Space Jam

Last October, just shy of a year ago, as many as 17,000 parents, students, and teachers, all ostensibly supporters of charter schools, marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall, carrying homemade protest signs and donning neon-yellow shirts emblazoned with a slogan: “My Child, My Choice.” Then, in March, Families for Excellent Schools, the pro-charter group that helped organize the march, released a series of heart-wrenching television spots in which young children, charter school attendees, begged Mayor Bill de Blasio to save their schools. It seemed to some that charters across the city were under attack by the recently elected mayor, vulnerable to being shut down at a moment’s notice. Many charter-school advocates announced that the new mayor was prepared to launch an all-out war on their schools.

In his original campaign platform, the mayor opposed the creation of new charter schools and, unlike his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, expressed the belief that charter schools, when occupying space in public school buildings, should pay rent to the city. Once in office, however, de Blasio was prepared to make compromises. After reviewing proposals for seventeen new charter schools in February, de Blasio rejected the only three. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s state budget, released in March, included legislation that prohibited the de Blasio administration from charging rent to charter schools co-located with district public schools. The war, in some ways, was over before it had even begun. Charter schools, despite the worries their leaders harbored, would be allowed to co-locate rent-free.

De Blasio’s charter skepticism as campaigner and acquiescence as mayor have been thoroughly documented. The pro-charter movement, organized and media-ready, has been fanning the conflict’s embers for the past year, and has received a healthy share of attention from the press. Less noticed, though, have been the communities of parents and teachers directly affected by the co-location of charter schools within district public schools. While Families for Excellent Schools marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in droves, urging the mayor to support co-location, communities across the city have staged smaller, less-noticed protests to block it.

Two school districts in south Brooklyn, where the co-location controversy has long been simmering, resisted strenuously the welcoming of charters into their public school buildings. Their fight was lost; at the beginning of this new school year, the charter schools moved in.

In October of last year, the Community Education Councils of school districts 20 and 21 in Bensonhurst passed resolutions opposing the co-location of two charter elementary schools — Coney Island Prep and Success Academy — in two public school buildings. Community Education Councils, each consisting of a board of parents with children in local public schools, act as liaisons between community schools and the Department of Education, as well as between schools and an area’s community board. The resolution passed by the district 20 and 21 CECs articulated the councils’ opposition to co-location, which boiled down to a simple argument: their schools had no space. The two public schools in question, I.S. 281 and I.S. 96, are middle schools located in District 21. But because the schools accept students from parts of District 20, the CECs of both communities were involved and expressed concern that, as charters expanded in the buildings, there wouldn’t be enough seats for incoming sixth graders. “More than half of the I.S. 96 zone is from District 20’s elementary schools,” their resolution stated, “and District 20 is one of the most overcrowded districts in the city and desperately is in need of more middle school seats.” The resolutions were passed unanimously.

Following the resolution, the CECs held two public hearings, one for I.S. 96 and one for I.S. 281, at which they aired their concerns. At the first of these hearings, the subject of discussion was the co-location of a Success Academy elementary school in I.S. 96. Attendees, including the districts 20 and 21 CEC presidents, the I.S. 96 principal, and City Council members David Greenfield and Vincent Gentile, all stated their opposition to Success Academy’s moving in. Assembly member William Colton expressed concern that the co-location “does not serve the interests of children in the community.” Gentile, perhaps hoping that a new mayor would overturn the decision, argued that Bloomberg, whose education policies were among the issues at the heart of the nearing mayoral election, had no business making the decision. Though the hearings were public, Success Academy did not send any representatives.

In March, around the same time that Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz was suing de Blasio, and that Families for Excellent Schools was producing its television advertisements, parents, students, and teachers marched outside of I.S. 96 Seth Low, demanding that the mayor reverse the decision to allow the co-location of a Success Academy elementary school. The protest on March 7 included nearly 100 people. Weeks later, on March 27, community members staged a protest outside nearby I.S. 281, protesting the co-location of Coney Island Prep. In both cases, protestors held signs declaring that the public schools “need room to grow” and that their students will be “sacrificed” at the expense of charter school students. Neither co-location was overturned.

