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A charter school operator challenges Moskowitz on her approach

Steve Evangelista at his charter school, Harlem Link. (Photo courtesy of Evangelista)
Steve Evangelista at his charter school, Harlem Link. (Photo courtesy of Evangelista)

Eva Moskowitz, the City Council member turned charter school operator, has for years been blunt about the forces that oppose her approach to improving education: other politicians, the city teachers union, and anyone else who has a stake in what she sees as the status quo. Last night, in a quiet conversation on 144th Street in Harlem, Moskowitz learned that she has a new critic, and he’s a little different from the others.

He’s Steve Evangelista, a Harlem charter school operator himself.

Evangelista approached Moskowitz with his concerns after a public hearing to discuss a Department of Education plan to install Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academy 2 charter school inside a traditional public school building.

The Harlem Success school, along with another charter school that’s already in the building, would effectively replace P.S. 194, an elementary school whose low test scores and declining enrollment moved the DOE to phase it out of existence. The school has only 14 kindergartners this year, and about 70% of students in 194’s zone attend school somewhere else. The portion is even higher for kindergarten-aged students: 84%.

The swap reflects a goal that Chancellor Joel Klein and Moskowitz share: To replace district schools they consider failures with new, better schools — and to do so as quickly as possible. Moskowitz has set herself a goal of opening 40 charter schools in a decade.

Evangelista, who also runs a Harlem charter school, Harlem Link, came to watch the proceedings, and afterward he sought Moskowitz out to discuss her approach. When their conversation ended, he explained to me that his main concern is with Moskowitz’s dramatic ambitions. Aiming for such fast change requires her to adopt an antagonistic stance toward existing schools, he said. He worries that the attitude could ultimately doom her goal of improving public schools.

“I think it causes antagonism,” he said. “The district public schools are not the problem. The adults in those buildings work very hard. They’re responding to the system as it is.”

His approach to improving the system, he said, is to work together with traditional public schools. He tries to build collaborative relationships with the district schools whose space he shares, and he has also joined a network of district schools that meets regularly to share best practices. “I feel more confident that we can accomplish our less ambitious goals with our more collaborative approach than she can her more ambitious goals with her antagonistic approach,” he said.

Of Moskowitz’s approach, he added, “I have to question whether it’s going to work. It’s always been small coalitions that gather steam.”

Moskowitz’s counter-argument is that she has a “moral obligation” to act quickly. For more of her explanation, read this post, where I quote her more extensively.

Evangelista’s remarks came after a hearing that could be the start of a bitter battle between Moskowitz’s parents, who want the public school building for their school, and community members, some of whom are strongly opposing its move (which coincides with the DOE’s decision to shut down P.S. 194 entirely). Neighborhood members’ complaints that they didn’t get enough notice before last night’s hearing — it was announced Friday — are leading the entire hearing to be post-poned. Another will happen next week.

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