raise your hand

What makes a charter school co-location work? Two Bronx buildings offer answers

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter

This is the second in a series of stories for our first Raise Your Hand investigation based on the reader-selected question, “Is there a building that houses many schools that are working particularly well together? How are the schools collaborating?”

Inside a six-story Bronx building last spring, 10 students served on a student council to dream up ways their building could be improved. The bathrooms could be better stocked, they decided, and the playground needed to be revamped.

Half of the students in the group were in the older grades at P.S. 55, an elementary school that has served the Claremont Village neighborhood since 1916. The other half attended Success Academy Bronx 2, which shares the building.

The adults in the building say the students’ cooperation largely mirrors their own. The two-school co-location has been held up as a model for years, and it’s also one that frequently surprises outsiders, since Success Academy — New York City’s largest and fastest-growing charter network — has been known for sparking backlash among schools it shares space with.

How has the pairing worked so well? School leaders who respect each other and are willing to work with teachers outside of their own schools; facilities large enough to require compromises, but not impossible ones; and time to grow accustomed to the other school are key, educators said. As the charter sector, and Success Academy, continues to expand, their answers are likely to grow even more relevant.

“If you go into a relationship and the walls are already up before you start to communicate, there’s no way you’re going to move an initiative forward,” P.S. 55 principal Luis Torres said.

P.S. 55 and Success Academy, both of which serve elementary school grades, have been sharing the campus since 2012. From the start, the two principals made a point to develop a personal relationship and get a sense of each other’s school communities, meeting before Success Academy moved in. Torres even joined a citywide committee of district and charter-school leaders to gain a better understanding of how charter schools worked.

The six-story building on the corner of St. Paul’s Place and Park Avenue in Claremont Village is shared by P.S. 55 and Success Academy Bronx 2.
The six-story building on the corner of St. Paul’s Place and Park Avenue in Claremont Village is shared by P.S. 55 and Success Academy Bronx 2.

The schools have also offered tangible benefits to one another. In fall 2012, P.S. 55 teachers were invited to visit the charter school’s first day of class and its orientation for parents and students. Torres called it “an eye-opener.”

“Even before the children are in the building, Success Academy was already prepping students and parents to get them ready for the first day,” he recalled.

P.S. 55 had always hosted its orientation after the first day of school. After seeing the benefit of preparing students and teachers before day one, P.S. 55 began offering orientation for kindergarteners and their parents the week before classes to meet teachers and go over procedures with parents. That has now expanded to all grades, Torres said.

Meanwhile, the charter school has been exposed to the community partnerships that P.S. 55 had cultivated over years, said Vanessa Bangser, principal of Success Academy Bronx 2.

The campus boasts a health clinic, child-care center, and gardens, all of which have been boosted by outside partners. Just last month, the campus received a $1 million grant to upgrade its playground from Bronx Borough President Ruben Díaz, Jr., who Torres said he has a “great working relationship with.”

Torres “is very talented at making community partnerships and bringing opportunities in the building,” Bangser said. “He always makes sure that we know what’s going on.”

As school leaders in shared buildings across the city know, however, a positive relationship isn’t a given.

Walk less than a mile from the P.S. 55 building down Park Avenue and you’ll find another Success Academy co-location about to begin — one where the district schools’ worry about their survival may make tensions more likely to emerge.

Success Academy Bronx 3, where classes have already started for the year, just opened inside a building with three district middle schools: J.H.S. 145, Urban Science Academy, and New Millennium Academy. The three schools, which serve students older than Success Academy’s, are also under considerable pressure from the city and state to improve. All three are a part of the city’s new “School Renewal” turnaround program because of their low English and math proficiency rates, and face the prospect of significant changes or closure if they don’t meet the city’s goals.

Jim Donohue, an English teacher at J.H.S. 145, testifies in opposition to a co-location plan involving Success Academy.
Jim Donohue, an English teacher at J.H.S. 145, testifies in opposition to a co-location plan involving Success Academy.

Parents, teachers, and Panel for Educational Policy members have worried that funding and resources attached to the Renewal program will be jeopardized by the schools’ loss of space. City officials have denied that, but district parents filed a lawsuit to try to prevent the new addition to the campus.

“In my experience, all co-locations are difficult,” panel member Norm Fruchter, who is also a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, said while discussing the proposal in April. “We have a huge amount to work to make those schools improve, and we’re going to make it more difficult by introducing a charter school.”

The city’s (often disputed) space estimates showed the building was serving about about half the number of students it could be last year. Still, when one school is growing and another is facing the threat of closure, some said the arrangement feels hostile even if the education department’s space calculations say there is room for everyone.

Jim Donohue, who has taught at J.H.S. 145 for 16 years, said the new school will be the latest challenge for the three schools, which have been struggling to coordinate ever since the building’s original middle school was split up.

“It did get to a point where we could co-exist,” Donohue said, but “the arrival of the charter school sort of unified the building like nothing else has.”

By the numbers

Do any schools’ populations mirror the city average? Just two.

