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In remote Brooklyn areas, more charters means more decisions

When Emily Caton decided she wanted to send her daughter to a charter school, she navigated to the New York City Charter Center website, typed in her Brownsville zip code, and watched a stream of nearby schools flood her screen.

Soon, her daughter had offers to attend six different charter schools, all in her area of Brooklyn.

Just a few years ago, Caton’s screen would have shown far fewer local charter school options. But today, after charter schools have flooded the area, neighborhoods in eastern parts of Brooklyn has more school seats and applicants than neighborhoods where charter schools flocked early on, like Harlem and the South Bronx.

This year, Caton is one of 18,000 unique applicants to charter school lotteries in East New York and Brownsville. And the neighborhoods together have more than twice as many charter school seats as Harlem and the South Bronx, according to data provided by the New York City Charter Center.

The growth of charter school options comes even as district school attendance in the neighborhoods has fallen over the past decade — and in recent years, has driven that drop.

There are nearly 3,000 fewer elementary school seats in District 19, which includes most of East New York, than there were in 2003-2004, a 20 percent decrease. Middle school enrollment is down 25 percent over the same period. In the smaller District 23, which includes Brownsville, Ocean Hill, and part of East New York, the district has actually added about 800 middle school seats since 2003, a 30 percent hike, but elementary school enrollment has fallen by 30 percent.

With local schools losing students, their buildings had more room for charter schools to co-locate. The result, said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center, is “a repopulation of the school buildings.”

For charter school operators, the flurry of charter schools in the area means more of one of the things charter schools have always promised to produce — competition. Except this competition is not only with the district schools, but also with each other.

And for parents like Caton, bent on finding a charter school, that means choices.

The right fit

Last Monday, Caton walked into a classroom at Brownsville Ascend Charter School to attend the last of the information sessions for the six schools her daughter got into. She had a lot of questions. How will teachers at Ascend interact with the children? What is the curriculum like? Do kids have time to socialize?

“Do they actually take time and sit on the rug with the children? Talk to them? See how they’re feeling? Or are they just like, you’re going to learn this, I’m going to teach this and don’t care about the student,” Caton said. “That’s what I want to know.”

Charter operators in the area said Caton’s drilling is increasingly common. “Parents are asking more specific questions about the school and program. They don’t just buy into ‘this is a charter school.’ They want to know what you do that’s different,” said Susan Bakst, who heads Ascend’s student recruitment. “They’re much more sophisticated in the questions they’re asking about what the schools offer, and they’re much more interested in what’s the right fit for them and their child.”

Caton said she went to one orientation session that was so disorganized and unprofessional that she left after 15 minutes. She leaves work to come to these sessions and doesn’t have the time to wait around.

“It makes me think, how are you during school? Are you organized? Are you professional? Or are you all over the place?”

School leaders said they respond by working to distinguish their school. “It pushes us to hone the definition of what we offer,” said Zvia Schoenberg, director of strategic planning and legal affairs at Ascend.

With the number of options on the rise, charter schools also face a mounting logistical challenge as they try to finalize their rosters for the year while parents are still making decisions. At Achievement First, senior director of recruitment Devyn Humphrey said sometimes the network will call a student off the wait list — only to learn that the student is already enrolled in another school.

And yet the student’s family could still decide to put him in Achievement First, pulling him from the original school — and creating an open seat for that school has to fill.

The Ascend administrators said they’ve had the same experience. Since parents are acting more as shoppers and consumers, this kind of shuffling can go well into the first couple of weeks of school, they said.

But while schools must accommodate families’ choices, there are limits to what parents request. For instance, while Ascend finds it can boast about the fact that the school doesn’t co-locate — an arrangement some parents try to avoid — some parents complain that the school doesn’t offer an after-school program and lacks a theme like law or government or fashion.

But the school leaders don’t cater to those demands. “That’s not the way we make decisions, to be honest with you,” said Schoenberg. “We think we have a great program. This is the path we’re on.”

The best choice

By the end of last week, Caton had narrowed her choices down to Brownsville Ascend and Excellence Girls Charter School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which is part of the Uncommon Schools network. Excellence Girls was the only school where she got to see a class in session and watch the teacher interact with the students, she said.

“They were excited to learn… and they still structured how to behave themselves,” she said. “I really liked that.”

In 2012, Ascend’s third graders significantly outperformed the average District 23 third grader on the math and English state tests. But the school enrolls few English language learners and about half as many students with disabilities than the average District 23 school, according to 2011-2012 data collected by the charter center. Charter school critics say that enrolling fewer high-need students is one reason some charter schools outperform their district counterparts.

Over the course of the next week, Caton will consult with her daughter’s grandmother and father about which of the two schools is the best choice for her.

Caton’s daughter, meanwhile, has an opinion of her own. After attending all of the information sessions with her mother, she prefers Brownsville Ascend — because, her mother said, it has separate reading and activity centers and a rug with bright colorful dots on it.

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