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City Seeks to Close Two Charter Schools

Monday, January 09, 2012 - 04:53 PM

New York City's Department of Education announced plans on Monday to close two long-troubled charter schools in Brooklyn and Queens at the end of this school year.

City officials said they are seeking to revoke Williamsburg Charter High School's charter after the school, which was put on probation in September, did not follow the city's recommendations for improvement.

Officials also intend to close one of two charter schools in Far Rockaway, the Peninsula Preparatory Charter School, where students' test scores fell below the goals in the school's charter.

These closures would bring the tally of shuttered New York City charter schools to eight.

A third charter school that was in danger of being closed, Opportunity Charter School in Harlem, will receive a two-year reprieve, according to the city's plan, which calls for a short-term renewal of the school's charter.

Williamsburg Charter High School, which opened in 2004, is one of three schools operated by the Believe High School Network. Even before the school was placed on probation earlier this year, it was under investigation by the office of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York for several months because of questions about its financial management. Those concerns have not abated.

In his notice of intent to revoke the school's charter, which is not yet up for renewal, the director of the city's charter school office, Recy Dunn, wrote that Eddie Calderon-Melendez, who founded the school and runs the Believe Network, drove the school into debt while spending money on outside consultants and a large salary for himself.

At different points in the school's troubled history, officials said, Mr. Calderon-Melendez misspent grant money, used the school's credit card for personal purchases including alcohol, and bullied board members into leaving.

Although there has been a steady stream of complaints about Mr. Calderon-Melendez over the years, the school's board voted on Jan. 3 to re-install him as its chief executive officer, giving him more direct control of its day-to-day operations. By keeping Mr. Calderon-Melendez in power, the school's board has committed "a serious violation of its obligations under the Charter and state law," wrote Mr. Dunn.

Opened in 2004, Peninsula Preparatory Charter School was founded by State Senator Malcolm A. Smith, who served as a board member until 2006. Another Queens politician, Rep. Gregory Meeks, was also a member of the elementary school's board.

Despite its political connections, Peninsula Prep struggled from the outset. Originally located in a Far Rockaway middle school, it moved into a complex of trailers near a large real estate development owned by one of Mr. Smith's campaign donors, leaving its students without a gym or playground. For the last three years, it has received C's on its progress reports from the city.

Ericka Wala, Peninsula's principal since July of 2009, said the school had been improving, albeit slowly.

"I was hoping we would be given an opportunity to continue the movement that I believe is in a positive direction, and unfortunately the decision was otherwise," she said.

Ms. Wala said she would encourage her younger students to attend Challenge Preparatory Charter School, the island's other charter school, which opened in 2010 and currently has grades K-2.

Peninsula's third and fourth graders will have to find seats in other Far Rockaway schools. "Other schools are having the same struggles as us," Ms. Wala said. "We outperformed 9 of the 10 schools our students are zoned for."

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