‘How long have you lived here?’: An argument about Eva Moskowitz, schools and the future of Williamsburg

P.S. 84, on Berry Street at Grand in Williamsburg. ()
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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.

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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.

““Harlem Success Counseled out!!! Another special needs child after only ’12 days!’” read a sign by an opponent, amounting to a rebuke of those test scores. “Success Academy = Vampires,” read another sign, which reflected the involvement of the “Occupy” movement at recent Department of Education events—much of the February Panel for Education Policy hearing was drowned out by a “People’s Mic”—and expressed a commonly held belief among opponents that charter schools drain resources from the public school system.

Patrolling the aisles were police officers from the 90th precinct, School Safety cops, and even officers from the D.O.E.’s anti-gang task force. As people filed into the auditorium and chatted among themselves, the security workers urgently set about getting people to sit down.  

I found myself whisked to the majority-opponent side, seated against the wall. I was next to an opponent, but directly behind a supporter and his two young boys, who are students at Harlem Success Academy.

I asked the father, a black man named Sam Bruce who was wearing an orange t-shirt, why he had come. His earnest response succinctly summed up his side of the debate: “I believe it’s important that parents have the chance to choose to get their kids a quality education. And competition is healthy. A rising tide raises all ships.”

He said that if his two boys, a Pre-K and first-grade student, didn’t get into Success Academy, “I’d be breaking myself to get them into a private or Catholic school. Just like my mom broke herself to put me into a Catholic school.”

His zoned school—P.S. 112 in the Bronx—is not an option, he said. The school received a D in its latest school progress reports, with around one-quarter of the student body testing as proficient in reading and math.

Because the January meeting had turned so hostile, Garden Acosta—the founder and president of El Puente, a local community organization, a man who is probably the most universally respected public figure among longtime Williamsburg residents and gets standing ovations at community board meetings—began the second one by imploring everyone on the room to treat each other with respect.

“We are the Southside,” he declared, underscoring the theme of territoriality and invasion at the heart of the opposition's argument. “And we are who we are: people with dignity and people with respect for each other. And we won’t turn against other parents.”

This drew polite applause from everyone. But that was nothing compared to the rousing cheers opponents unleashed when local councilwoman Diana Reyna took the mic, and then again after virtually every sentence she finished.

Reyna, an opponent, drew a spiritual line connecting opposition to the Success Academy with the historical legacy of Latino pushback against exploitation by more powerful white constituencies on education policy.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, a district whose public-school student body was 90 percent minority had a school board comprised mostly of white Hasidic Jews, even though Hasidic children almost exclusively attend yeshivas. Longtime rumors of corruption were confirmed in 1999, when a rabbi pleaded guilty to funneling $6 million through the board over a 20-year period. In 1986, in response to a plan by the old board of education to partition off a portion of P.S. 16 to make way for a girl’s yeshiva, the mostly Latino student body staged a month-long boycott.

“Parents took full control in this district, and didn’t allow the Department of Education to take over P.S. 16,” she shouted. “I want this audience here today not to forget history.”

“The charter-school institute was not created to force charter schools into communities,” she continued, to a huge ovation.

But that ovation was countered by supporters of the school, who, having been out-shouted by supporters during Reyna’s speech, had settled upon a compelling chant of their own: “Choice! Choice! Choice!”

The “choice” chant momentarily stunned opponents, who then regrouped and drowned it out with boos. Reyna paused for half a minute. A D.O.E. official, who repeatedly protested that he was only present to moderate the debate, took the mic from Reyna and scolded both supporters and opponents for drowning out speakers. If each speech was interrupted by this back-and-forth shouting, he said, the meeting “will be a waste of time and an embarrassment for every adult in this building to have done this in front of our children.”

Reyna finished up shortly thereafter.

“This is not about choice," she said. "This is about money, control, and power."

There would be a few more comments from local elected officials and their representatives, each of whom opposed the school. After the comments from the elected officials, 97 speakers were signed up to speak in the public portion. Each of them was allotted two minutes. Things were just getting started. In front of me, Sam Bruce was helping his first-grade son with his homework.

IF YOU'VE TAKEN THE SUBWAY TO WILLIAMSBURG IN THE PAST several months and gotten off at the Bedford Avenue stop, then you’ve probably noticed the walls and columns blanketed with ads for Williamsburg Success Academy. The ads—most of which were removed recently—picture smiling children of all races, with the text, “Easy to Apply Online.” Until recently, the columns in the station were also painted in Success’s signature bright orange, with Success Academy’s website printed vertically. They were the only ads in the station. 

As the oft-cited epicenter of "hipster Williamsburg," the Bedford Avenue station has become a symbol for the gentrification of Williamsburg and its consequent class- and race-based sensitivities.

