Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ellen McHugh: nothing dark but the intent of the DOE

Here is Ellen McHugh's account of the controversial Cobble Hill charter co-location hearing, more description and video of which is here.  Ellen is head of Parent to Parent - NYS, and a member of the Citywide Council for Special Education:

Another hearing another show. (with apologies to Cole Porter).

Outside it really was a dark and rainy night but the sharp lightning flash of argument chased the gloom from the corners of the auditorium at 293 in District 15.  Here, at the hearing on a co-location of a Success charter with three other schools, there was nothing dark but the intent of the DOE.  As the room was filling up it was obvious that one thing was missing: there were no tee-shirted, cap wearing, sign carrying devotees of Success Academy.  Having participated at many of these co-location hearings, the lack of devotees signaled only one thing: a change in strategy.  That, or the ridicule these tactics engendered had caused a shuffle in the war rooms at Success, Inc

Occupy Wall Street came with the people's mic. Students from the affected schools were clustered to right of the panel.  The charters folks were on the left, huddled and lacking in cohesion.  Parents and community members were rapidly filling seats throughout the auditorium. Elected officials or their representatives were here.  On the right near students and administrators were staff members from the schools. DOE staffers trotted back and forth whispering to various DOE representatives, carrying water for the thirsty. B.I.T.s (Bureaucrats in Training*) clattered up and down the aisle.(*my thanks to Mark K for that turn of phrase)

Two armed police officers were in the back and a clique of school safety officers watched the crowd.  This was District 15, home of brownstone Brooklyn and gentrification.  Were they expecting a riot? 

Right on time, at 6:20, Jim Devor, the Chair of CEC 15, began the meeting.  He introduced the members of the panel, about 14 people from the SLT teams, CCSE, CCHS, SUNY and the DOE, as well as the Brooklyn High School Superintendent.  The SUNY representative made a statement. The DOE Deputy
Chancellor Marc Sternberg read the proposal to the audience and a CCSE member [Ellen herself] made a short statement of concerns: the educational impact statement or EIS made no reference to actual education programs or the sharing of best practices between and among schools, lack of appropriate space for specialized services for students with IEPs, an artificial growth limit for all of the schools and programs currently in the building.

Then the questioning, by the Chair of the D 15 CEC, began.  If the purpose of charter schools is to offer choice to parents of students in failing schools, why was the DOE proposing this co-location in an area with high performing schools?  Originally the charter application submitted was approved for D 13 or D 14.  Why the sudden move to D 15?  Why had there been no preliminary discussion with the D 15 CEC or the Community Planning Board, as required by the law?  Why had CUNY ignored its own guidelines of
community involvement?  Why was it appropriate to plan for a school building utilization of 108%?  

Another CEC member asked why, when Sunset Park had many underperforming schools, it was considered appropriate to site the charter in this neighborhood?  Students who have high needs and who were at risk were being ignored by a charter school founder who professed to provide choice for those very parents and students.  It was a very tough half hour of questioning, with only a cursory attempt to provide answers.

But, in the audience there was a little bit of theater.  The Chancellor had come in.  He was sitting in the corner, in the last row of seats, away from the action and slouched down  to avoid recognition.  And, quietly slipping
into a seat on the opposite side of the auditorium, but with enough hustle and bustle to attract attention, was Eva Moskowitz.

As we approached the public comments part of the evening, elected officials were permitted to speak first.  Among the officials to speak, all in opposition to the proposal were Assemblyman Jim Brennan. Assemblywman Joan Millman , Oscar Jones representing State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, City
Councilman Brad Lander,  Councilman Steve Levin, and District leader Joanne Simon. 

Assemblywoman Millman offered an alternative proposal: establish a much needed early childhood program at the site.  The Assemblywoman also noted that, of the 90 or so calls her office had received about the co-location, not one call had been in support of the plan.  Assemblymember Brennan referred to the plan as an attempt to "sever, fragment and divide the community".

While the Deputy Chancellor attempted to justify the plan chants of "Shame, shame, shame" erupted.  He had tried to defend the proposed utilization rate of 108% percent, explain the lack of community involvement, and let it be known that Success could expand to 8th grade. 

Proponents of the charter assured the audience that they were members of the community, some for as long as five years, and had a right to demand excellence and choice.  One or two mentioned the high cost of private school as a reason for their support of charters.  Some of their comments caused hoots of derision from  the audience.  A few times the Chair had to call for quiet and a quality audience.  At one point an irate individual was removed from the building by the security for swearing at speakers.

Students talked about the issues of crowding and asked why the charter school, with only kindergarten and first grade students, would have 10 hours a week of gym time at the cost of  limiting access to the gym for the other three schools.  A community member commented on the lack of electives and wondered if the "efficient" use of the school building would damage the well regarded culinary program. 

Speakers described the history of high staff turnover at charters and the counseling out of students with IEPs or who are English Language Learners. Questions were asked of the SUNY representative.  Why weren't the charter schools paying a fair rent for the facilities they occupied? In all of the 32 speakers I heard only handful supported the co-location. 

In the mean time, as speaker after speaker took the microphone, we noticed that Walcott and Moskowitz had disappeared.  Interesting that they didn't stay to the end, but I guess when you are plotting it's better not to be


Anonymous said...

Check the overcrowding of some of the the schools in the Sunset Park area of District 15. WE need a new school to alleviate the large class size,not another charter school to deny our children of much needed space in their own school .

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