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty / © 2013

It’s not quite Powerball odds, but it’s pretty rare for a school’s demographics to line up perfectly with the city average.

Still, when a reader asked us which schools closely reflect the racial and economic diversity of New York City, amid a spate of headlines addressing the city’s severe school segregation, we were up for the challenge. We analyzed nearly 1,800 district and charter schools to identify the ones that come closest to sharing the racial breakdown of the city’s overall student population.

We found just two schools that came within five percentage points of the city school system’s overall student demographics for Hispanic, black, Asian, and white students during the 2014-15 school year: P.S. 97 in the Bronx and International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.

For many reasons — including school zones, high school choice, geography and residential patterns — the New York City school system is not set up to evenly distribute students.

In the case of these two schools, one is in an unusually diverse neighborhood, while the other is set up to enroll recent immigrants from all over the world and illustrates the limitations of looking at a school’s racial breakdown to assess school diversity.

First, there’s P.S. 97 in the Pelham Gardens neighborhood of the Bronx.

This District 11 elementary school is zoned, meaning it accepts students who live in the surrounding neighborhood. Its state test proficiency rates (27 percent of students passed English, and 39 percent passed math) surpassed those of the district, but were very close to the city averages.

And the nearly 750-student school also looks pretty similar to the city when it comes to its share of low-income students and students with disabilities.

Then, there’s International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.

While the school has similar racial demographics to the city school system, Principal Nedda DeCastro said all of the enrolled high school students have been in the United States for four years or less and city data shows that 90 percent of students last year were still learning English.

“It’s a diverse school, but I don’t think it’s representative of the city,” DeCastro said.

Beyond racial diversity, where are the city schools that reflect the city’s economic and academic diversity?

Not including demographic data, five schools come with three percentage points of the city statistics for poverty, English learners, and students with disabilities.

  • PROGRESS High School for Professional Careers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which has a 68 percent four-year graduation rate.
  • Business, Computer Applications & Entrepreneurship High School in Cambria Heights, Queens, which is currently in its last year of being phased out.
  • P.S. 58 The School of Heroes in Maspeth, Queens, where about half the students passed the state English and math exams last year.
  • I.S. 228 David A. Boody in Gravesend, Brooklyn, which offers dual-language programs in Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Hebrew.
  • Brooklyn Studio Secondary School, which enrolls students in grades six through 12 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

letter to the editor

Letter to the editor: City needs systemwide solutions for school diversity

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Mishi Faruqee talks to her daughter, Naima, who is in kindergarten at P.S. 38 The Pacific School in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.

This letter comes from Mishi Faruqee, who Chalkbeat profiled last week after her question was selected to become the focus of our next Raise Your Hand series.

To the Editor:

Chalkbeat New York has played a major role in furthering the public conversation about how to address school segregation in New York City’s public schools. That is why when your Raise Your Hand series asked readers to submit questions about school segregation and diversity, I asked Chalkbeat to investigate: which public schools reflect the diversity of New York City?

I asked this question not because, as a public school parent, I was simply looking for more diverse schools to choose from. Rather, I asked Chalkbeat to investigate diverse public schools in New York City because I want to know if the diversity in these schools is a result of policies and practices that can be replicated systemwide – so that New York City can move forward rather than backward in integrating its public schools.

Like many New Yorkers, I am very concerned the city’s schools are the most segregated in the country. A recent report from the New Schools’ Center for NYC Affairs found that school segregation in New York City is not just a function of residential segregation. There are many diverse neighborhoods in New York City that still have segregated schools.

It is important to recognize that school segregation, like residential segregation, is not an accident. Segregation is a result of deliberate policy choices, and, hence if we want to reverse segregation, New York will have to adopt specific policy reforms to make this happen. The city took a first step by adopting a new law requiring schools to report on diversity and what steps they are taking to improve school diversity. Also, the city recently announced that seven schools — six of which are unzoned schools — will adopt diversity plans to set aside seats for low-income students.

But much more needs to be done. First, we need to reframe the debate to move away from a false dichotomy between diverse schools and “high-performing” schools. In fact, diversity adds to a school’s quality. Research indicates that all students – white, African-American, Latino, affluent, middle-class, low-income – benefit from attending diverse schools.

That is why I am hoping the Chalkbeat investigation will illuminate possible policy and practice choices by looking into diverse schools in New York. Many middle class and affluent parents seem to favor progressive schools that emphasize critical thinking and project-based learning. Can the city implement this educational philosophy in more schools to attract a more diverse mix? Should New York City eliminate residential school zones as they have done in Manhattan’s District 1? What policies can New York City introduce to prevent displacement and ensure inclusive school cultures? School choice within school districts has sometimes exacerbated class and racial differences among schools, but what role can “controlled choice” policies play in integrating schools?

As a public school parent, I have been lucky to find diverse, high-quality schools for my two children. But ultimately, if we want to dismantle school segregation, we have to broaden the discussion away from individual choices or even individual schools to the larger system changes that the city must undertake to ensure educational equity for all students.


Mishi Faruqee