The charter school invasion of Harlem

September 14, 2009

New York City teachers Emily Giles and Bill Linville describe how the drive to spread charter schools affected one public school in Harlem--and how teachers, parents and the community are organizing an opposition.

P.S. 123 is one of New York City's "well developed" schools, according to Department of Education (DOE) standards.

Also called the Mahalia Jackson Elementary School, it was so successful that the DOE approved a proposal to add 7th grade classes for the 2009-2010 school year--and according to a teacher at P.S. 123, more than 600 students applied.

But P.S. 123 doesn't have the space to accommodate those students. Teachers at the school are dismayed at the loss of two science labs, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) lounge, a parent room with computers for parent GED prep classes, half the library and the social studies room.

As a matter of fact, the "well developed" P.S. 123 lost an entire floor for this school year. Strangely enough, as the school was given DOE approval to grow, the very same DOE took away classrooms and program space.

That space was given to a charter school called the Harlem Success Academy II (HSA II), the second such academy founded by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, opened inside the P.S. 123 building one year ago.

Parents and teachers protest privatization outside P.S. 123 in Harlem
Parents and teachers protest privatization outside P.S. 123 in Harlem (Brian Jones | SW)

Initially, HSA II was scheduled to move this school year to P.S. 194, another public school in the area that already houses a different charter school. But after a pushback from P.S. 194 teachers and parents, HSA II remains inside P.S. 123.

And not only is it staying--it's growing.

Like P.S. 123, HSA II submitted a proposal to add new grades and increase enrollment this year. Both schools were given permission to add classes, but HSA II gained space while P.S. 123 is losing it.

Thus, according to a P.S. 123 teacher, HSA II now has two science labs for 1st graders and Kindergarten students, while P.S. 123 science teachers are sharing one science lab for elementary and middle school science classes. And keep in mind, the teacher emphasized, that P.S. 123, and not HSA II, teaches science for grades that face high-stakes standardized tests.

What's most alarming about the P.S. 123 story is that it isn't unique. The same pattern of new charter schools moving into community public schools is happening across Harlem, where the charter school invasion is at its fiercest, and now across the city, where two dozen new charter schools opened across the city, and more are on the way.

What is unique about P.S. 123, however, is the way that teachers stood up to the activities of Eva Moskowitz and HSA--a struggle that gained momentum this summer and will continue into the new school year as HSA II continues to operate inside P.S. 123.

MOSKOWITZ MADE the first move at the beginning of this summer. She hired private movers to come into P.S. 123 classrooms, pack up teachers' belongings and put them in the gymnasium, so HSA II could begin its takeover--all without even notifying P.S. 123 staff.

The movers came in and attempted to break into teachers' rooms, but many teachers stood their ground. "I told the other teachers to sit in front of their doors and don't move," one teacher said. "And don't let anybody touch you. If anybody touches you, it's on. You're not coming and breaking and entering with the person right there."

After New York City police and the DOE were called, the move was stopped. But on a walk-through of the school some days later, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer found "a whole lot of boxes that are unmarked--people's supplies and resources moved into spaces of the school," he said. "No marking of what classroom they came from, no teacher's name on the boxes. They were basically packed up and pushed out. That's what's all over the school."

When students returned to school last week on September 9, materials were still piled up in classrooms, thanks to HSA's dump and run--and the refusal of teachers to clean up after them. Meanwhile, say teachers, HSA II's hallways inside the building have new lighting, remodeled bathrooms (with potpourri!), and every classroom has brand-new air conditioners.

This arrogance provoked protests throughout the summer, and the first day of school was no exception. Beginning at 6:30 a.m., more than two dozen demonstrators gathered outside of the HSA II entrance to the building.

When Moscowitz showed up, she claimed to the media that the protesters were scaring the children--and even had children up outside the building (which they normally don't do) to make it look like the picket line was blocking their entrance.