Community Education Councils, in explaining their opposition to co-location, presented logistical arguments. Space, of course, was a chief concern. Laurie Windsor, the president of the District 20 CEC, says that I.S. 281 simply does not have room for more students. Though the building is projected to be at 81 percent capacity at the start of this new school year, Windsor fears that the school is “set up to be over-utilized down the road.” Schools will have to share space like cafeterias and auditoriums, and will need to make schedules that allow students to move around the building safely.

I.S. 96 Seth Low, a middle school in District 21, is positioned near a heavily trafficked intersection. Photo by Emily Frances.

Windsor also expressed concern about traffic. The other Bensonhurst school that is being co-located, I.S. 96 Seth Low, sits directly across the street from another district building that houses three schools. “That building is a huge building, and it’s going to have over 1,100 kids in it,” says Windsor. “Now, with the co-location, it comes out to about 2,400 children in 400 feet. Last year the Department of Transportation put out the highest number of speeding incidents by schools and that area came out number two in Brooklyn.” Because the Success school is an elementary school, most students will be traveling by school bus, leading to the potential for more congestion than if students were walking or taking the subway on their own. As de Blasio’s Vision Zero plans to reduce automobile accidents and fatalities, Windsor worries that this co-location is dangerously setting up the community for the opposite outcome.

CEC District 21 President Heather Ann Fiorica also worries that a lack of space will cause the middle schools already occupying these fbuildings to roll back programs they have worked to develop. During Hurricane Sandy, students of the storm-rocked P.S. 188 were temporarily housed in I.S. 281. While they were there, I.S. 281’s award-winning student paper, New Image, didn’t have room to operate. Fiorica and other members of the CEC fear that, should another school share space in I.S. 281,the newspaper will fold. The cafeteria, too, was overly crowded during P.S. 188’s stay, Fiorica says. “Instead of placing an elementary school in there,” she says, “let’s continue on this path of expanding the programs in the middle school.”

The Community Education Council’s concerns run deeper than logistics. Some members of the community, Windsor and Fiorica say, worry that their children will be treated differently from students at charter schools as they are forced to share space. “It’s subjective,” Windsor says, “but there’s the idea that the charter school children are treated better.” Fiorica, in the March 2013 hearings, cited the preferential treatment of charter students as one reason Coney Island Prep should not be allowed to co-locate in I.S. 281. Co-location, she explained, could create “disparate situations where Coney Island Prep students eat organic lunches, while the district students only have access to cafeteria food.” Resentment among students could lead to behavioral problems if students at the district-zoned school feel that they’re some how missing out.

Charter schools also tend to have stricter disciplinary systems than district public schools, often enforcing school-wide behavior management programs across classrooms. Some common charter school rules — such as mandated uniforms, or silence in hallways — are uncommon at district public schools. Fiorica doesn’t hide her own disapproval of certain disciplinary measures used by charters. “If Coney Island Prep’s children go out of compliance, they get demerits and have to wear an orange shirt, which is not part of their normal uniform,” says Fiorica. “This way the whole community knows what they did. And I feel like, isn’t that almost corporal punishment?”

For teachers, differences across co-located schools’ cultures can be difficult to navigate. Racquel Ward, a teacher who has worked in both district and charter schools throughout the city, has visited and spoken with teachers at co-located schools. “They would say that it’s hard to maintain the school’s culture when the kids are questioning why they have to do something that the students at another school don’t have to do, or why they have something that the other kids don’t have,” she says. To Ward, sharing space creates tension for both school communities. “It’s like having families with two completely different cultural backgrounds living under the same roof.”