The Northside, where the Bedford L station sits, was the first to succumb to this demographic shift, as the once working-class neighborhood became a haven for artists before evolving into its present botiquey form. Now, that gentrification is rapidly spreading in the Southside, driven largely by a 2005 neighborhood rezoning that enabled luxury high-rises along the waterfront that were expected to increase the population by 20,000.

The Southside, by the Williamsburg Bridge, still known among locals as “Los Sures,” once represented the highest concentration of Latinos in the United States. In 2000, the census tract in which J.H.S. 50 sits was 87 percent Latino. In the past ten years, that figure has slipped to 65 percent. Counting two adjacent census tracts to the west that combine with that census tract to form the heart of the Southside, the percentage of Latinos has slipped from 76 percent to 48.5 percent. There are around 2,300 fewer Latinos in these three tracts than there were in 2000.

The ads in the Bedford Avenue have triggered the worst fears of many Latino residents, amounting to an invitation for further, more permanent gentrification of their neighborhood. Adding to their mistrust is the fact that the Bedford Avenue station is the only subway station that has been targeted with ads. Neither the Marcy Avenue subway station on the Southside nor any of the other stations on the J/M/Z line, which runs through the Southside, have seen any.

“It’s clear that they’ve targeted their advertisements to basically the white, upper-middle-class community,” said Garden Acosta, in an interview. “They’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on the Northside, basically saying that it’s safe for you and your middle-class children. It’s been a most unsettling, racist approach.”

He added, “They didn’t place their ads on the J line, which is what our community uses. If you’re really as interested, as they purport to be, in reaching people of color, you’d do it in the ones that people of color use. Instead, they did the exact opposite.”

Kerri Lyon, a spokeswoman for Success Academy, said the subway ad campaign “is one of many outreach efforts.”

“We’ve been holding information sessions in all sections of the neighborhood," she said. "They’ve done direct mail to families in English and in Spanish.”

Last week, Success Academy announced that 30 percent of its applications are from families that don’t list English as their first language. Success Academy has also promised to reserve the first 20 percent of lottery seats for English-language learners. That would put them pretty much in line with the 24 percent of English-language-learner students at J.H.S. 50, and the 22 percent at the four elementary schools within walking distance.

Lyon dismissed the characterization of racism as “so knee-jerk and inflammatory.”

“In all of the other Success schools, more than 90 percent of the schools are black and Hispanic, and low-income,” she said. “We’re doing everything possible to reach as many families with school-aged children in this district as possible, and we’re committed to creating a truly diverse school that reflects the demographics of this district. What’s ‘racist’ about trying to create a truly integrated and high-performing school for all the children in the district?”

The ad campaign can also be explained, at least partially, by the practical logic of marketing. According to 2010 ridership data, the Bedford Avenue station draws 7.4 million riders, more than double the 3.2 million of the Marcy Avenue station, which is the highest tally of all J/M/Z stations by 1 million riders.

In January, opponents vandalized the ads by placing sticker comic book speech bubbles coming out of the mouths of the children pictured, on which they wrote disparaging things about the network.

“Success Academy spent $1.6 million on marketing in 2009-2010. Could this money have been used in the classroom?” one child “says.”

“How come so many Spanish speaking kids left Success Academy Charter School?” says another.

Lyon, the Success spokeswoman, called the vandalism “a well-organized and well-funded attempt to mislead parents.”

Soon after the stickers were pasted onto the glass, the sections of the glass on which the stickers were pasted were cut out. 

FORTY-FIVE MINUTES AFTER THE PUBLIC speaking session began, the crowd had thinned out considerably. The speeches themselves were starting to repeat the same themes.

Opponents insisted that the community—as represented by local elected officials, the Community Education Council (which boycotted the meeting) and nearly every local resident at the hearing—opposed the school. They railed against what they portrayed as the deliberate neglect of the public school system for the ultimate aim of privatization and union-busting, the top-down nature of mayoral control and charter schools’ deliberate weeding out of weaker and special-needs students, all while portraying the Success Academy as an accelerant for further displacement.

Success supporters hammered home the theme of school choice, their belief that the status quo of schools was an abject failure (both citywide and in local elementary schools), and their belief that Success Network had produced a replicable model that is superior to what existed before.

Weariness was setting in. So was the self-referentiality of the dispute, with supporters and opponents trying to prove their case by pointing to things the other side had said or done.

Opponents claimed that a local mother named Janet Rentas, who had written an opinion piece in the New York Post supporting Success, had herself enrolled her child in P.S. 84.

“I toured 84, and I think it could do better,” Rentas told me in the hallway. “I don’t want my child to be part of a process or an experiment.”

Supporters pointed out that Garden Acosta himself had admitted before the previous meeting that he wouldn’t send his kids to three of the four local public schools, with the sole exception of P.S. 84.

(“If that isn’t ‘It’s not good enough for my child but it’s good enough for your child,’ I don’t know what is,” Lyon, the Success spokeswoman, told me shortly after the exchange.)

