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Beginning with Children Charter School to remain open, but still without long-term plan

Sarah Darville

Beginning with Children Charter School’s leaders reversed course on Thursday night, promising parents they would work to keep the school open just three months after they voted to close its doors come June.

The board’s November decision to close the school would have made Beginning with Children the city’s first charter school to close voluntarily before its charter expired. The Department of Education has authorized the Williamsburg school to operate until 2016.

But board members said Thursday that they had found at least preliminary solutions to most of the problems facing the school, though big questions remain unanswered.

A standoff with the teachers union over contract changes had led the Beginning with Children Foundation—one of the school’s landlords, its longtime partner, and its charter management organization—to tell the school it would no longer provide direct support after the 2013-14 school year. That left the school, whose board had shrunk to just four acting members in the fall, facing a future without a building for its elementary grades and without the organization that had provided many of the school’s resources.

The foundation has assured the board that the elementary school will be allowed to remain in its building for at least the next year, board members said at Thursday’s meeting. The board, which gained three new members in December, said it would look to replace the foundation’s support by paying for outside technological and back-office support and promoting some staff to new management positions.

But even supporters of the school’s new plan said they had few new ideas about how to improve the school’s academics. The school’s passing rates on last year’s state exams were below city and district averages, though it earned a B on its last two city progress reports, putting it at potential risk of closure by its authorizer. The foundation and the board had cited the school’s academic problems as reasons for withdrawing support in the fall.

“The question I still have is whether there’s enough support for the principals and the teachers,” board member Alex Fong said Thursday as he presented the plan.

The decision to keep the school open wasn’t truly unanimous. The board’s chair, Antonia Bryson, and its secretary, Rebecca Baneman, both resigned before the vote, saying they didn’t think the plan was enough to turn the school around.

“For me, our charter exists so we can provide a superior education for our students,” Bryson said. “I, for one, continue to believe that we are not meeting our obligations and that the school should close.”

The elementary school’s building at 11 Bartlett St. in Williamsburg, where it operates free of charge.
The elementary school’s building at 11 Bartlett St. in Williamsburg, where it operates free of charge.
Sarah Darville

In one of the night’s more bizarre moments, the board also noted that an absent member, John Day, had announced plans to resign. Whether he was a member to begin with had been a matter of debate, since he had resigned from the board last year only to be reinstated before the board’s November vote, bringing the board back up to the required five members.

The meeting lost its structure after the resignations as the remaining members — most new to charter school regulations — struggled with the procedures required to vote to reverse the board’s November decision.

As they worked out how to take that vote, Etoile Mitchell-Bryant, whose son attends sixth grade at the school, breathed a sigh of relief. “I was hoping this would happen,” she said. “It’s disappointing that the people with the most experience on the board decided to resign, but maybe the new people will bring new and fresh ideas with them.”

For many parents, the vote felt like the end of a long period of uncertainty for the school that helped start New York City’s charter school movement. Beginning with Children was opened in 1992 by philanthropists Joseph and Carol Reich before charter schools were allowed to operate in New York state with many of the freedoms now associated with charter schools. It transitioned to a full-fledged charter school in 2001.

“Can I transfer my kid back?” one parent called from the back of the auditorium. “Of course,” Fong replied.

But Asenhat Gomez, a parent of two students in the middle school, acknowledged that that period of stress would have long-term consequences.

“It cost us a lot of students and parents who had been here forever. And we also lost a lot of really great teachers. So yes, it came at a great cost,” she said.

At one point, Fong apologized for not telling Beginning with Children students in the audience earlier that the board’s decisions had never been about them.

“What this was really about was the inability of adults to get their act together to figure things out,” he said.

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