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Siting process for Lower East Side charter co-location draws ire

Teachers and students crowd the panelist table at a public hearing to demonstrate overcrowding inside a Henry Street building where a charter co-location is proposed.

Confusion over where a new elementary charter school was supposed to be sited on the Lower East Side — and the co-location plan that ultimately emerged — has prompted widespread opposition from the community.

Up until four months ago, Manhattan Charter School II was bound for private space in District 1 — or at least that’s what its founders were hoping for and told local elected officials. But after those plans fell through, the Department of Education moved quickly to offer up public space in a Henry Street building that already housed three middle schools and a high school.

Now that plan is under attack by teachers and administrators at the schools, as well as the elected officials who originally were under the impression that there would be no co-location.

City Councilwoman Margaret Chin said she initially supported the school’s opening, and even helped connect the school to a couple of viable private facility options last year. MCS II was hoping to lease a building owned by the Archdiocese of New York, but lost out on its bid.

Chin said she felt deceived by the charter school after reading its original charter application for the first time in recent days. In the application, she discovered that the school  “seeks to be located in public school space” in District 1.

“I was shocked when I read it,” Chin said. “When they came to ask for help, they said they were looking for private sites only. I’m just very disappointed to find out that they intentionally, all along, were looking for public space.”

Two congresswomen, two state legislators, and a colleague in the City Council joined Chin in writing a letter requesting the DOE to withdraw the plan.

Chin said she suspected the school had purposely mislead neighborhood officials in order to avoid controversy that often accompanies charter school co-location plans.

That’s not at all the case, said Stephanie Mauterstock, director of the first Manhattan Charter School. Mauterstock said that although the group’s original intent was in fact to operate in public space, it scrapped those plans when the city said free space was not available. Instead, the school’s founders partnered with the charter school real estate developer Civic Builders to find space. It was only after its bid to open in the Archdiocese building, Our Lady of Sorrow, fell through that the DOE presented the co-location option to them.

“We were desperately looking for affordable private space in District 1,” Mauterstock said. “It was disappointing to us that it did not work out. ”

It’s at least the second time this year that the Portfolio and Planning Office, which makes decisions about school siting, has made last-minute adjustments to accomodate a new charter school. In a much higher-profile co-location plan, Eva Moskowitz’s Cobble Hill Success Academy was originally slated for District 13 in Brooklyn. But those plans changed last fall because the city said there wasn’t enough space in the district and now the school is set to open in a more affluent area nearby. Critics charge that the switch was pushed by Moskowitz as part of her strategy to open schools in middle-class neighborhoods.

According to the Department of Education’s building plan, the Lower East Side building’s current student population uses just 54 percent of the maximum capacity of 1,445 students. Even after MCS II reaches full capacity, the school would still be no more than 80 percent filled, the department argues.

But teachers and administrators who work in the building said that is not the reality. Each of the existing schools — University Neighborhood Middle School, CASTLE Middle School and Henry Street School for International Studies, a secondary school — serves large populations of students with special needs. Additional space for pull-out services in the building are required that don’t necessarily show up on the DOE building utilization plan, the teachers said Thursday night at a public hearing on the co-location.

About 150 people, most of them students and staff at the existing schools, attended the hearing, and more than 40 people signed up to speak.

Henry Street School Principal Erin McMahon attempted to illustrate the potential overcrowding issues by using panel members as props. She asked each member to stand, then shuffled them down the conference table and gradually added more people from the audience to the table. By the end of the exercise, about 15 people awkwardly stood shoulder to shoulder.

“The people sitting up there don’t realize that every time you compress space in a school, it becomes more and more uncomfortable,” McMahon said afterward. “I wanted them to see and feel what it was like.”

The Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the co-location plan March 21 at Manhattan’s High School of Fashion Industries.

The letter from elected officials to the city about the co-location plan is below.


To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.