A league of their own

Charter school opts out of free public space in favor of a gym

Urban Dove's website features a clock that is counting down to the first day of classes at the nonprofit's new charter school.

For most of this spring, Urban Dove Team Charter School’s story followed a familiar trajectory.

When the Department of Education offered the charter school space in a public school building, the community erupted in opposition. Politicians stepped in, principals went to the press, and parents protested — all with the goal of keeping the charter school out. Then the city signed off on the co-location anyway, and tensions started to die down.

That’s when Urban Dove’s story took an unusual turn. Despite getting free public space — a hotly sought-after commodity — Urban Dove signed a lease this month to spend some of its scarce per-pupil funding on private space. Next month, the transfer high school will open on one floor of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Brooklyn Tabernacle Church.

It was a rare move for a charter school offered a public building. Most charter schools prefer to open in buildings owned by the city to save money and time spent negotiating with landlords, according to James Merriman, director of the New York City Charter School Center. Plus, money for real estate comes from charter schools’ operating budget — meaning the more they spend on space, the less they have for teachers, supplies, and programming.

Urban Dove’s founder and principal each declined to share the terms of the lease. But they said undertaking the significant expense made perfect sense for the school, which will serve students who have already fallen behind before they turn 16.

That’s because physical activity is central to the school’s curriculum, but the space the city offered — in Bed-Stuy’s M.S. 117 building, which already houses four schools — “barely had a gym,” said Principal Marianne Rossant. In fact, Rossant said, the school had sought the space at Brooklyn Tabernacle in the past.

The school won permission to open in 2011 but spent an extra year preparing to launch. One complication was that the school failed to find space in District 22, the Brooklyn district where Urban Dove originally aimed to open because it houses a large city park.

In the new space, the school will have a double-sized gym as three other rooms that will be used for core exercises, pilates, and yoga — more robust physical education facilities than many city schools can offer. And although Rossant said she and the other principals at M.S. 117 had begun to work well together once space sharing was approved, she is relieved to not have to worry about the intricate scheduling for gym time that co-location would require.

“Starting a school is a delicate, sensitive process and without the distractions of sharing a space, it’s much easier to accomplish,” Rossant said.

Urban Dove’s decision is good for the rest of the schools in the M.S. 117 building, too, according to a spokeswoman for City Councilwoman Leticia James, who was at the forefront of opposition to Urban Dove’s co-location.

“I think it was a disservice to both the school moving in and the schools already there,” said the spokeswoman, Barbara Sherman.

Urban Dove’s decision might be one that more charter schools could soon be compelled to make. The Bloomberg administration has readily handed public school space to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, allowing the sector to flourish. Now, about two-thirds of the city’s 140 charter schools operate in public space, paying nothing for the privilege. Charter school advocates are concerned that the successor to Mayor Bloomberg will not continue the controversial practice, making it harder for charter schools to open and operate after next year.

Merriman said the number of schools operating in private space is rising as real estate agents and brokers become accustomed to the charter school market. And many of the schools in private space say the flexibility and independence of their arrangement is more than worth the price tag, which can top $1 million a year. But very few schools have opted out of public space when it is offered.

For Urban Dove, the first year’s expenses will be defrayed by a $100,000 facilities grant from SUNY’s Committee for Education, College Readiness, and Success, awarded to the school even before it decided to move into private space. But Rossant said the sudden change in location would still require creative budgeting and some cutbacks. Some costs might be saved by using online resources instead of buying textbooks, she said.

One thing that won’t be skimped on is the school’s core mission, said Rossant and Jai Nanda, who founded the Urban Dove nonprofit in 1998 to empower city students through sports and recreation.

Nanda first conceived of the idea for a sports-focused school as a teacher and basketball coach in the 1990s, when he noticed that basketball players did better academically during the season, abetted by the rigid structure of their day and the support network of a team and coach.

At the school, students will be assigned to single-gender “teams,” replete with a coach whose sole job is to support the team throughout the day, which runs from 8 a.m to 6 p.m. The coach will motivate them on the field during three hours of fitness activities and health education each day, and follow them to class for the rest of the time.

The structure is meant to catch struggling students before they fall further behind. Urban Dove will open in September with both freshmen and sophomores who are already overage and under-credited for their grade. Few schools target those students, Nanda said.

“We’re getting them young enough to have meaningful change in the way they view school and themselves,” he said.

Rossant said she hopes the unique structure will keep students out of trouble after school hours, because they won’t need to turn to gangs for a sense of belonging — and because they’ll be exhausted from the long day. She also said she thought that the team spirit that the school’s structure is meant to foster would be paramount to students’ success.

“You can let an adult down — that’s par for the course as an adolescent,” she said. “But you don’t let down your friends, your group.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”