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After protests, panel approves charter school co-location plans

In the start of what has become an annual ritual, the Panel for Educational Policy Wednesday night listened to hours of rowdy public comments opposing the city’s policy of placing charter schools inside existing school buildings, then signed off on plans to do just that.

The panel gave the go-ahead to a Success Charter school co-location in Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, an affluent neighborhood where many parents and elected officials have said the school is not wanted.

Panel members Gbubemi Okotieuro, of Brooklyn, and Patrick Sullivan, of Manhattan, each raised issues about the co-location plan for the Success Charter school, which did not originally apply to open in the area.

Marc Sternberg, the Department of Education official in charge of new schools, said the department had determined the neighborhood had experienced an “explosion of kindergarten enrollment” and needed more elementary schools.

“It was made clear to us by SUNY that the charter school could be opened in District 15,” Sternberg said, referring to the state organization that authorizes charter schools, which approved the Success Academy school for nearby District 13 or 14.

Sullivan was the only panel member to vote against any of the plans, casting a “no” vote on the Cobble Hill co-location and abstaining from several other votes.

The panel also approved plans to open a charter high school in the old Boys High School building and a second Success charter school in P.S. 59, both in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. It also signed off on a plan to expand Esperanza Preparatory Academy, a dual-language school in East Harlem that shares a building with a citywide gifted school, TAG Young Scholars, whose parents had opposed the change.

The four-hour meeting was the first of what is sure be a series of contentious meetings where the panel, whose members are mostly appointed by the mayor, will likely approve plans for dozens of school closures and co-locations. In February, the panel will vote on proposals to close or shrink 25 schools.

At Wednesday’s meeting, which the department relocated from Midtown Manhattan to Newtown High School in Queens, dozens of protesters were bused in early by the teachers union and took up the center of the auditorium. Nearly 100 people signed up to speak and the majority of them used their two minutes to criticize the panel and the DOE.

The protesters, who included many teachers, used hand puppets to mock what they called the “Panel for Educational Puppets,” used the “human mic” to broadcast their opposition, and regularly interrupted speakers and panel members with whom they disagreed.

“I’m here on principle,” said Marissa Torres, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 261 in Brooklyn, which is located near the new Cobble Hill charter school. “I see myself as an advocate for parents. Public education is the last bastion of space where poor, working-class parents of color can walk in and demand their rights.”

The majority of the protesters didn’t stick around for the vote. About two hours into the public testimony section of the meeting, they stood up and marched out, chanting “Shame!” as they left.

A small, loosely-affiliated group of charter school parents from Brooklyn also attended and spoke out in support of charter school options. The parents said they were being organized by a new parent advocacy group called Families for Excellent Schools. The organization is a spin-off from Democracy Builders, a parent organization that is run by Seth Andrew, head of the Democracy Prep charter school network.

“The mission for Families for Excellent Schools is to assist and support and train parents to advocate for aggressive education reform,” said Kathleen Kernizan, a parent organizer whose children attend charter schools in the Uncommon Schools network.

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