When Emily Caton decided she wanted to send her daughter to a charter school, she navigated to the New York City Charter Center website, typed in her Brownsville zip code, and watched a stream of nearby schools flood her screen.
Soon, her daughter had offers to attend six different charter schools, all in her area of Brooklyn.
Just a few years ago, Caton's screen would have shown far fewer local charter school options. But today, after charter schools have flooded the area, neighborhoods in eastern parts of Brooklyn has more school seats and applicants than neighborhoods where charter schools flocked early on, like Harlem and the South Bronx.
This year, Caton is one of 18,000 unique applicants to charter school lotteries in East New York and Brownsville. And the neighborhoods together have more than twice as many charter school seats as Harlem and the South Bronx, according to data provided by the New York City Charter Center.
The growth of charter school options comes even as district school attendance in the neighborhoods has fallen over the past decade — and in recent years, has driven that drop.
There are nearly 3,000 fewer elementary school seats in District 19, which includes most of East New York, than there were in 2003-2004, a 20 percent decrease. Middle school enrollment is down 25 percent over the same period. In the smaller District 23, which includes Brownsville, Ocean Hill, and part of East New York, the district has actually added about 800 middle school seats since 2003, a 30 percent hike, but elementary school enrollment has fallen by 30 percent.
A plan to move a high school seven miles from its Williamsburg home has support from school leaders and students. But elected parent officials from its current geographic district and the one it would move to this fall say the plan is ill-conceived.
Members of both the Community Education Councils for District 14 and District 19 joined together at a public hearing Monday night to argue that the school's high quality and focus on writing makes it a poor choice for the move.
Ever since the Department of Education announced it was considering moving Williamsburg's Academy for Young Writers to East New York, members of the school community have given their endorsement. Under the plan, Young Writers would get space in a brand-new building and expand to include middle school grades.
"We're excited about the opportunity described in the proposal," Principal Courtney Winkfield said at a public hearing about the move Monday night, which drew about 50 people.
"In this current school year over 60 percent of our students come from East New York and Brownsville, and travel an hour each day. About 25 percent come from Crown Heights or Bed-Stuy, and travel an hour and 45 minutes to get here," she said. "[The DOE] is taking a program that has served them for the past several years, and putting it in their neighborhood."
But parent leaders in District 14, where the school is currently located but which supplies just 10 percent of students, said they don't want to see Young Writers leave — in large part because a Success Academy charter school is set to move in under a DOE proposal.
For Natoshia Wheeler, the argument that schools do better when they have more resources is proven every night in her living room.
Wheeler has three children in Brownsville schools. Her youngest and oldest attend two low-performing schools that share a building, the General D. Chappie James Elementary and Middle School of Science, where she is PTA president. Her middle daughter attends I.S. 392, a selective middle school located just six blocks away.
Recently Wheeler's middle daughter brought home a new laptop that her school provided, equipped with a tools for free online tutoring. The tools allowed her to complete complicated projects, such as building a model island with different biomes on it, that enthralled her siblings.
But at the Chappie schools, Wheeler said after-school programs have been cut, the art teacher was let go, and students can't always bring books home to use while completing homework. What's more, she said, the three-year-old schools are only just finding their feet after replacing P.S./I.S. 183, a perennially failing that closed in 2008. Last year, on their first progress reports, both schools got D's.
So when the elementary school got an F and the middle school got a D on their most recent progress reports, Wheeler said she was not shocked — but she was surprised that the city said it was considering shuttering the school. The city has not yet announced any closures but has named 20 elementary and middle schools that are eligible according to the Department of Education's guidelines.
What did Brownsville, Tex., honored yesterday with the Broad Prize and earlier this year with the CUBE Award for School Board Excellence, do to earn these awards?
It cut class size and built more schools, among other changes, according to articles in CUBE's Urban Advocate newsletter and US News & World Report.
"Curriculum and instruction has been the number one focus of every board member," says Enrique Escobedo, president of the Brownsville Independent School District Board of Education. "We fill our needs first—the needs drive the budget."
Brownsville stopped asking Texas for exemptions from class size rules in elementary schools, and instead upped teacher recruitment and retention measures until all classes met the state's 22-student mandate for kindergarten through grade 4.
Teachers in Brownsville make a starting salary of $39,000, only a few thousand dollars less than new teachers in New York, though the cost of living in Brownsville is much lower. (Salaries in New York are much higher at the top of the scale, though.)
Despite high levels of poverty, the Brownsville community has strongly supported the schools, even approving a $135-million bond to finance school construction and renovation. School board members attribute this support to regular outreach through community meetings, citizen oversight of spending, and transparency about school finances, Urban Advocate reports.