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Shared Space at Heart of New York's Heated Charter School Debate

In New York, where school space is at a premium, colocation of charters and district schools can exacerbate tensions over resources.
On the steps of the New York Dept. of Education parents and teachers from the Mickey Mantle school PS 811 and PS 149 in Harlem protested the co-location of the Success Academy in the building that houses Mickey Mantle school which affects 109 special needs students.
On the steps of the New York Dept. of Education parents and teachers from the Mickey Mantle school PS 811 and PS 149 in Harlem protested the co-location of the Success Academy in the building that houses Mickey Mantle school which affects 109 special needs students. John Makely / NBC News

NEW YORK — When Ginette Hernandez’s five-year-old son switched schools in November, she felt a palpable sense of relief. Her son, who has speech, behavior and developmental issues, had been struggling in his public school in East Harlem. Not quite potty-trained, the boy had accidents, and teachers didn’t have the time or training to clean him up. It seemed like every time her son had a meltdown, Hernandez got a panicked call at work.

Things started looking up when the boy switched to the nearby Mickey Mantle School (P.S. M811), a special education public school that provides more individual attention. But a New York state budget deal struck in Albany two weeks ago has her afraid that her son will have to move yet again.

The deal requires the city to provide rent-free space in public school buildings for charter schools — independently run public schools that receive less public funding than district schools and are subsidized by private donations. If the city can’t find room for charters inside public schools — an arrangement known as colocation — they must pay to house them elsewhere. The new law will also allot $500 more per charter school student by 2017.

The decision grants unprecedented protections to charters, and stokes the often vitriolic debate over whether they offer a refuge for underprivileged kids from failing schools — or provide opportunities for a few at the expense of the larger public school system.

In New York, where school space is at a premium, colocation of charters and district schools can exacerbate tensions in a particularly intense way. Colocation among district schools is common in the city, but when charter schools rub right up against traditional public schools, the differences — both financial and cultural — are hard to ignore. Nearly half of city schools face overcrowding, and according to many parents and activists, new protections for charters will only squeeze resources further.

At the epicenter of the debate is the school building where Hernandez’s child attends class. It houses three schools: Mickey Mantle, P.S. 149, and the Harlem 1 branch of Success Academy, part of a network of 22 charter schools that is endowed with millions of private dollars. The budget deal reversed a decision from Mayor Bill de Blasio to revoke the placement of Success Academy’s middle school in the building (along with several other proposals citywide).

“I’m anxious, angry, and confused,” said Hernandez. “Just to think that now or in a year we will be made to move schools because a big superpower wants to take over? It’s disgusting.”

Charter advocates, meanwhile, say the budget deal simply reinforces that charters are public schools, too.

“Our parents are paying taxes,” said Danique Loving, principal of Success Academy Harlem 1. “Now they are being protected the same way traditional public school parents are.”

“The anger among parents is already at incendiary levels. I think it’ll create even more of an explosive attitude.”

Success Academy is still negotiating with the city. But if plans stay as they are, they won’t affect the enrollment of current students at Mickey Mantle, including Hernandez’s son, and won’t take space from P.S. 149. The plan calls for three classrooms from Mickey Mantle to be phased to Success Academy over five years and for fewer new students to be enrolled at the special ed school (prospective students would be directed to a different school.)

Still, it’s not the inch so much as the mile that concerns Hernandez and others. Anti-charter activists are calling the new deal an affront to the 94 percent of kids who don’t attend charters and yet another example of a privileged few benefiting while so many others remain underserved.

“The anger among parents is already at incendiary levels,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters and a vocal anti-charter activist. When parents realize that charters are getting “preferential treatment,” she said, “I think it’ll create even more of an explosive attitude.”

The demographics of the three schools housed at 41 West 117 Street are virtually identical: nearly all black and Hispanic, with a majority of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. But when the classrooms of P.S. 149 and Mickey Mantle give way to Success Academy on the third floor and part of the second, one notices the aesthetic differences immediately. The public school hallways are cheerful but basic, with a ragtag assortment of colors and student art on the walls. A few fluorescent lights flicker; the bathrooms are standard cinderblock.

In Success Academy’s bright hallways, signs are stenciled in the same font and bear inspirational quotes like “Actions speak louder than words.” Classrooms are outfitted in splashy blues, reds and greens, with the same multi-colored, polka-dotted carpets. Success Academy students wear orange and blue uniforms: jumpers for the girls, shirts and ties for the boys.

According to Barbara Darrigo, principal of P.S. 149, there’s an unmistakable discomfort in the building.

“It’s this underlying tension,” she said. “There’s almost an air of elitism. When they’re not making eye contact with you [in the hallways] and they’re not acknowledging your existence, you kinda start thinking, ‘I guess I’m less than.’ I know my kids must feel that.”

In response, Success Academy principal Loving said, “Our kids are from the same neighborhood, so it couldn’t possibly be that our kids are better.” But she admits she feels the tension, too.

“People are on edge,” she said. “I’m going out of my way to make sure we’re not violating our shared space agreement, that the kids are staying in line, that they’re being quiet, so there won’t be any excuse to make it ugly.”

Darrigo knows P.S. 149’s space won’t be affected by the current plan, but she worries about what precedent it sets, especially because she already feels the pinch of space and scheduling.

“I find it really hard to accept that my kids have to have lunch at 10:40 in the morning,” she said, while Success Academy eats lunch later. “I can’t open up another pre-K class.” Even if Darrigo had enough phys-ed teachers to meet compliance, she said, she wouldn’t have enough time in the gym.

