Central Brooklyn Parents Face School Choices, Disparities

Photo by: Leah Robinson
P.S. 221 is a school within district 17 that is being co-located with a new charter school.

In community school district 17, school closures, charter schools and tough discipline aren't just grounds for debate: They're the reality that face parents advocating for their children.

By: Leah Robinson

On one of the final days of the school year, the children file out of the M.S. 722 building in forest-green polo shirts and khakis. Referred to as scholars, these students venture to Alvin Ailey on field trips and attend a Student Summer Academy to connect with their teachers before the school year begins. It is hard to imagine that M.S. 722, known as New Heights Middle School, has only been open for one year. Harder still to believe, it is the third middle school in a row to be housed in the building in the past nine years.

In 2004, M.S. 587 replaced the failing M.S.391, the Mahalia Jackson School. Eight years later, M.S. 587 itself was ordered closed for abysmal test scores. The school is slowly being phased out and replaced by M.S. 722.

The closure and replacement of schools deemed failures has been a hallmark of the Bloomberg administration's education policy. A refrain for critics of the current mayor has been the way in which the DOE assigns students who are harder to educate—a choice that can set a school up for failure or give it a head start at success.

In January 2012, a report by the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) and New York Communities for Change (NYCC) found that while high schools closed by the administration were packed with high-needs kids, the newly opened ones were not. Instead, those hard-to-educate children went to other struggling schools, some of which were also slated for closure.

Advocates are now focusing on similar disparities among K-8th graders. Indeed, in school district 17, lower numbers of troubled, impoverished, English Language Learners and disabled students are present in many of the district’s newly opened charter schools than in its district schools. The executive officers of community district 17 voiced their concern about "an on-going conflict with the co-existence of Charter Schools and Public Schools" in their Statement of Community District Needs for the 2014 fiscal year. Neighborhoods like East Flatbush lie within both the community and school district.

M.S. 722 currently services more English Language Learners than the middle school it replaced. And its percentage of special education students – 22.65 – is significantly higher than the citywide average of 16 percent.

Struggling schools with struggling students

The 27 schools that were cited for some type of closure in 2011 expanded to include an additional 22 schools in 2012. While the 22 proposed closures were blocked by a state court, the total number of schools Bloomberg has chosen to close, phase-out or overhaul in the past decade is 162.

Students of school district 17 in Brooklyn have felt the full effect of that policy. The area, which encompasses parts of Prospect Heights, East Flatbush and Crown Heights, contains schools that have been closed and reopened twice and three times.

The CEJ/NYCC report says schools with a large proportion of high needs kids have a greater risk of receiving a failing grade and being slated for closure than those containing smaller numbers of such students. Citywide demographics show that closing high-schools had 17 percent more students who were overage and 9 percent more students classified as special ed.

Crown Heights’ M.S. 391, where only 12 percent of students were meeting English Language Arts state standards, was closed by the Department of Education in 2004. Its replacement, M.S. 587, had only 13 percent of students meeting the same ELA standards in 2011. Currently, 93.2 percent of M.S. 587’s students are eligible for a free lunch. The middle school’s last class will graduate in 2014.

"The over-population of high-needs students at certain failing schools is sabotage for these students and these schools. These young people are already struggling and placing them in school after school without the proper resources sets them up for hardship and little chance for success," stated Zakiya Ansari, the advocacy director at the Alliance for Quality Education and mother of eight public school attendees.

Disparities among schools

While the district's struggling regular schools display a high proportions of high-needs children in, the district’s charter schools do not.

As of November 2012, the School of Integrated Learning, a district school located in Crown Heights, had 28 percent special education students and 7.5 percent English Language Learners. However, in the same neighborhood, 13 percent of Explore Empower Charter School’s student body identified as disabled in some way and 1 percent were classified as English Language Learners.

At P.S. 398 Walter Weaver in Crown Heights, 24 percent of the student body was identified as special education and 8 percent were distinguished as English Language Learners, while at Explore Charter School in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, 15.9 percent of the students were classified as special education and 1.8 percent as English Language Learners.

