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Queens charter schools enter the fray with information campaign

Spurred by a series of meetings held by Queens’ borough president, charter school administrators, parents and students are gathering at The Renaissance Charter School in Queens to dispel “misinformation” about their schools in a discussion on Wednesday night. Queens is far from the center of the city’s charter school debate, which has been raging in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but with the opening of two new charters in as many years, and increased attention to the issue city-wide, some parents and elected officials have voiced their opposition to the schools.

Nicholas Tishuk, the Director of Programs and Accountability at Renaissance and the organizer of the event, said that the discussion is the beginning of an “information campaign” targeted at charter school critics. Principals of two other Queens’ charter schools, VOICE and OWN, will participate in the panel.

Tishuk has been attending Queens Borough President Helen Marshall’s monthly Advisory Board meetings, where he said charter schools dominate the conversation. (Marshall said in February she has ” fought against charter schools.”) He invited some of the most outspoken critics at Marshall’s meetings to Wednesday’s discussion, hoping to show them that charter schools  aren’t “this big bad thing.”

“We’re all mom and pop schools here,” Tishuk said. “We’re all single-standing schools that are not ‘invading’ communities.” Tishuk wants to address complaints that charter schools take away funding from regular schools, aren’t connected to communities, and counsel out “problem kids”—none of which apply to Queens’ schools, he says.

Queens will have six charter schools next fall, including the city’s biggest, Our World Neighborhood Charter School. VOICE charter school started in 2008, and Growing Up Green, in Long Island City, opens this fall. VOICE is using a Department of Education school location for now, while the borough’s other charter schools occupy their own space. In Brooklyn and Manhattan, charter schools taking over public school space is a hot-button issue, one that has mostly been avoided in Queens.

“The same kinds of misperceptions about what charters are and their public nature are present in Queens as they are in other boroughs,” NYC Center for Charter School Excellence CEO James Merriman said. “This is a battle that charters have been fighting for a number of years, and I think that one of the most important things that we need to do is get out there and tell our story.”

Steve Zimmerman, the chairman of the board of Our World Neighborhood (OWN) charter school in Queens, said that he thinks charter opposition in the borough is more political than grassroots at this point.
“I don’t see pushback from parents, I see pushback from interest groups and politicians,” said Zimmerman, who calls himself a somewhat “reluctant” charter advocate. He added that Catherine Nolan, their local Assemblywoman who is trying to place limits on the charter school certification process, looked at OWN for her own child to attend. “Parents are always going to want what’s best for their kid,” he said.

Marge Kolb, an outspoken critic of charter schools and the president of Queens District 24’s Parent-Teacher Association President’s Council, said charter schools drain enthusiasm and energy away from normal public schools in other boroughs, and she doesn’t want that happening in Queens. About two years ago, she said, District 24’s CEC turned down an application from CIMA for a charter school over concerns that they wouldn’t guarantee to fill all their seats with District 24 students or be able to find their own space.

In Brooklyn, where charter schools and district schools have clashed over space, the Borough President Marty Markowitz hosted a discussion with representatives from both charter and district schools last week with the goal of finding “ways to work together.” “As we saw from this discussion, district schools, charter schools and parents have the same agenda—ensuring that all our young Brooklynites and New Yorkers reach the zenith of their potential,” Markowitz said in a statement.

“It marked the beginning of lifting the veil of secrecy to make the charter school system more transparent,” the president of the Citywide Council on High Schools, Valerie Armstrong-Barrows, said in the statement.

Renaissance is facing a budget shortfall for next year, so the event, which will be held at the school from 6 to 8 pm this Wednesday, is also meant to raise awareness of the school’s financial issues. A light dinner and childcare will be provided, Tishuk said.