Most New Yorkers have never heard of Eric Grannis. But they might have heard of his wife, former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz - who founded the Success Academies charter network.
Like his wife, Grannis has now become a lightning rod in the debate over charter schools. The Manhattan attorney runs the Tapesty Project, which looks to build community support for new charter schools. It was through this project that Grannis set up meetings with parents in Williamsburg in 2011 that led to the proposal to bring in the new charter school Citizens of the World.
I met with Grannis at a cafe in downtown Brooklyn to talk about his role in the controversy. Grannis is a New York native who attended both private and public schools growing up in Manhattan. He met his future wife at Stuyvesant High School. He said his work with the Tapestry Project is completely separate from his wife's charter network. And he adamantly denied accusations by critics that he was looking to start a charter school marketed to upper middle class parents. He said the new school aims to be ethnically and socio-economically diverse. And even though Northern Brooklyn has several good public schools, he said there is still a need for more choices.
Are the schools in that neighborhood really so unappealing that there’s a need for another charter? I looked at the latest progress reports, nine got A’s, nine got B’s, eight got C’s. I didn't see a lot of failing schools.
I think that it’s really for parents in the community, not me, to decide whether there needs to be another option in Willliamsburg and Greenpoint and there are obviously parents who want that option.
But you planted the seed?
My organizaion’s job is to help parents learn about the charter school option if they want to pursue that. I enable them to make choices. I don’t make the choices.
Why Northern Brooklyn?
I’m very interested in starting schools that are socioeconomically diverse, that include poor and rich and white and black, and I believe profoundly in that. Northern Brooklyn is a neighborhood that is unusually diverse.
You don't think the schools in that neighborhood are already diverse?
I think some of the schools are diverse, not all of the schools are diverse. In any neighborhood in New York City, many people have said - including "The Times" - that there’s a lack of diversity. So I think any neighborhood could use more diverse schools.
Did you look at data to see if they’re mixed enough, high performing enough?
Yes, I looked into the data and I think, like any neighborhood in New York City, you see students who are of color are tending to do less well than white students. And I think you’d be hard pressed to find any part of New York City where a socioeconomically good school... wouldn't be helpful.
Are you hurting good community schools that are already diverse if you’re opening something marketed to appeal to middle class familes?
It’s not marketed to appeal to upper middle class families. It’s marketed to appeal to all families.
I went to parents and I asked them what type of education they wanted. And found a school (Citizens of the World) that we thought would be of interest to parents because it had been successful in satisfying needs of families in California across the socioeconomic spectrum.... There aren't many socio-economically diverse charter schools.
What were you hearing from Brooklyn parents?
They were very interested in project-based learning, in relatively small class sizes and most importantly they wanted a school that thought that diversity was a plus. And Citizens is one of the few schools in the charter school sector which made a real point of regarding diversity as a valuable goal.
It’s also different than charters called "no excuses," because they're very strict?
That’s correct, they seem to have a more progressive approach to education and that seemed to me something a lot of parents wanted.
Does that mean that the middle class and upper middle class families don’t like the typical charters in New York City?
I think many middle class parents don’t like the no excuses schools that have particularly rigid discipline, that is true.
So opponents might ask, why is a progressive charter that has a different educational philosophy good for the upper middle class families but not good for the lower middle class families of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant? Do you see a need to change the charter culture in neighborhoods where poor families have these very strict schools? Why don’t they get the type of schools middle class families want?
I think that some – more parents from poor communities -- like a strict charter school, in my opinion, than do middle class families. But many of them don’t. And they, too, should have more progressive education options, that's absolutely correct.
What about all the people who have said we don’t need this school?
There are hundreds and hundreds of parents who signed petitions and want this as an option. I think those parents who don’t want this as an option don’t have to send their kids there. But I don’t think they ought to be in the position of saying that those parents who do want this as an option should be prevented from having it.
It was the parents themselves who collected the petitions, I believe there were hundreds and hundreds. And by the way, I’ve never seen a charter school before, having done this many times, where the petition gathering effort was almost entirely run by parents themselves with very little involvement by Citizens [of the World].
Are you surprised at all by the negative reaction this proposal has generated? It’s similar to what's happened in places where your wife’s network has tried to open, in neighborhoods that are gentrifying. People are very wary and suspicious of the charter movement.
It saddens me. It doesn’t surprise me. We’ve seen over time people are often frightened by new types of things. When you had the Civil Rights movement in the '50s not everyone welcomed that concept with open arms. The fact that people are upset about things does not necessarily mean they are bad things.
Do you think you did as good a job as you could reaching out to low income families?
We certainly made efforts and hired someone specifically, a woman of color with a community organizing background. I think we’d like to start earlier and do better next time.