M.S. 587 shares a building with a charter school. While 23.5 percent of the student population at M.S. 587 has some sort of disability, down the hall, Achievement First Crown Heights Charter School is teaching half that percentage of special education students.

In a statement to City Limits, Amy D’Angelo, the regional superintendent at Achievement First, responded to questions regarding the charter’s comparatively lower number of special education students to those in surrounding district schools:
"Across the country, African-American students and students in low-income areas are more frequently misidentified as qualifying for a special education classification. At Achievement First, we use multiple research-based interventions before referring a student for special educations services, and we work hard not to contribute to the problem of disproportionate identification."

D’Angelo pointed to the charter’s move to grant lottery preference to students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch and also described the public charter network as fully "committed to increasing our English Language Learner enrollment across Achievement First’s schools, and to serving more low-income students."

Some in the charter movement, however, embrace the idea that not every school is for every student. "Schools should be full of students who share a common culture of learning, provided that the culture is not defined in an exclusive fashion," read a 2012 report by the New York City Charter School Center. "A student who leaves one school to find a better fit at another should be considered a success story."

Disciplinary action may push some kids out

But some believe the school's success, not the student's, is what drives many transfers. According to Edwize, an education news blog sponsored by the United Federation of Teachers, as charter school students moved from grade 5 to 6, the sizes of classes at many charters diminished by 15 percent while passing rates went up by 21 points. These higher scores suggest that troubled students, those typically bringing down scores, were those who were no longer attending.

In June 2012, School Stories—a website committed to educational reporting —distributed a list of 10 charter schools with the highest suspension rates—some which were four times higher than the New York City average.

"There are parents of special education children who have told me that their child was suspended multiple times due to behavior until they were finally expelled," says Tamara Johnson, PTA President of P.S. 167 in Crown Heights. "[The high-needs students] were placed in other district schools who were already serving these kids."

Roughly 35 percent of the Achievement First’s student body was given an out-of-school suspension during the 2011-2012 school year. Responding to questions regarding these rates, D’Angelo stated, "The high number of suspensions at AF Crown Heights Middle is unacceptable, and we are committed to dramatically reducing suspensions while also maintaining our high-expectations culture that allows students to make outstanding academic progress. The number of suspensions is not school-wide and is mainly driven by a subset of students who demonstrated repeated misbehavior, disrupting the quality of the learning environment." She says she plans to find effective alternatives to suspensions for troubled students.

P.S. 167, where Tamarah Johnson sends her son, is set for phase-out. "167 has a lot of special needs students who the school was trying to service to the best of their ability – hopefully when we close they will be transferred somewhere with instructors that are well trained," she says. P.S. 167 is scheduled to begin sharing its building with a new Success Academy Charter School.

The challenge next door

P.S. 221 is another school within district 17 that is being co-located with a new charter school. Parents and advocates representing the school worry that the new Citizens of the World charter will only increase disparities between the district and charter school’s student populations and capabilities. (Read more about Citizens of the World’s contentious move into Williamsburg.)

While funding cuts last year forced P.S. 221 to cut 10 teachers and valuable after-school programs, the school’s PTA president, Averil Mason, is more concerned with losing her students to the new competition.

"I don’t understand why a charter school serving grades K-1 is being opened in the same building as a public school that already services those grades. Parents are naturally going to want to send their children to a school where there are smaller classes and two teachers in a room," Mason says. "These are things that we just don’t have the funding to offer."

Mark Comanducci, executive director of Citizens of the World’s New York region, says, "Our Crown Heights school is expected to have a very diverse student population this coming fall due to our recruitment of students from varied socioeconomic and racial backgrounds." Comanducci says the lottery gives each child has an equal shot of acceptance.

At P.S. 221, the coming fall will see an administration struggling to do more with less. The sudden downgrade from an "A" grade last year to a "D" this year greatly concerns the public school’s leadership, who believe the new grade will hurt their ability to maintain their current student population and may lead to further decreases in funding.

"The little that we do have, we use to survive and to help all our students, including our most troubled kids," says Mason. "But it’s hard to see the charter opening up next door with so much more because our kids deserve that too."

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