As parents from P.S. 123 came to drop off their children, parent leaders gathered them together and spoke about the conditions inside the school. The parents tried to enter the building to see for themselves, but were prevented from doing so by the principal. Yet later in the morning, reporters from the right-wing New York Post showed up and claimed that the schools chancellor had given them permission to enter.

After the first week of classes, some of the effects of HSA II's growth at the expense of P.S. 123 began to emerge: a class that lost its room to HSA was meeting in the basement, but had to be relocated after the children and teachers were having difficulty breathing; the former library is now a combination of several classrooms, and students and teachers have difficulty hearing each other because there are no barriers between the classes; a special education class with 12 students and seven adults is crowded into a half-classroom with no closet space.

One parent told a reporter, "I feel like my child is being raped."

THIS SUMMER saw a flurry of protests in Harlem in response to charter school takeovers and encroachments of public school buildings.

At P.S. 123, there were three rallies in July drawing between 30 and 50 people, among them parents, teachers and some students, along with community members and teachers from elsewhere in the city.

William Hargraves, a P.S. 123 parent, compared the situation to injustice of the fake separate-but-equal doctrine used to justify segregated schools under Jim Crow in the South. "We need to have charter schools governed with the same criteria that public schools are governed by," Hargraves said. "This is happening all over the city."

Annette Jimenez, leader of the Parent Association at P.S. 375 in East Harlem, said:

We're facing the same problem. The charter school that's in our building started with half of one of the floors in our schools. It moved on take a whole floor this year and next year...It will be servicing more children than we are now, and it's displacing most of our kids.

This is something that we need to stand up and fight now. This charter school system has come in to create a two-tier system for our schools and our students. Our children deserve the same treatment that the charter school students are getting. We see that their numbers aren't better than our numbers. We're going to continue to stand up and fight for this, and we're going to win.

On September 2, activists held a forum in Harlem called "The Truth About Charter Schools," which was attended by more than 100 people--around half of them parents of school kids. State Sen. Bill Perkins hosted the event, and speakers included William Hargraves; Brian Jones of the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM); and Akinlabi Mackall of the Coalition for Public Education.

Perkins opened up the forum by putting the issue of racism front and center. "They say that the charter schools are the prep schools for people of color," Perkins said. "That tells me we have a problem. Parents are in despair over what they don't have, and are hoping for something that is a satisfactory improvement. They're being forced to take action because of benign neglect. I think that's a political issue, and a civil rights issue."

Jones went through five myths about charter schools, exposing each as false. "If the charters are doing something innovative, then why aren't we doing that in the public schools?" he asked. "There's nothing in our union contract that stops us from teaching to smaller classes, from integrating the arts into the curriculum, or from using real science laboratories. If they're not doing anything innovative, then why are they pushing public schools out of their own buildings?"

Mackall talked about how charter schools are focused on the concerns of parents, but in a divisive way. "Who's addressing the problem of academic excellence for all of our children?" he said. "We need to be the parents of all of our children."

During the discussion, teachers from P.S. 123 and P.S. 241 and spoke passionately about how the expansion of charter schools inside public school buildings has caused horrible overcrowding and unsafe conditions for public school students.

THE CHARTER school invasion and the protests against it have raised a number of questions about how to challenge the drive toward privatization.

The GEM members who helped organize the September 2 forum are mostly New York City public school teachers, who aim to work in coalition with parents and community members. GEM has taken a position explicitly against the expansion of charter schools. But other groups have been more equivocal.

The position of teachers union leaders has been to support charter schools that do the right thing--those that allow unions and that represent "public schools freed from bureaucratic micro-management to be educational laboratories," in the words of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who came out of the UFT.

In fact, the UFT runs two of its own charter schools and has partnered with Green Dot to run a third--even though teachers at these schools aren't under the same contract agreement as public school teachers.

Essentially, the attitude here can be summed up as: "If you can't beat them, join them." According to Weingarten, "Charters have a place in public education, and unions are not impediments to their success, despite some claims to the contrary. We need to get past the politics of conflict by working together and making sure that all New York City public school children attend a quality public school."

