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In Washington Heights, a basic education on charter schools

Last December, Community Board 12’s executive committee was discussing charter schools when committee members realized something: There were almost as many different perceptions of charter schools as there were people in the room.

This epiphany, recalled board chair Pamela Palanque-North, was the inspiration for a forum the board held Saturday to give Washington Heights residents the basic facts about charter schools.

“This is an opportunity for us to have something called an educational intervention,” Palanque-North said in her opening remarks at the forum, titled “Our Children, Our Choices: An Informative Discussion on Public and Charter School Options.” About 35 neighborhood residents attended the event, which was organized by the board’s youth and education committee and translated live into Spanish.

The panel included charter school advocates and also critics, such as sociologist Pedro Noguera and the public school teacher who directed a new movie that takes aim at the idea that charter schools can fix all educational ills.

But perhaps as notable as who sat on the panel was who did not: a representative from the city Department of Education. Community Board 12 had advertised that Chancellor Dennis Walcott would speak on the morning’s first panel, although DOE officials said Walcott had never agreed to appear.

“Unfortunately this group claimed the chancellor would be attending this event — and put his name on a flier — without our consent or any confirmation,” said Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, a DOE spokesman. “When we finally were able to get in touch, we informed Community Board 12 that Chancellor Walcott was already committed to attending a science and math festival in Harlem that day and would be unable to attend.” Indeed, Walcott told state senators today that he attended a science fair on Saturday.

William Stanford Jr. was among those disappointed with the absence of DOE officials.

“He couldn’t make it. OK. Where are his employees?” Stanford asked after the discussion. “One of them should have been here.”

Had department representatives been at the Russ Barrie Pavilion, they would have witnessed a comprehensive and often contentious discussion that touched on issues including the consequences of co-location — in which charter and public schools share space; the degree of accountability for the schools when it comes to serving special-needs students and English Language Learners; the level of parental input in charters; and the relationship between charter schools and their surrounding communities.

James Merriman, CEO of the NYC Charter School Center, said charters existed in order to give parents the choice to send their children to schools that were of a higher quality and less impacted by bureaucracy and unions than the public school system.

But Julie Cavanaugh, a public school teacher in Red Hook, Brooklyn and director of the film “The Inconvenient Truth About Waiting for Superman,” said charter schools often leave public school students with no choice. She said the practice of charter schools moving into existing public school buildings had forced public school students into unequal, inadequate, and even hazardous learning conditions.

In fact, concerns over inequities was one theme of Saturday’s forum. Noguera, executive director of NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Urban education, alluded in his remarks to GothamSchools’ recent exclusive about illegal admissions practices at Academic Leadership, a charter school in the South Bronx: Noguera said some charter schools are illegally screening students, then mentioned an “interesting article” he had read about the practice at a charter school in the Bronx.

When I asked him to elaborate on these remarks after his presentation, Noguera said he was unfamiliar with the specifics of Academic Leadership but called for more scrutiny of charter schools’ admission practices.

“It really concerns me when I see that there’s some evidence that some of the charters are screening kids and have adopted measures to either screen or to push out students that are more challenging to serve,” Noguera said. “Because it’s creating this very unequal playing field between the charters and the public schools. So I think that the authorizers and the state need to be more vigilant in holding those schools accountable.”

Merriman expressed support for parent involvement but suggested it was less important than the quality of education children receive. He also argued that parents did not have a great deal of ability to impact public school policies.

But Mona Davids, executive director of the New York Charter Parents Association, argued parent input in charter schools was essential.

“How can any school not have a parent association?” she asked.

Raybblin Vargas, assistant chair of Community Board 12’s Youth and Education Committee, expressed enthusiasm for the discussion.

“I am very very very happy with the panelists that did show up and did speak,” she said. “I think that we were able to have a broad spectrum of perspectives.”

Audience members, too, seemed to come to the forum with a variety of viewpoints, questions, and concerns.

Ronnette Summers is a parent whose daughter attends KIPP NYC College Prep High School in the Bronx and her son attends KIPP STAR Middle School in Harlem, both charter schools. Summers said she thinks the public harbors many misconceptions about charter schools.

“They don’t have parent associations, they don’t have ELL students, they don’t care about parents, they don’t want parents in the building,” Summers said, characterizing what she felt were unfair generalizations about charters. “I know for a fact that in my school that is not the case. I could walk in my school at any time and sit in the classroom without making an appointment.”

But Andrea Lieske, the parent of a kindergartener at P.S. 125 in Harlem, said she was worried about the proliferation of charter schools in District 5.

“There are a lot — a lot — of charter schools, and I am afraid that the charter schools are sort of taking over and there is not much choice in terms of other public schools,” she said.

Lieske said she was specifically concerned about charter schools’ approach to education.

“Seemingly most of the charter schools — at least in District 5 — are not very much into the progressive approach of teaching,” she said. “They are more, ‘they have to know this,’ and the long school day, things like that.”

Questions from the audience — many of which were addressed to Susan Miller Barker, interim executive director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute — touched on topics including the sharing of best practices between charter and traditional public schools and the ways charter schools are held accountable for serving special-needs and students who are learning English.

In her closing remarks, Palanque-North said she hoped to make the discussion an annual occurrence.

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