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Ignoring violations, parents want to keep a charter school open

Parents and students at an East New York charter school are pleading with the Department of Education to keep their school open after an investigation found that the school had violated its charter and its principal was expelling high-needs students.

Charter schools are rarely closed in New York City, but when they are it can inspire as much anger and confusion as the shuttering of a traditional public school. At a hearing at East New York Preparatory on Wednesday night, about 100 parents filled the auditorium to ask questions of DOE officials and speak out against the school’s proposed closure. Its embattled principal Sheila Joseph might have broken a few rules, they said, but in a high-crime, high-poverty neighborhood, a seat in her school was the only way out.

“In this community there aren’t many options for these kids,” said Leon Smillie, the father of a second grader. “This is a good option.”

ENYP has a monopoly on hope in a desperate section of Brooklyn, making its problems seem insignificant to parents who said they felt inspired by classrooms named after universities and by their childrens’ high test scores. Some parents noted that the DOE hadn’t called the school’s academics into question. Others charged that ENYP had only become a target for investigation because of the population it serves.

“They [the DOE] don’t care about children in the ghetto,” more than one parent said.

“We do care,” Michael Duffy, director of the office of charter schools, told the crowd. “The number one question is if East New York is better served by this school or another school.”

ENYP’s board has until March 5 to submit a response to the DOE’s allegations, at which point the decision about whether to keep the school open will fall to Chancellor Joel Klein.

Latisha Lane, the mother of a 9-year-old student, said there had been rumors of mismanagement for years and calls for more parental involvement had gone ignored. Still, she wants the school to remain open, she said, as the chances her child will get into another nearby charter school are slim.

Garnette Gibson was one of few parents at the hearing who wanted to see ENYP closed. Gibson said she moved her son to another charter school after he fell off a desk, hit his head, and was allowed to sleep off the injury in class.

ENYP’s board of trustees and Joseph have been accused by the state and city of going rogue with the school’s finances. The city’s notice of intent to revoke the school’s charter states that the school made questionable payments to Mercer Givhan, a board member and the father of Joseph’s child. It also accuses Joseph of increasing her salary from $120,000 to $180,000, changing her title to superintendent so she could sit on the board, and revising the school’s charter without the DOE’s consent.

Joseph denied that she had increased her salary.

“We’re going to look back on this and think ok, that was a hiccup,” Joseph said after the meeting. “Maybe it was a big hiccup, but it was a hiccup that we had to go through to become stronger.”

President of the New York Charter Parents Association, Mona Davids, said the violations at ENYP are evidence that New York needs more oversight of charter schools and charter parents need to become more aware of what constitutes a violation.

“This could happen at any school, and it is happening at other schools,” Davids said.

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