Charter school administrators and their advocates saw this controversy coming. In 2012, a Success Academy elementary school was proposed in Williamsburg, slated to co-locate in J.H.S. 50. The proposal generated a swell of controversy, with parents saying there were already enough elementary schools in the neighborhood and that the DOE should instead focus on improving the middle school already in the building, which was considered a high-needs school. The Southside Community Schools Coalition, a group of South Williamsburg nonprofits, parents, and elected leaders, filed a lawsuit against Success, claiming that it had not done enough community outreach prior to proposing the new school. The lawsuit was eventually thrown out by a judge, though concerns about how co-location might affect access to resources and space for students already in J.H.S 50 continued. But once the school opened, the controversy seemed to stop. There were no more articles in local newspapers, no more lawsuits, and no more protests. In the 2011–2012 school year, J.H.S. 50 had earned a D rating for school environment by the Department of Education on its annual report card. On its 2012-2013 report card, that score had improved to a C.

“There is initial protest. There is a lawsuit. The lawsuit fails. Everything works out fine,” Success spokesperson Kerri Lyon says. “Williamsburg is a great example of this. Williamsburg was a school that was the biggest battle over the co-location. It was a very intense battle. There was a lot of negativity. That school is doing so incredibly well, and they have a great productive relationship with the middle school whereby the middle school kids are tutoring the Success elementary kids.” Time heals all wounds, the argument goes.

Jacob Mnookin, executive director of Coney Island Prep, has also experienced the difficulties of co-location in the past. His school, the first charter in Community School District 21, opened in 2009 inside the Carey Gardens housing project community center. After two years, the school had outgrown the facility and moved to a co-located building, sharing space with I.S. 303 and Rachel Carson High School. According to Mnookin, the co-location was “not without its challenges.” As in Williamsburg, parents from the district sued Coney Island Prep in an attempt to block the co-location. And as in the case of Williamsburg Success, the lawsuit was dropped, and the plans moved ahead. “The co-location has gone very well,” Mnookin says. “I think we are lucky in that the two schools that we share the building with are both great schools. They have great students, great staff, great administration.”

Opponents of co-location often cite space concerns as their primary objection. In meeting notes from the Bensonhurst community hearings, attendees worried about crowded cafeterias and auditoriums that “cannot even hold all of the students right now.” They are worried that as the schools sharing a building both grow, students will lose out on physical education and will be forced to eat lunch for less time. Ultimately, in the words of one commenter, they will be “fighting for space.”

Not all schools that share space are charters. According to the New York City Charter School Center, a nonprofit, pro-charter school organization, no charter school is present at 83 percent of district public school buildings co-locating with other organizations. For teachers at both district and charter schools, sharing space has become part of the job, and it is only becoming more common. During his tenure, former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein broke many large, failing schools into smaller and more specialized ones, thus co-locating schools by default. All co-located schools now have groups, called Shared Space Committees, that consist of parents, teachers, and principals, and which meet to plan how best to use their limited space.

But while cramped quarters may be a fact of life in New York City schools, it’s still a difficult one. Eric Silberberg is a middle school special education teacher working at a district public school in Brooklyn. His school shares space with a public elementary school and is so overcrowded that it has added classroom trailers outside the building. “We have separate lunch shifts, so some kids might be eating as early as 10 o’clock and others might be eating as late as 2,” he says. Though the principal of Silberberg’s school has proposed an addition to the building, he says it is not slated to start for two years. “And then,” says Silberberg, “who knows when it will be done.”

Though the state mandates time requirements for physical education, co-location can make access to gym space rare. The New York State Education Commissioner’s Regulation 135 says that students in grades K-3 must attend physical education every day, while older students must go at least three times a week. At many co-located charter schools, this mandate is not being upheld. An elementary school teacher at a charter school who asked that her name not be used says that her kindergarteners have gym class just once a week because of difficult scheduling with the other schools in her co-located building.

Co-location can affect space for adults in the school building as well. At Harlem Link, an independent charter school that has shared space with four other schools, office space for administrators and support staff is severely limited. “We have this room that is separated by dividers where the assistant principal is in the same room as the social worker, two academic intervention specialists and the speech therapist, the physical therapist, and the occupational therapist,” says Aviva Buechler, a kindergarten teacher at Harlem Link. “Basically you have seven people working in the same office space without any walls. It is nearly impossible for administrators to have private conversations with parents.