The community organization ACORN took the lead at several protests in July, but its organizers have argued that parents and teachers shouldn't be against charter schools, but should ask only that charters find their own space outside of public school buildings. At a July 10 protest, ACORN organizers told members of GEM to take down anti-charter school signs.

Meanwhile, Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, said at the protest, "Nobody was disrespectful to the charter school, or that faculty or those children. There really is an ability to create common ground and negotiation and transparency...We should have a cooling-out period until there's a real sit-down between P.S. 123, the charter school, the Board of Education, and area elected officials."

There's nothing in this statement about granting the use of public school space to privately run charter schools. Stringer is merely calling for "transparency" in the process. While this would certainly be a good first step, we need to demand that politicians oppose charter schools and instead favor adequately funding public schools.

What's happening at P.S. 123 and elsewhere in Harlem is nothing short of a hostile takeover, facilitated by an education system under the control of the mayor--with no room for input from the community, parents or teachers. As journalist Juan Gonzalez wrote of the takeover:

[There was] no parent or faculty meeting to gauge whether anyone wants the new school. No official vote of the local Community Education Council. Some young bureaucrat from the city Education Department's Office of Portfolio Development arrives one day with a bunch of maps under his arm, and promptly orders a new allocation of rooms. Boom. Done. All part of Klein's rush to create 100,000 new charter school seats over the next few years.

WHY THE rush? Is it really, as so many advocates boast, because charter schools are freed from bureaucratic controls, allowing them to be, as former AFT President Albert Shanker put it, "incubators of good instructional practice"?

This idea is unsettling because it suggests that public schools are in some way not set up to be "incubators of good instructional practice." Shouldn't we strive to make changes that enable all public schools to be bastions of "good instructional practice"? Of course we should.

In practice, the bureaucratic freedoms allowed to charter schools have nothing to do with good instructional practice--they have to do with the bottom line. Charter school administrators are freed from constraints like employing only certified teachers, employing unionized teaching staff, abiding by DOE time limits for the school day and year, using DOE contracted unionized support staff--and, above all, serving all students.

So it's unclear how lifting restrictions on teacher certification and unionization facilitate "good instructional practice."

Instead, charter schools are often plagued with high teacher turnover because of the absence of union contracts, longer school days and higher teaching loads. A study released by the Education Policy Research Unit found that the national teacher turnover rate in public schools averages 11 percent--while the average charter school attrition rate is almost 25 percent. In Harlem, Moskowitz's own Harlem Success Academy I fired the principal three weeks before the 3rd grade ELA test.

Charter schools not only have a different population of teachers--they also serve a different demographic of students than public schools.

Data for the 2007-2008 school year showed that 14 percent of students in New York City public schools were English Language Learners--while only 4 percent were in charter schools. Around 15 percent of public school students had special needs, while only 5 percent did in charter schools.

The numbers speak for themselves--charter schools don't serve the same population of students as public schools. Yet the most systematic study of charter schools found that around four in five charter school students had test scores at the same level or worse than public school students.

The primary result of the charter movement thus far has not been to create "incubators of good instructional practice," but instead to develop a separate and unequal system of education.

Charter school operators claim they are just a part of the public school system, but this is only true in the sense that they take money and resources from the public education system. In addition to money that they receive from state, local and federal governments, charter schools receive grants from foundations, and one-quarter of all charter schools are run on a for-profit basis.

In the Harlem community, the response to charter schools is mixed. Public schools in Harlem are segregated, under-funded and overcrowded, leaving parents searching for other options. Parents see fresh, newly renovated, activity-packed charter schools and see an opportunity for their children.

The charter movement operates under the guise of promoting civil rights and preys on parents' dissatisfaction with public schools--but in fact, it's pushing a right-wing neoliberal agenda that is systematically destroying community public schools.

The fight at P.S. 123 is a start in the ongoing battle to stop separate and unequal from becoming reality in our public schools.

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