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In Fort Greene, a charter school surrenders in a space fight

A popular Brooklyn charter school is backing down from its expansion plans after facing fierce resistance from local officials.

Allison Keil and Sara Stone, co-principals of Fort Greene’s Community Roots Charter School, sent a letter to parents today announcing that they had decided to delay the school’s plans to add a middle school starting in September. Expressing surprise at the intensity of opposition to Community Roots’ expansion, they wrote, “The impact of the reactions of the press, politicians and the other schools in our shared campus make it impossible to proceed in good faith.”

Keil and Stone’s response is unusual: Resistance sometimes seems only to redouble the city’s determination to open or expand charter schools. In nearby Prospect Heights, for example, the city is pushing forward in its bid to move a charter school into the PS 9 building, even after PS 9 parents won a judgement from the state against the city’s original plan.

Families of fifth-graders at Community Roots will now have to search for middle school spots for their children, more than a month after the city’s middle school application deadline.

Community Roots, which attracts families from both Brownstone Brooklyn and local housing projects, received a five-year renewal of its charter in January. In early March, the Department of Education gave notice that it planned to expand the school inside PS 67, where it is currently housed, and scheduled a Panel for Educational Policy vote for the end of this month.

But recent weeks witnessed a surge of opposition to the school’s expansion. Teachers at a school for disabled students housed in the PS 67 building said Community Roots’ expansion would take away their classroom space. Opponents of the expansion plan, who the New York Times reported included teachers union organizers, rallied outside the school on a weekday morning. Then City Councilwoman Leticia James held a Friday-night meeting advertised as supporting PS 67. Last week, the city announced that it would delay the school board’s vote on Community Roots’ expansion.

Keil and Stone cited this campaign in their letter to parents today. “Anti-charter/anti-school choice entities banded together to work against us to influence political and community leaders,” they wrote.

Incoming Chancellor Dennis Walcott said he was disappointed by the tone of the debate around the charter school’s growth and said the city would reconsider its expansion next year.

“Unfortunately misinformation and a trying process are going to deny parents a new middle school option,” Walcott said in a statement. “I spoke with the Community Roots principal yesterday, and expressed my concern with the dialogue and support for the school.”

Keil and Stone’s full letter to parents is below.

April 14, 2011

Dear Families,

We are writing to share some unhappy news. After much deliberation, analysis and discussion with our Board of Trustees, we have made a difficult decision to put Community Roots’ Middle School expansion on hold.

One of the many things that make our school exceptional is the close relationships we have with you as parents and that you have with each other. And so, after creating with all of you an exceptional elementary school option for District 13, it was in a spirit of tremendous common purpose, optimism and strong belief that we started the process of creating a middle school. It seemed a natural and welcome next step, and your support made us believe that we could do it, even within a compact timeframe.

We had hoped that we would be given the space required to keep our elementary school running with the programs and opportunities it provides while providing adequate space to allow a middle school to grow and meet the needs of 150 adolescents. We thought that there would be meaningful engagement of our community that would make this expansion an understood and welcomed addition to the District 13 landscape. We also believed that we would be working in a timeframe of space approval that would allow us to recruit and hire the quality of educator that we know our children deserve. But more than anything, we believed – and still do – that our children deserve an exceptional public middle school option in District 13. And, perhaps naively, we thought that the response from the community for our efforts would be overwhelmingly positive.

The reality of that response was unexpected and frankly unsustainable. Our painful decision to suspend the expansion became inevitable, based on a combination of factors, including:

  • Space allocations did not correspond to the needs of our growing institution
  • Community response and perception surrounding our expansion, often fueled by incorrect and inflammatory information, forced extended and delayed timeframes of our public hearing and PEP vote
  • Anti-charter/anti-school choice entities banded together to work against us to influence political and community leaders

Any one of these factors would have been a challenge to overcome, but in combination they created problems that would fundamentally and negatively impact our K-5 program as well as keep us from opening a middle school that will meet our educational expectations. The impact of the reactions of the press, politicians and the other schools in our shared campus make it impossible to proceed in good faith.

This decision was the hardest one we have been faced in our history and it is a decision that we do not take lightly. We are particularly saddened about our fifth grade families, who took a leap of faith to come to our school as our first class nearly five years ago. You were our initial inspiration to take on this expansion mission and to provide them and the kids that followed them the opportunity for an uninterrupted education. You placed their faith in us, and we are heartbroken that we have let you down through this process.

In closing, we want to again say thank you to all of our families. The hard work, advocacy and community spirit you have shared with us throughout this bruising process means more than we can possibly express. We do not know yet how we will proceed on possible expansion for Community Roots, but we clearly have a much better idea as to what it will take to overcome the obstacles we faced this year. We will work hard to determine if there is a way to move forward.

Alli and Sara

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