East Harlem Schools Jockey for Middle School Space

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Education officials last week gave the unofficial nod to the expansion of a charter school with roots in the East Harlem community, apparently choosing a long-term approach to increasing middle school seats in the area over an expansion of schools serving students citywide.

At a public hearing on the topic last Wednesday, hundreds of impassioned parents, teachers and children representing East Harlem Scholars Academy as well as the sister schools Central Park East I and Central Park II packed an auditorium and tried to convince the Department of Education their elementary schools deserved to expand.

But the education official in attendance told the crowd at the start of the meeting that the proposal pretty much was set: the Scholar's Academy charter school would open a second school in the Jackie Robinson Education Complex, with the goal of expanding into a middle school as its students rose through the grades. The vote on the matter is in less than two weeks.

The contested space, available because J.H.S. Jackie Robinson is closing, is located in the same building as Central Park East I and East Harlem Scholars Academy.

Regardless of the outcome, many stakeholders said they were shut out of the process which left them confused and frustrated.

“We were told there was no space, and all of a sudden the D.O.E. gives it to a charter school,” said Naomi Smith, principal at Central Park East II. “We were shocked.”

Supporters of CPE I and II, which serve students city-wide, said they have been collaborating on an expansion for a combined middle school for the past four years.

“Everyone is scrambling to figure out what’s a good option for middle school. Some people I know are even homeschooling,” said Cindy Chau, a parent at CPE I. “There should be a progressive middle school choice for our kids.”

Parents like Chau say they’re attracted to the child-centered, experiential learning qualities of CPE I and II, which were founded more than 35 years ago by Deborah Meier. Although less than half of the schools’ students come from District 4, which covers East Harlem, parents argued their middle school would improve options for local families and offer a diversity many other schools don't have.

Yet, supporters of the charter insisted their new school would better serve the community. Vanecia Williams, a Scholars Academy parent, said she was "on fire for my children to get a quality education” and the charter provided that for her neighborhood.

“I am East Harlem. My son is East Harlem. My husband is East Harlem,” she said at the hearing.

East Harlem Scholars Academy was founded by East Harlem Tutorial Program, which has served the community for more than 50 years. The school gives preference to East Harlem students and offers a highly-structured curriculum.

Devon Puglia, a D.O.E. spokesperson, said in a statement that the proposal for the charter were “intended to encourage the continued growth of an organization that has demonstrated a deep commitment to its community.”

CPE I and II supporters said the charter had extra space in a nearby Catholic church it should use for a second school. Jeff Ginsburg, executive director of East Harlem Tutorial Program, dismissed that idea.

“It’s not a solution and it would not be a high-quality space for a high-performing, proven school that deserves to have a sustainable future in this neighborhood,” Ginsburg said, adding that the church housed the group's after-school programs.

He insisted the conflict was not the typical charter versus district school but one of real estate.

“How can we find more high quality space? As New York City parents, as New York residents and New York educators, we all need to advocate for that,” Ginsburg said.

According to Hector Nazario, president of the Community Education Council for District 4, it's more about the immediate need for middle school seats.

“Maybe five, six years from now, what they’re proposing might benefit the community,” Nazario said. “But now our problems are in the middle school level. Many of them are treading water.”

He said the community was never involved in the D.O.E.’s planning, which is why he boycotted last week's hearing.

“Getting parents to argue against parents regarding education is hideous,” he said.

The D.O.E. said it was committed to helping the Central Park East schools add a middle school soon.