Support Our District Schools

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By Noah E. Gotbaum

For the past six months, Upper West Side residents have been subjected to a barrage of advertisements and promotional materials, as well as press coverage, editorials and Department of Education pronouncements, telling us about a great new school which will add to our community and our neighborhood. We also have been told that parents and the community desperately need this school, as we have so very few good elementary and middle schools in District 3. Lastly, we have been told of the overwhelming community support for this added “choice” as witnessed by petitions and applications.

In fact, as parents and community members we do want “choice”—but by having the DOE support and invest in the range of schools and choices we in District 3 already have, rather than by forcing Upper West Success into the Brandeis High School complex or co-locating Success at P.S. 149, Wadleigh Secondary, or any of our district schools. This strong preference to support our district schools was borne out by a recent poll which found that fewer than 1 in 10 Upper West Side parents believed that we don’t have enough good public schools, while 7 out of 10 of those same parents wanted to see more resources and less overcrowding in our existing schools.

And the sponsor of the poll? Success Charter Network and Upper West Success Academy.

Our District 3 choices include a range of good to excellent zoned elementary and middle schools, some of which will have spaces available for all district parents at least for the next few years. Eight of these have just received a federal magnet grant to increase racial diversity and upgrade their programs, similar to the grant received a number of years ago by the D3 schools now acknowledged to be among the best in the city. Additionally we have a number of non-zoned choice schools and programs again available to all district families. This Saturday, the district will be holding an elementary School Fair at P.S. 165 to promote our schools. While we don’t have a multi-million dollar budget to compete with Success Charter Network—and generate an “avalanche” of applications at the cost of thousands of dollars per—we do have great teachers, administrators and strong and loyal families crying out for additional resources, especially building space to relieve existing overcrowding.

This outcry reached a crescendo last year. In response, there was a collaborative effort in District 3 to address the overcrowding which has hit our elementary schools hard in the last few years and will, we are told by the School Construction Authority, overwhelm our middle schools in 2012. With our waitlists, program loss and looming seat shortage, we know that we need our school space to go to our district’s students. Lower schools and several others are at or over capacity, and we all need to be prepared to accommodate our growing population. We need additional middle schools and high schools, and our existing schools need space and support to reach their full potential.

Regardless of one’s feelings about charter schools, it is clear that the Upper West Success/Brandeis co-location proposal makes no sense. The idea that Success was approved for another charter before a specific D3 site was even determined shows lack of planning and forethought. There was never true space anywhere in District 3 for UWSA; yet it was somehow promised to them. The new schools in that building are just beginning to fill; why stifle their growth now? The Brandeis campus is well into a multi-million-dollar renovation for high school use (there are currently five in the building)—a retrofit for occupancy by very young children would amount to millions of dollars wasted, an impinging on flexible use space and a hard-to-reverse loss of much-needed upper grade space—space the DOE said just three months ago would be held aside for high school enrollment. We are sympathetic to our communities’ many concerns about this proposal, including the inappropriateness of locating 4- and 5-year-olds with students as old as 20, and about UWSA being exempt from the otherwise building-wide requirement of passing through metal detectors to gain entry.

This co-location is also a poor fit because of Success Charter’s inability to serve all of the children who walk through their doors, instead bringing in kids citywide while pushing out those it says it cannot serve. District schools’ experiences with Success Charter—most recently at P.S. 149 and P.S. 241—have been uniformly terrible. These district schools’ chances to improve and grow have been undercut over the years by Success Charter as they have been under-supported and marginalized within their own buildings, with their kids restricted from using bathrooms and stairways, while pushed into hallways and basement rooms not found to be fit for Success Charter’s students. As such, the proposed changes will drastically inhibit the Brandeis schools’ abilities to cater to students with special needs, including English language learners, while circumscribing their ability to offer existing and future programs essential to their school’s success. Instead of further squeezing our district schools, our schools need DOE support.

To date, all of the following have stated their specific objection to expanding or adding co-located charter schools in overcrowded District 3 school facilities: Assemblymembers Linda Rosenthal and Danny O’Donnell, State Senators Tom Duane and Bill Perkins, Councilmembers Gale Brewer and Melissa Mark-Viverito, Community Board 7 (unanimously), District 3 Community Education Council (unanimously) and the District 3 Presidents Council on behalf of 20-plus Parents Associations from all over District 3.

The DOE, itself, has stated that D3 is nearing a middle-school seat crisis. We cannot afford to lose any seats or repurpose space that could otherwise address that need. Neither can we lower the bar on safety, curriculum or educational opportunity at our traditional schools.

On Jan. 25 at 5 p.m., parents, teachers, elected officials and interested community members will be rallying in front of the Brandeis High School complex on West 84th Street to support our public schools and reject the Success Charter Co-locations. It is imperative that the voices of people who know the neighborhoods, their schools and families be heard, and that the DOE focuses on improving the schools that are serving all of our kids… now.

Noah E Gotbaum is president of Community District Education Council 3.

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