“They’re upset about how their school is being run compared to our school, because they have nowhere near what we have.”

Fancy carpets and lunch times aren’t the only way to distinguish the two schools. Although they serve roughly the same population, Success Academy’s test scores far surpass those of regular district schools, including P.S. 149. They may have their innovative teaching style to thank, but some anti-charter advocates have suggested another possible explanation.

“They don’t have to take the special needs students…with test scores that are most likely going to be low,” Darrigo said. “[Traditional public schools] do.” Darrigo said a handful of former Success Academy students with “very intensive learning needs” and “behavioral issues” have been transferred to her school.

A representative from Success Academy said 14 percent of Harlem 1 students have disabilities. Still, experts say charter schools generally serve a smaller proportion of these children than regular public schools, and that charters sometimes steer kids to different schools if they find them difficult to manage.

“There’s anecdotal evidence to suggest that this happens with some frequency,” said Thomas Toch, senior partner at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “Charter schools are not designed to serve all students…It means that traditional public schools sometimes have to, in the middle of the school year, try to educate kids with a lot of challenges coming from charter schools.”

And even though the charters serve the same communities as the regular schools, charter school parents are often savvier and more involved. A parent needs to be plugged-in to navigate the admissions process in the first place, and once his or her child is accepted, charters have high standards for community involvement.

“[Charters] can demand things of their parents that I cannot,” Darrigo said. “My parents are heads of single-parent families, they live in public housing, shelters.” Darrigo said the majority of P.S. 149’s parents probably have very little idea of the budget’s implications.

Loving maintained that parents at Success Academy “deal with the same struggles as 149” and that “it’s more about how you choose to design your school and manage your school.” But it’s undeniable that Success Academy has more resources for that designing and managing—a fact that stirs up parent resentment.

Several Success Academy parents chalked up this animus to plain old jealousy.

“They’re upset about how their school is being run compared to our school, because they have nowhere near what we have,” said Tashena Elliott, whose daughter attends Success Academy Harlem 1. “I don’t blame them. We’re in your space, and now you feel threatened.”

Craig Parker, another Success Academy parent, sends his daughter there because “I went to public school, and I didn’t have as much offered to me as the charter schools.” He said if anyone has to move, “it should be [the other schools.] They should prioritize the school that’s getting better test results.”

“Public education has basically been chopped up into pieces.”

Last week, public school parents staged two rallies protesting the New York budget decision. On a rainy Tuesday, several dozen parents, teachers, and activists gathered at the steps of the Department of Education to protest on behalf of Mickey Mantle’s special needs students. And on Thursday, several hundred marched to the governor’s New York City office in midtown.

At both demonstrations, emotions ran high. Parents made comparisons to Occupy Wall Street, holding signs that said “Who protects the 94%?” People screamed, “Get your own damn schools!” and “Separate but not equal!”

Kemala Karmen, a parent of two public school students, said she would be expressing her disapproval at the voting booth.

“I will never vote for [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo again,” she said. “Clearly he only has corporate interests in mind.” Cuomo’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Amid the protests, there was a general sense of foreboding that public schools were seriously in danger.

“Public education has basically been chopped up into pieces,” said Noah Gotbaum, vice president of Community Education Council District 3 and a public school parent who spoke at both rallies. “If there were space wars under [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg, that’s going to be child’s play compared to what’s going to happen now.”

Not every charter school colocation has the high-wattage tension of the building in Harlem. The Ethical Community Charter School in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, for example, co-exists peacefully with P.S. 297.

“We’d like to not only share space but also learn from each other in terms of best practices,” said Annette Keane, the charter school’s principal. She plans to host the P.S. 297 principal, James Brown, at her school to observe classrooms together.

Compared to Success Academy, The Ethical Community Charter School seems to create less of a divide—it’s smaller, less standardized, and, according to Keane, far less flush with cash than Success Academy. TECCS’ culture is certainly distinctive—more touchy-feely, less authoritarian—but aside from the uniforms, the difference between the two schools is not immediately apparent. And the schools are on different floors.

Principal Brown declined to comment for this story, but several parents attested that the relationship was harmonious.

Yahaira Rosario, who has a second grader at P.S. 297, said the presence of a charter school “didn’t bother me as long as it doesn’t interrupt my son’s education. They’re all the same kids, it seems to me.”

LaMeesha, a TECCS parent, said “it seems like our school has a very good rapport with the school that we’re housed in.” She added that a shared afterschool program “seems to go pretty smoothly.”

The level of cooperation appears to make all the difference when it comes to colocation. Many charter schools, like Achievement First network in New Haven or KIPP collaborations in Spring Branch, Texas, have explicitly made it a goal to wield influence on traditional public schools, rather than remain in a bubble.

“One of the early arguments for charter schools is that they would become labs for educational experimentation and then they would share what they’ve learned with the larger school system,” said Toch. “You do see some instances where mutually beneficial relationships do exist, and it’s a whole lot better than squaring off in the same building.”

Unfortunately, said Toch, “there hasn’t been a lot of this.” Colocation is often “a very fraught relationship, a lot of animosity, and very little sharing of ideas,” which is partly why other cities have been hesitant to colocate.

It remains to be seen whether increased colocation in New York will encourage osmosis or ratchet up tensions even further. Loving said “there are lots of things that we could be doing” to promote a “spirit of generosity.” Darrigo also “knows [cooperation] is happening” elsewhere.

“That’s beautiful,” she said. “That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Education coverage for is supported by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. NBC News retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.