battle over the Citizen of the World charter push will come in the next several months as the Department of Education holds hearings on its plans to site the schools in two of its own facilities. In late October, the department announced it wanted to put one Citizens of the World School in John Ericson Middle School on 424 Leonard St. Ericson already shares the building with a charter high school, Believe Northside. The site for the second school has not yet been announced.

New York State’s funding formula for charter schools does not provide money for purchasing or leasing classrooms. So most charters in the city rely on getting space in an existing Department of Education school building.

DOE has carved out rooms in what it considers underutilized buildings and offered space vacated by the schools it has closed. Moskowitz in particular has proved adept at getting the Department of Education to make room for her projects. In 2010, the Daily News obtained dozens of emails between Moskowitz and then Schools Chancellor Joel Klein in which she flattered, cajoled and pulled strings to get space for her expanding charter network.

The availability of space guides where charter schools open. Charter operators would like to go into Corona, Queens, Merriman says, but the regular school buildings there are over capacity, leaving no room for new charter schools. Ironically the declining enrollment and empty space in Williamsburg–the very thing that many residents say should dictate against more charter schools there–make it attractive to charter operators.

Last year, an estimated 600 people packed a hearing on the plan to place Williamsburg Success in the building with JHS 50. Parents have gone to court in unsuccessful bids to block co-locations by both Upper West Success and Cobble Hill Success. Already battles are shaping up over the department’s plans to co-locate one Success Academy in Susan McKinney Junior High School in Fort Greene and another at PS 138 in Prospect Heights.

The district schools fear they will be the poor relation–and with some reason. Charters, their coffers boosted by philanthropic contributions, often can afford better facilities–labs, computers –than the district school. The schools in a shared building must negotiate use of communal space, such as cafeterias and libraries–decreasing the district school’s access to facilities that once were exclusively its own. In a building in Cypress Hills, some district students now have lunch at 10:30 so the elementary charter school kids can eat in the middle of the day.

“No one really talks about what happens after charter school co-locations,” Tesa Wilson says, adding she recently told a top Department of Education official, “You don’t get to see the havoc that’s created with what you do.”

A zero-sum game

The fight for space–and for students–reflects the Bloomberg administration’s effort to promote competition in education. The stakes are high. When parents choose a school–district or charter–and enrollment climbs, the school gets more resources, meaning more teachers, more programs, more supplies. Falling enrollment, on the other hand, can cost a school teachers, classes and space, and can contribute to its eventually being placed on the closure list.

Many district school advocates see the administration favoring charters. “This administration says they want all schools to be great but I can tell you some of my schools do not get the support they need,” Tesa Wilson said.

In an era of limited resources, Gotbaum says, you can’t have competition and “say it will lift all boats.” The charter schools, he says, are not there to collaborate but to compete and “no one should be surprised when the public schools, which are 90 percent of the kids, fight back.”

The fight will continue–at least for now. Under state law, more than 50 additional charters can open in the city. Moskowitz, who currently operates 14 schools, has spoken of expanding to 40 schools. Citizens of the World has said it hopes to create eight schools in all, serving grades K to 12. A number of charter operators now running elementary schools foresee adding middle and high schools to give their student a full primary and secondary education.

As they compile such plans, though, the operators in Brooklyn and throughout the city face one big question mark. No one thinks charters could have grown as rapidly as they have without Mayor Bloomberg’s support and his willingness–some might say eagerness–to turn space over to Moskowitz and others. After January 1, 2014, charter backers fear, that could all change.

* Correction:The original version of this article was corrected on May 12, 2016 to reflect the fact that Seymonnia Cutkelvin says she did not, as the initially published version reported, grow up in Williamsburg.