Despite the fact that co-location can affect all schools, both district and charter, controversy tends to arise most often and most passionately when charters are involved. An employee of a large charter network, who asked to remain anonymous, and who works closely with issues of co-location and shared space, attributed that difference to the way charter schools are perceived by the neighborhoods in which they co-locate. “There’s kind of this feeling that charters are very corporate and are outsiders coming in. And a lot of networks tend to be really aggressive to get the space they need and go into this very prepared.” To community members, this slickness can be off-putting.

Bensonhurst’s anti-charter protestors held signs telling charter networks to build their own schools, a solution that seems, on its face, to solve many of the problems co-location brings. But for charter schools to have their own buildings, they would need a rare and precious commodity in New York City: space. Of the city’s 183 charter schools, only 68 of those are located in space not owned by the Department of Education. According to Michael Regnier, director for policy and research at the New York City Charter School Center, charter schools have had little incentive to occupy private space in the past. “While going forward, schools sitting in private space will be able to access rental assistance because of changes made to the law this past spring, we still have 68 where schools are in private space, get no rental assistance, and where it is undisputed that they are underfunded.” From the perspective of charter administrators, private space can seem like an unnecessary luxury, a lower priority, when drawing up budgets, than teacher salaries or student materials.

I.S. 281 Joseph B. Cavallaro, a middle school in District 21, was temporarily home to P.S. 188 in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. With its limited space, some at the school are wary of opening its doors now to co-locating charters. Photo by Emily Frances.

Both sides of this issue frequently claim that they are doing what the community desires. According to Windsor, the city’s original plan to allow co-location had left the community out. “We weren’t really involved in the decision,” she says. “We had a public hearing, which we all showed up to, and no one from Success showed up.” Though both Windsor and Fiorica repeatedly explain that they do not have any issue with a charter school in their district, they both tell me that the community does not want a new charter school. As CEC president, Fiorica makes visits to schools to speak with parents, teachers, and administrators, “There was never a demand at any of our meetings demanding a charter,” says Fiorica. “Where is the outcry saying that they wanted a charter school or that we needed that charter school?”

But according to Lyons, Success and other charters only open where there is community demand. “It’s a school that families in the community were demanding,” she says. “And we know this because of the number of applications we receive.” Jacob Mnookin says the new elementary school will have seats for 120 kindergarteners and first-graders whose parents applied. “For the CEC to fight something that their own constituents want and applied to seems counterproductive and counterintuitive,” Lyons says.

Who, then, truly represents the community in Bensonhurst? Regnier says the word itself may be the issue. “It’s a funny thing when you use the word ‘community,’” he says. “I think we have to be very careful about who actually the community represents. If a community education council votes against a charter school, the vote for me that matters is the vote of parents deciding whether to send their children to the school. If no one sends their children to the charter school, that school will not be around very long.”

New York City’s complex school zoning further confuses the question of who speaks for Bensonhurst’s parents. School districts are not the same as community districts. The city has a total of 59 community districts, each with a community board. But there are only 32 school districts city-wide. So while Brooklyn encompasses eighteen community districts, it has only twelve school zones, and the two designations may or may not align. Demographically, school districts may vary wildly from corner to corner. At both Coney Island Prep and Success Academy, more than 80 percent of students are black or Latino. In Community School District 11, which includes Bensonhurst, about 80 percent of residents are white or Asian. But Coney Island, which is part of Community District 13 as well as Community Education District 21, is almost half African-American and Latino. In its fact sheet on the new elementary school in Bensonhurst, Success Academy notes that it received 572 applications from parents in school District 22 to enter its other schools in 2013. Because I.S. 281 and I.S. 96 are both located in District 21, parents from school District 22 would not be represented or eligible to take part in the Community Education Councils that have been behind most of the protest. Often, parents who send their children to charter schools feel they have been otherwise failed by the system and are looking for options. These parents may not be the same ones who participate in Community Education Councils supported by the Department of Education.

