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Begun with best of intentions, a charter space fight nears its end

When Girls Prep Charter School first requested more space in the Lower East Side school building it currently calls home, its principal and the leader of the district school that shares the building said they wanted a peaceful discussion. That hasn’t happened.

Yesterday, parents from district schools squared off against their neighbors at Girls Prep, separated by a few yards of sidewalk, each trying to shout the other down.

And both sides had the same message: give our school room to grow.

The stage for yet another night of confrontation between the schools’ supporters was a public hearing on Girls Prep’s proposed expansion. The school currently enrolls kindergarten through fifth grade, but wants to add middle school grades. The hearing was packed, though not nearly as heated as a district parents council meeting on the issue held late last year.

At the hearing, teachers at P.S. 188 and P.S. 94 described a school building where lunch time begins at 10:30 a.m. and gym classes are held in a low-ceilinged hallway in order to fit everyone in.

“My son’s class is so crowded you can hardly walk through it,” said Tamika Phillips, the mother of a fourth grade boy at P.S. 188. “We do not have enough space right now.”

Alison Koren, a P.S. 94 teacher, said her classroom has been moved five times in recent years, including a switch from one building to another. “Just like you say, ‘let great schools grow,'” she said, referencing a slogan printed on signs held by Girls Prep parents. “Let our great school grow. Don’t take space from special needs children.”

Mary Pree, principal of P.S. 188, praised the cooperative relationship that the three principals in the building had built, and said that shrinking P.S. 94 would diminish the ability of students from the three schools to learn from each other.

DOE officials and Girls Prep head Miriam Raccah have said that school leaders at Girls Prep and P.S. 94 worked together to develop the most recent plan. Ronnie Shuster, the principal of P.S. 94, has declined to speak to reporters throughout the space fight and jokingly said before the hearing that her school was “trying to be Switzerland” in the process.

Harley Sanchez, the mother of a fourth grade student at Girls Prep, said that allowing the charter to expand into older grades would fill a need for better middle school options in the Lower East Side, where she lives. “Here is a school where all of the kids are passing,” she said. “Why are we fighting against that?”

A major sticking point for opponents of the Girls Prep expansion is the allegation that the charter does not serve neighborhood students. Just under half of Girls Prep students live in the district, but that percentage is likely to rise as more incoming classes are subject to a relatively new law that requires the school to give admissions preference to in-district students.

Some opponents of Girls Prep’s expansion argued that the school’s current make-up means that it could re-locate virtually anywhere else. Girls Prep parents, like one mother who lives in Brooklyn but works in the neighborhood, said that they were still part of the community.

Another new consideration raised last night involved the safety of bringing hundreds more students into the building. The DOE lists the school’s capacity at 1,010 students, but Benjamin Markus, the dean of P.S. 188 and head of the Building Response Team, which runs safety procedures at all three schools, called that number unsafe.

“I am in no way capable of implementing the school safety plans with so many students,” Markus said.

Markus said the building’s actual listed capacity is 920 people, a number the DOE disputes. DOE official Elizabeth Rose said that capacity is only for the cafeteria and that the building right now is only two-thirds full under current space estimates.

The plan, which the citywide school board will vote on later this month, will likely go through (the Panel for Educational Policy has never rejected a DOE proposal).

The conflict over the expansion of Girls Prep has also become a microcosm of arguments for and against the expansion of charter schools across the city.

Charter school supporters often argue that opposition to the schools has been manufactured by the teachers union, which they argue is threatened by the growth of successful, non-unionized schools. Charter opponents and union supporters respond that such a view dodges other criticisms of the schools like what they say is a failure to enroll as many high-needs students.

At the protest before the hearing, City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez arrived to speak against Girls Prep’s expansion. Girls Prep parents tried to drown out her speech: “Rosie works for the UFT, Rosie does not work for me.”

“I don’t work for the UFT, but I am proud to have been endorsed by them,” Mendez responded.

And the crowd of P.S. 188 and 94 parents and supporters took up a chant of their own: “Rosie works for District 1.”

Inside at the hearing, District 1 superintendent Daniella Phillips reminded the audience that however strong their feelings and whatever larger issues were playing out, attendees should keep their emotions in check.

“Everyone here has to come to school in this building tomorrow,” she said.