Streams

In Gentrified Brooklyn, Hopes for More School Alternatives

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 - 11:34 AM

Seated in the living room of a stylish Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone, three teachers from a popular Brooklyn charter school last month made their pitch for a new school to a room full of young or soon-to-be parents.

In the front of the room, a baby quietly drank from a bottle. In the back, a woman breastfed an infant. These parents and the many others in attendance were four years or more away from signing up for kindergarten, but the crowded living room suggested that concerns had already surfaced.

Like many other gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods, Bedford-Stuyvesant has an influx of new residents who have a complex relationship with the public schools. On the whole, the newcomers are a progressive group, committed, at least in principle, to the idea of public education for their children. But many are also dismayed by the quality of their options, which include elementary schools where half of the students -- in some cases, fewer -- passed the state's reading and math exams last year.

At the home of Chris Antista, a graphic designer and wine distributor, they gathered in late March to express their concerns and hear about an alternative from three teachers at the Community Roots Charter School.

The three are planning to open a new charter school in Brooklyn in September 2014. Eric Grannis, a lawyer in private practice and the husband of Eva Moskowitz, founder and C.E.O. of a chain of schools, the Success Academy Charter Schools, organized the meeting.

A firm believer that New York City needs more charter schools like Community Roots that are racially and economically diverse, Mr. Grannis started an organization called the Tapestry Project to find and help people who want to open integrated charter schools.

The first school to be shepherded into New York by Mr. Grannis, Citizens of the World Charter School, has applied to open in Brooklyn next fall.

Mr. Grannis has taken aim at Northern Brooklyn, where neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Williamsburg and Bushwick are experiencing an influx of young, upper middle class families who want to send their children to public schools but are discouraged by the performance of the zoned schools and the existing charter schools, many of which are predominantly black and Hispanic.

Mr. Antista has a son who is 2 years old and another child on the way. Next year, his son will attend The Coop School, but after that it's an open question.

“We bought this home six or seven years ago, we were young, it seemed limiting to say, what would we do if we had a kid?" he said.

While he's not at the panic point of having to find a school -- "I'm always like 'it's good, I'll home school him if I have to' -- he and his wife are concerned about the local options. The nearby schools are not nearly as diverse as they would like.

"I would say I generally disagree with traditional education," he said. "I don't believe in rote learning. And it's not that we need to have a certain racial or socioeconomic spread, we want a school that has a lot of different people and ways of thinking."

Others in the room expressed similar desires.

The three Community Roots Charter School teachers -- Todd Sutler, Michelle Healy and Brooke Peters -- have jumped into the breach, with hopes of opening a charter elementary school in Brooklyn in September 2014. But first, they plan to spend a year traveling, visiting two schools a week and writing about what they learn.

They're calling it their odyssey and their project, The Odyssey Initiative. The teachers are paying for their own travel, Mr. Sutler said, and asking for outside donations on their Web site.

Before becoming a teacher, Mr. Sutler was a bond trader at a New York City investment bank for several years. Ms. Peters got her start in Los Angeles with Teach for America, and Ms. Healy began as a teacher at the Future Leaders Institute in Harlem.

"We're going to travel to all 50 states and visit some of the best schools and some of the best classrooms," he said. "Then we can take that and put that into a school model that we implement in Brooklyn, New York."

In a year, when they return, the group will apply to open a progressive charter school, one where students' standardized test scores matter, but are "secondary" to creative thinking, Mr. Sutler said. In many ways, it will be modeled on Community Roots, a school with a long waiting list that is expanding into the middle school grades this year.

"We've been looking at a couple of districts that are in a need of a school," Ms. Healy said. "Right here is definitely in need of more options."

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