Interestingly, according to the charter network employee, certain factors tend to determine the type of community that pushes back hardest against charter school co-locations. “They tend to be mixed income,” she says. “They also tend to have fewer traditional public schools that are failing. In Harlem and in the Bronx, there are parents who say that these schools are saving their child, but I don’t think that neighborhoods that do not feel this need have been as responsive.” In neighborhoods in which parents feel they already have options — in the form of parochial or private schools — charter schools are more likely to be the target of protest.

With the school year underway, the co-locations at I.S. 96 and I.S. 281 are in their early days. Protests and community resolutions aside, the Department of Education has proceeded as planned, and teachers and administrators are making due with schedule changes, staggered class transitions, and the strategic sharing of space. Despite their past objections, the Community Education Council presidents say they are prepared to work with the charter schools, not against them. “We’re hoping that it’s going to be a smooth transition, and we hope to see the charter schools at our meetings and to have them be part of our community,” says Fiorica.

It is unclear at this point how co-location will come to affect students at I.S. 96 and I.S. 281. But as is the case with many educational issues, the outcome may not be as dramatic as the anger that preceded it. Some of the commenters at CEC 20’s hearings against Success and Coney Island Prep were district school teachers and administrators, who feared that their classrooms would be overcrowded or that their school’s culture would be jeopardized. But while the schools will no doubt have to alter the way they run, their situation is not unique. More than half of the city’s schools already share space, and even among those that do not, overcrowding is often a problem. Brooklyn Tech, one of the city’s best public schools and the one to which the mayor sends his son, is known to be massively overcrowded, forcing teachers to share classrooms. And yet the school is considered one of the city’s most prestigious.

In schools where co-location is now a fact of life, teachers, some of whom once resisted charters, are making the best of their situations. Eric Silberberg says that his middle schoolers have tutored elementary school students in the building they share. Jacob Mnookin at Coney Island Prep is looking forward to opportunities to collaborate with the teachers at I.S. 281, even though some of them spoke out against his school at community hearings. “At the end of the day, when our teachers see the wonderful work that they do and their teachers see the wonderful work that we do, I think we will find that we have more in common than not,” he says. According to Michael Regnier, co-location can be an opportunity for growth. “I think it actually provides a potential catalyst for each school looking at what it’s doing carefully and deciding whether it’s working and what’s best for kids,” he says.

Other teachers echo Regnier’s sentiment, wishing that there were more routes for them to collaborate with instructors at co-located schools. “I could foresee benefits [to co-location],” says a teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, at a co-located district school in the Bronx. “It could be a great opportunity for principals to get peer feedback or for teachers to share resources. There could be more teams and more clubs if we shared after school resources. But right now, we don’t do that.”

Perhaps the discomfort that co-location brings, as real as it is, owes some of its edge to the symbolic resonance of a well-funded institution coexisting with an under-resourced one in such close proximity. CEC members, in resisting co-location, were concerned about the tensions that might breed when charter school students tote iPads while district school students read tattered books, or when charter school students lunch on organic food while district school students eat mystery meat. When such disparity exists miles apart, people often take it for granted. When it’s pushed into one building, communities take notice, and take action.

Rebecca Pattiz was a 7th grade humanities teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, and Brooklyn for three years and a 2011 Teach for America corps member. She has also written about art, music, and pop culture for Interview magazine.

Emily Frances is a documentary photographer and teaching artist based out of Queens, NY. Her work has been published by the University of Chicago Press, American Express, and OffMetro.

Also in this issue

The House on Middagh Street

At the end of a sleepy street in Brooklyn Heights, the ghost of a once-famous house. By Gabriela Geselowitz

Q&A: Alan Rosen of Junior’s

The restaurant’s owner on why, in the end, he passed on a $45 million offer to sell the Brooklyn institution. Interview by John Surico