'How long have you lived here?': An argument about Eva Moskowitz, schools and the future of Williamsburg
1:47 pm Feb. 23, 20121
Last week, around 600 people descended on a South Williamsburg school building that currently houses Junior High School 50 and the Academy for Young Writers, a high school.
Next year, Young Writers will be moved to East New York, where most of its predominantly female and African-American student body comes from. In its place, the Department of Education is proposing to install Success Academy Williamsburg, a branch of the Success Academy Charter Schools network, the fastest-growing and most well-known charter-school network in New York. The Success network currently operates nine schools citywide, is planning to open three more for next year, and eventually hopes to expand to 40 schools. It's the organization around which the movie The Lottery revolved.
The C.E.O. of the Success network, Eva Moskowitz, is one of the most visible faces of the polarizing national charter-school movement. Both Moskowitz and the movement itself have come to symbolize either outside-the-box courageousness or paternalistic imperialism, depending on your perspective.
Last Thursday night’s packed public hearing was a prelude to a March 1 vote by the city's Panel on Educational Policy, which will probably approve this latest application of the controversial “co-location” policy. Ostensibly, by law, the panel must consider the public's input at hearings in its decision. But the majority of the panel’s members are appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and it has never before rejected a proposal backed by the city in its ten-plus-year existence.
So the 400 or so charter opponents in attendance weren’t especially optimistic that they would influence the P.E.P.’s vote. Rather, they just hoped to raise their voices loud enough to draw some citywide attention and compel the Department of Education to take the item off the panel’s agenda altogether. Even though the charter school has been approved for District 14 by the SUNY Board of Trustees, opponents were heartened by the D.O.E.’s recent decision to take two schools facing closure—one in Harlem and one in Bed-Stuy—off the panel's agenda for February, in what seemed like a bow to local pressure.
Normally, there’s only one public hearing before the education panel votes on a co-location, but last week’s hearing was the second in as many months. A January hearing was declared invalid by the D.O.E. because of a technicality involving the circulation of an official document called the Educational Impact Statement.
That first hearing had been an interminable slugfest, which has become par for the course for hearings involving the Success schools. (The network is being sued on behalf of 15 Cobble Hill parents attempting to prevent it from opening up a branch in that neighborhood.) It had devolved into a shouting match before it even began.
During a press conference held by supporters of the school, Luis Garden Acosta, a community organizer and a leader of the charter opposition, interjected during a transition between pro-Success speakers and said to the New York 1 camera, “I think we need to set the record straight.”
Back-and-forth shouting ensued, capped off by the following exchange between Rob Solano, another opponent and a lifelong resident of Williamsburg’s predominantly Latino Southside, and Henry Mazurek, a parent of a small child who lives in one of Williamsburg’s new waterfront high-rises.
Solano (repeatedly): “How long have you lived here? How long have you lived here?”
Mazurek: “Long enough to know that we need better schools!”
Opponents of the school have maintained that the neighborhood needs a good middle school and high school more than another elementary school, of which there are four within walking distance of each other. They claim that installing a charter elementary school in the J.H.S. 50 school building would undermine the existing middle school and scuttle the option of turning it into a grades 6-12 school.
But all of those four nearby schools (P.S. 16, 17, 84, and the soon-to-be-phased out 19) rank far below city averages in terms of test scores. In the latest school progress reports, they averaged 30 percent proficiency in English and 38 percent in math. Citywide averages last year were 51 and 62 percent, respectively. The Success Academy’s nine schools average 81 and 95 proficiency in reading and math, although opponents have no shortage of objections to how those impressive statistics were achieved.
All of this, plus a backdrop of tensions over displacement and gentrification that have been simmering in Williamsburg for more than a decade, set the stage on Feb. 16 for Round 2.
INSIDE THE AUDITORIUM, SOLANO, GARDEN ACOSTA and most of the other opponents sat on one side, representing approximately two-thirds of the crowd. Supporters of the school, an overwhelming portion of whom had arrived in four school buses from Harlem Success Academy—Moskowitz frequently organizes such displays of "away" support at public hearings—sat on the other. (Later on in the meeting, when a speaker asked how many supporters were from Williamsburg, only a small handful raised their hands.)
The fault lines were identifiable by the bright orange colors Success Academy supporters wore. Parents wore orange t-shirts. Students wore their school uniforms, which either consisted of blue dress shirts with orange ties or orange short-sleeve polo shirts.
The sides were identified by signs, too. “NYC Parents Want Success!” was a common one, a blunt appeal to what supporters would say is only common sense, given the test scores.
More by this author:
- Gary Cohen, the anti-Michael Kay, also broadcasts during his time off
- Blue blood: The harsh logic behind the cutting of Bradshaw, Canty and Boley