New Charter for Northern Brooklyn Fuels Debate Over Gentrification

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The neighborhood around McCarren Park is typical of the changes that have swept through Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Along the side of the park you can see new residential developments with sleek glass exteriors advertising condos for sale. New construction continues to go up on blocks that were once used for factories. And the playground is full of young children with parents and nannies.

A woman carrying a young baby, who declined to give her name, said she had started looking at the public schools for her 2 year-old. But she's not sure yet if she'll enroll her. "I’m happy that they’re continuing to improve," she said, of the local schools. "But I am a little worried."

Some of the new residential units across the street from a playground in McCarren Park

That anxiety is at the heart of a heated debate over a new charter school planned for this neighborhood. Some parents with kids in the local schools claim supporters of the charter are preying on wary middle and upper class residents.

"They are saying that what we really want is a school that really is birthed out of the white community and that looks like what the white community would feel most comfortable with," said Kate Yourke, who has two children. "This is, to me, racist."

Yourke is active in a group called Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents: Our Public Schools, or WAGPOPS. They've led an opposition campaign against the new charter.

The charter school in question is called Citizens of the World, a network based in California. Opponents point out that an initial meeting about the school was held with upper class parents at one of the new waterfront condominiums last year. It was organized by Eric Grannis, an attorney who is married to Eva Moskowitz, the former city councilwoman who started the Success Acadamies charter network. Grannis runs the Tapestry Project, which is a sort of matchmaker seeking out new communities for charter schools.

Grannis acknowledges early meetings in the fall of 2011 took place with the more affluent families. But he showed Schoolbook memos documenting that efforts were also made around the same time to connect with Head Starts and day care centers in other parts of the district, to hear what kinds of schools residents wanted.

"We wanted to get as broad support as we could," he said. He then brought in representatives from Citizens of the World who organized and submitted an application to open a charter in Brooklyn.

Tara Phillips, the charter network’s senior director of community relations, said she was troubled by the way her school is being portrayed by opponents.

"The school is committed to creating a diverse population of kids in every realm," she said. "Racial, ethnic, social economic, and to really to work with those kids individually and with parents to make sure that they reach their fullest potential."

Phillips used to teach at the Brooklyn Friends School. She said most charter and district schools tend to be segregated; low-income students of color rarely mix with more affluent, white peers. But she said Citizens of the World wants to more closely mirror the demographics of Northern Brooklyn, which despite gentrification still has its Latino, Polish and other ethnic neighborhoods. It's also promising a progressive curriculum, unlike the strict "no excuses" philosophy of many other charters.

Williamsburg parent Deanna Morea supports the new charter school because of its "inclusive" qualities

"I felt the model was very nurturing and the whole model around Citizens, it’s all about diversity," said Deanna Morea, who attended some of the early meetings. "As an African-American mom of a multiracial family... it really spoke to me in a way that included me."

Paula Notari was also excited about the new charter. She's a public defender with two small children who helped lobby for a Success Academy charter school that opened this year on the south side of Williamsburg. She's also volunteering to build support for Citizens of the World.

She took me to the Jonathan Williams day care center on the south side, which is surrounded by housing projects. Several parents she approached about the plan said they were interested. Gilbert Richards, who was picking up his three year-old daughter, said, "We're planning on her going to a charter school because the public schools are not all that good."

Notari lives in one of the new developments on the south side. She’s a Brooklyn native who said she’s just fighting for better choices, and she's angry at the way she’s been portrayed by the opposition.

"They got statistics, how much my husband and I paid for our apartment," she said. "I mean it just got very, very ugly. I would literally go to a birthday party and the next day on the local blog there would be some post saying that I had the audacity to show up at a birthday party."

But opponents such as Brooke Parker note that the new charter will be on the north side, where there are plenty of good schools.

"All of our schools are excellent, all of our schools are under-enrolled," she said, at a rally against the charter. "Within walking distance of Junior High School 126, where they want to put this elementary school, are two Blue Ribbon schools and three A schools."

Local politicians and prominent community groups oppose the charter. Northern Brooklyn already has several other charters. Esteban Duran, an organizer with the group El Puente, said all the time and energy spent on Citizens of the World could have been directed in other ways.

"If our schools are good they deserve the chance to continue to do better, and we should invest in them, this is the complete opposite of that," he said.

Opponents also note that despite the rapid development in Northern Brooklyn, the local schools are not over-crowded because new families seem to be replacing others priced out by gentrification. But the population is slowly growing. Schoolbook analyzed census data for District 14 (Williamsburg and Greenpoint) based on blocks within the district. Our data team found that between 2000 and 2010, the under-5 population increased by 2,239.

The charter is likely to be approved tonight by a panel controlled by mayoral appointees. Opponents are already planning a lawsuit if things don’t go their way.