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In Harlem, charter school parents and students target NAACP

About 2,500 people rallied in Harlem this morning, calling on the NAACP to withdraw from its lawsuit with the teachers union against the city Department of Education. That lawsuit seeks to stop the closure of 22 schools as well as the placement of several charter schools in district school space.

Speakers at Thursday’s rally included charter school parents and teachers, Harlem Children’s Zone president and CEO Geoffrey Canada, and the actor Seth Gilliam from “The Wire,” whose child is a on a waiting list for a charter school. Speakers and attendees denounced the NAACP’s participation in a lawsuit they said would harm charter schools primarily serving students of color.

“Ms. Dukes, turn your back on this lawsuit,” said Kathy Kernizan, the parent of a student at the Uncommon Schools charter network, referring to Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference.

A letter to Dukes with signatures from charter school advocates was circulated through the crowd asking the organization to withdraw from the suit. A spokesperson for the New York City Charter Center, which helped organize the event, said that more than 2,000 signatures had been collected this week.

“We gotta demand quality education,” Canada told the crowd. “We have to be prepared to fight for that.” The city Department of Education’s proposal calls for two of the charter schools associated with the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Promise Academy charter schools, to be co-located inside district schools.

The charter center spokesperson said the protest, held outside the Harlem State Office building at 125th Street, was not the work of any one organization. But at least two groups appear to have taken leading roles: the charter center, an advocacy and support organization for charter schools in the city, and the Success Charter Network created by Eva Moskowitz. Many of the families at the rally had children at one of the Success network’s nine schools. (Seven of the network’s schools are named in the lawsuit.)
Click here for a slideshow of photographs from the rally.

A representative from the New York City Charter School Center distributed flyers with excerpts of the NAACP’s mission statement to people entering the rally. Center officials argued that the lawsuit contradicts the NAACP’s mission to “ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race based discrimination.”

In a telephone interview, Kenneth Cohen, the regional director for the NAACP’s Metropolitan Council, said that the lawsuit supports the organization’s mission. Fighting co-locations of charter schools inside district schools, he said, challenges the unequal distribution of resources to district schools. “We do want alternatives for our parents in those communities,” Cohen said, “but the bottom line is that it doesn’t mean you neglect the public schools also.”

Earlier this week, Dukes told GothamSchools that she would meet with parents who want to meet, but criticized plans for a rally.

It’s not clear what the exact consequences would be for the 18 charter schools named in the lawsuit if the NAACP and the teachers union are successful. The charter center spokesperson said that new charter schools, deprived of space they were counting on, could be prevented from opening, while existing charter schools could be evicted from their current spaces or prevented from enrolling new students.

Charter schools are publicly funded but operated by private boards and regulated by the state. New York education law does not grant charter schools funding for facilities. Arguing that the lack of funding is inequitable, the Bloomberg administration has offered some charter schools district space. The alternative for charter schools is to raise private funding to pay for leases or constructing new facilities.

At the rally, many parents described the lawsuit as an attempt to close charter schools. A flyer handed out to families at Harlem Success Academy 1 to organize the rally, obtained by GothamSchools, endorses that characterization. “WE NEED TO FIGHT TO KEEP OUR SCHOOLS OPEN,” the flyer says.

Charles Moerdler of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, the firm representing the UFT in the lawsuit, would not directly comment on the spokesperson’s characterization. Moerdler repeated the lawsuit’s claim that the proposed co-locations challenged by the suit violated decrees from the state education commissioner. “How the court addresses that is up to the court at the end of the day,” Moerdler said.

Cohen also disputed the claim that the suit was aimed at closing charter schools. “There might be a misconception there,” Cohen said. “We’re not fighting to close any school.”

Charter school parents and students, many of whom held signs calling on the NAACP to drop the lawsuit, made up the bulk of attendees. Parents from several Success charter schools said their children’s classes were starting later than usual to allow children to attend the rally.

Tracey Edwards, who attended the rally with her daughter Saniah Delrio, a first-grader at Harlem Success Academy Charter School 4, said she felt emotional about the rally. She praised her daughter’s school, saying it had allowed Delrio to read at her grade level and spurred her imagination. “I don’t understand why a school like this should be bothered with, want to be shut down at all when the kids are excelling,” Edwards continued.

Majella Dominguez, a third-grader at Harlem Success Academy Charter School 1, expressed enthusiasm for her school and for Thursday’s rally. “I think it’s great,” Dominguez said, “ ’cause they’re fighting for our school to get more space.”

Dominguez said one of the things she liked about her school was that it offered instruction on Saturdays for students who need it.

Zelda Owens said she learned about the rally only five minutes or so before it began. Owens, whose child attends Future Leaders Institute in Harlem — not one of the charter schools named in the lawsuit — said the issues raised in the rally affect all parents.

“As a lifelong Harlemite, I do recognize the fact that charter schools have given parents incredible options in educating our children,” Owens said. “And I believe that any option, one that adds tremendous demonstrated value, is something that all parents should fight for whether they’re in charter schools or not.”

Many charter school parents disputed the NAACP’s argument that charter schools located inside district space hurt district schools.

One parent at the rally, Julius Tajiddin, represented a district school, Frederick Douglass Academy II Secondary School, which is slated to be co-located with a Harlem Success school. Tajiddin, who said he is the chair of the school leadership team at Frederick Douglass, said the lawsuit is motivated not by a desire to limit choice, but to protect the needs of district school students.

He said that co-locations often force classes at district schools into hallways and stairwells. “It’s about resources,” said Tajiddin.


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