Overcrowding comes to city schools for various reasons. In my school, our reputation makes kids want to come, we have magnet programs like JROTC that attract kids from near and far, and there’s never been a cap on enrollment. Neighborhood schools like PS 123 don’t get the opportunity to grow and expand because other schools are simply placed into whatever vacant spaces they may have. In fact, as Juan Gonzalez reported, space they’d actually been using was commandeered by a charter school chain. It now appears Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academy will be taking that space permanently.
PS 123 has gone from an F-rated school to a B-rated school, and you’d think that would merit some encouragement from the Department of Education. You’d be mistaken. Rather than expand upon the progress they’ve made, the building that houses PS 123 has become a civics lesson for all who teach and study there—a newly designed two-tier education system. 55 years ago, Brown v. Board of Education stated, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” At PS 123, separate educational facilities can be found within the same school building.
In fact, some families have one kid in 123, and another in HSA. But it’s pretty clear to all that the schools are different. For one thing, all HSA classrooms are painted and renovated before kids even attend. A few weeks ago, protesters questioned why the whole school couldn’t be painted, rather than just the HSA section. You have to wonder why an administration that prides itself on placing “children first” would allow so many children to be second priority.
HSA classrooms are air-conditioned. They are equipped with 21st-century technology, like smartboards and overhead projectors. Parents tell me they get new furniture and carpets. You have to wonder how PS 123 kids feel, seeing what the charter kids get. You don’t need to wonder what parents want—they want their kids to study under the best possible conditions, and HSA is an in-your-face reminder just what lottery winners can get.
Even the bathrooms are renovated. HSA kids get new furniture in the bathrooms, including chairs, as well as potpourri. I’m not sure why they need chairs in the bathrooms, but I think the potpourri is a nice touch. Having seen scores of public school bathrooms that would turn your stomach, I think Ms. Moskowitz is onto something.
At a July 20th rally at PS 123, several speakers stated that the DoE supplied Ms. Moskowitz with a list of students who’d scored 3s and 4s on citywide tests. Those students were then sent invitations to apply. A parent compared HSA and PS 123 to the plantation and the big house—some get first-class treatment while others toil away. And some kids, apparently, watch their siblings in the big house while they’re stuck in the plantation.
It’s one thing to allow innovative charters to offer kids courses of study they may not get in neighborhood schools. It’s quite another to systematically starve public schools of resources while making a blatant show of what charter schools get. It’s hard to see how PS 123 staff and students can stay inspired and focused on improvement when they’re so clearly receiving fewer resources and opportunities than their neighbor. It must be particularly infuriating to know that kids who don’t work out at HSA will quite possibly be bounced right back into PS 123—which gets the test scores, the expenses, and whatever undesirable behavior that caused the kids to be transferred, while HSA keeps the funding.
At the June 20th rally, I spoke with an HSA parent who felt the controversy was not necessary. He said there were vacant school buildings nearby, and that the city denied them to Ms. Moskowitz, thus forcing her to move into PS 123. Perhaps if the city had allowed her to use those buildings, there would not be so much unrest floating around this school. Is the Department of Education trying to make parents feel that neighborhood schools are second-class institutions?
I don’t begrudge the kids in HSA their classrooms or learning conditions. If smartboards help them, if air-conditioners make them more comfortable, if catered snacks from Fresh Direct keep them focused, fine. I only wonder why PS 123 kids can’t have the same. I also wonder, from my vantage point in a trailer well past its expiration date, why my kids can’t have decent learning conditions either.
Because, frankly, all kids should have decent learning conditions—whether or not they happen to win charter lotteries.
Arthur Goldstein teaches English as a Second Language at Francis Lewis High School in Queens. He is also the school’s UFT chapter leader.