NY TIMES Opinion Pages
MY daughter is a kindergarten pupil at P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. She started there in September, and she loves everything about it: her friends, her teachers and her school-related activities, like Girl Scouts. Intense excitement accompanied both the post office project earlier this year and the Halloween Day Characters Parade, in which her class dressed up as the Three Little Pigs.
A few weeks ago, for three days in a row starting at 3 p.m., a representative from the Success Academy charter school that is scheduled to open this fall in adjacent Cobble Hill stood outside the doors of P.S. 261, handing out fliers and attempting to recruit its students. On day two, outraged teachers asked the man to leave. He refused. On day three, a loose group of teachers, parents and students occupied the sidewalk next to him. Heated words were exchanged. It wasn’t until the next day, when a schoolwide rally unfolded in the front yard — and cameras from NY1 arrived — that the representative vanished. I can’t help wondering if this is the educational future that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had in mind when, in his State of the City address earlier this year, he called for 50 new charter schools to open in the next two years.
Here in the Brownstone Belt, most elementary schools are overwhelmingly populated either by poor minorities or middle- to upper-middle-class whites. P.S. 261 is one of a minority of Brooklyn primary schools that manages to be truly diverse — racially, ethnically and economically. While 35 percent of its student body qualifies for free lunch, it also attracts and retains children from professional families of all races and creeds, who work in law, media and the arts.
If Success Academy succeeds in luring away even a fraction of 261’s students, however, it could well create a snowball effect in which its middle-class population ends up fleeing. In New York City, school budgets are determined in part by the number of students who attend. So fewer kids at P.S. 261 would mean less money for the principal to spend on everything from teachers to class trips.
At the moment, P.S. 261 is doing pretty well. Just recently, the Trust for Public Land selected the school to have its playground renovated, while a science teacher, Carmelo Piazza (otherwise known as “Carmelo the Science Fellow,” a Brooklyn legend in his own right), received a $10,000 grant from AT&T to refurbish his lab, which will soon be filled with small reptiles.
For reasons understood only by the statistics-mad New York City Department of Education, P.S. 261 recently received a letter grade of “C.” It was also designated as a “school in need of improvement.” But so far, in my book, considering budget cuts that have wiped out close to a million dollars in three years and forced the school library to close for lack of a librarian, the place deserves an A or A-minus.
Other schools nearby could use help as well. Instead of sending taxpayer funds to another Success Academy, why not use that same money to try to turn some of Brooklyn’s less popular elementary schools into institutions that, like P.S. 261, attract parents from across the socioeconomic spectrum? In studies, a mix of rich and poor has been shown to lift up those at the bottom of the economic pile. As for the children of professional families, it’s surely better for them not to spend their entire lives around people exactly like them.
The apparent reason for opening a charter school in a gentrified neighborhood like Cobble Hill (or the Upper West Side, where a Success Academy opened last year) is to bring more middle-class and upper-middle-class families into the publicly funded charter system. But if the Success Academy succeeds in its mission, it could well end up destroying schools like P.S. 261 that already succeed in attracting these families. My daughter’s new friends include the children of both marketing executives and maintenance workers. At drop-off recently, I watched as she and a friend who lives in a nearby housing project walked hand in hand down the hall. In its promise of a more just world, the sight made me almost teary-eyed. I wonder how much longer those kinds of scenes will prevail.
The communities of Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill overwhelmingly do not support a charter in the neighborhood. (The same is true in Williamsburg, where, despite a huge outcry, another Success Academy was recently rubber-stamped.) This has been made abundantly clear at both community meetings and those for the Panel for Educational Policy. Perhaps the mayor believes he knows better than the thousands of families who have come out to voice their opposition. But then, wasn’t the whole point of the “school choice” movement to give power back to the parents?
There’s nothing wrong with providing families with options. When charters open in their own privately financed, state-of-the-art buildings in poverty-stricken neighborhoods where they’re welcomed by the community, there may be reasons to celebrate. But when charters co-locate in mixed-income areas, choice is only half the story.
The existing schools in which they set up shop suffer both in terms of resources (only so many kids can fit in the lunchroom at one time) and morale. If the Cobble Hill Success Academy opens as planned in the Brooklyn School for Global Studies, which also houses a second high school and a special-needs program, in five years the building will be at 108 percent capacity — unless, of course, the other schools shrivel up and die.
Call us paranoid, but parents like me are starting to wonder whether Mayor Bloomberg’s larger goal isn’t to privatize the entire New York City public school system. Why else would he be foisting charters on communities that don’t want them? And how else can he justify diverting tax dollars to organizations that employ people to blanket neighborhoods with advertisements and try to poach students from public schools that are already thriving?