Meanwhile, in the hallway outside the auditorium, small skirmishes were breaking out.

Brian Leavy DeVale, a local principal and an opponent of the charter school, spotted Moskowitz herself and immediately began taking her to task about her salary, which Moskowitz has said is in the $300,000s, significantly more than city schools chancellor Dennis Walcott’s salary of $212,000.

Outside the building, two mothers from P.S. 84 were smoking cigarettes and locked in a testy exchange with young men who appeared to employees of the Success team.

These P.S. 84 parents—particularly those from what’s euphemistically known in Williamsburg as the “newcomer” demographic—were a vocal presence at the meeting.

They are part of the second wave of white parents to send their children to the school, which for years had been nearly exclusively Latino and suffered from poor test scores. The first wave of these parents, who enrolled their young children during the 2006-2007 school year, saw their well-meaning but aggressive attempts to change the culture of the school met with stiff resistance from the Latino parents and administrators who perceived them as patronizing and invasive. A bitter power struggle between parents took hold, which resulted in nearly all of the white parents withdrawing from the school the next year.

But with a second generation of newcomer parents and under the stewardship of a highly regarded new principal, P.S. 84 has began to turn around: It received a B in the latest school progress reports, and its dual Spanish-English program, popular among both white and Latino parents, is helping to bridge the divide between the two demographics. Around Williamsburg, there is excitement that P.S. 84 can become what many dismiss as a pie-in-the-sky dream when it comes to New York City education: an economically diverse, high-quality Department of Education-run public school.

To these parents, Success Academy represents a threat that would siphon off conscientious parents who might otherwise enroll in P.S. 84. For all the optimism surrounding the school, P.S. 84 remains around half-full, meaning that another charter school in the next several years could potentially move in and curtail its growth, and with it, its money and resources.

But the heart of the opposition of P.S. 84 parents to the charter school is visceral. The parents of students there feel like they took a leap of faith in the pre-existing public school, to the benefit of the whole neghborhood, and further waves of newcomer parents should do the same.

Back on the steps of the school, one P.S. 84 mother shouted, “You thought we [Latino and white parents] didn’t talk to each other, but you were wrong! You thought you could divide us, but you’re actually bringing us together!”

That mother then mentioned something about usurping democracy and abetting what, in her opinion, represented the corporate takeover of the public schools.  She called one of the Success team members a prick, at which point he walked away.

When the other Success team member pointed out that, for all her moral fervor, it was the parent who had resorted to name-calling, the parent paused, took a drag of her cigarette, and responded, “Well you have might. But we have right.”

I CAUGHT UP TO MOSKOWITZ IN THE HALLWAY.

She is petite and generally indistinguishable in appearance from any other white New Yorker you might see riding the subway. She certainly doesn't look big enough to fit the outsize descriptions of her by her supporters as a crusading hero, or by her critics as a grasping villain.

I asked her if she was going to speak inside at the hearing.

“I don’t know if I will,” she said. “I want to take the temperature down? You know what I’m saying?”

Perhaps not surprisingly for someone who has such strong opinions of what teachers do and don’t well, Moskowitz’s speaks slowly and very clearly, overemphasizing key words to make sure she is being understood.

I asked her about the vitriol at the event that was happening.

“Well, I think it’s just a fear of change," she said. "I think it’s just hard to—I mean, it’s all new. Charters are new. Success Academy is new. We’ve seen this before, and then the school opens, and there’s just incredible enthusiasm. And there is now, too. I mean, we have hundreds and hundreds of parents applying, hoping they’re gonna get in. Last year, we had 9,000 parents applying to our schools for 900 spots. They are a community. There’s a community that wants this. And so, I think, this [tonight] represents a slice of the community. But it’s not the whole community. And to suggest that the community is only a certain group of people is actually pretty exclusionary.”

She also said, “When we opened in Harlem there was a lot of drama. When we opened on the Upper West [Side] there was a lot of drama. And, you know I really think it’s fear of change. I people are kinda panicked and confused about how the schools work, and why aren’t they better, and why can’t we fix what we have. And we’ve been trying to fix what we have for a half a century.”

I asked why she thinks what we have isn't better.

“I think it’s a combination," she said. "Schools have to be managed at the school level, and sometimes a big bureaucracy on one hand and labor contracts on the other kinda conspire against children.”

Back inside, Leonie Haimson, founder of the organization Class Size Matters and a well-known citywide charter-school critic, took the mic and took aim at Moskowitz, who was not in the auditorium at the time.

“This is a disgrace,” she said. “Did you go into education to divide communities? To divide parents? To have children see the bitterness we’ve seen tonight?”

Paula Notari, a local mother of two young children who supports the Success school, then took the mic and, while being booed lustily by P.S. 84 parents, mostly mothers, delivered her speech with exaggerated, professional-wrestling-villain-style gusto. Notari and her hecklers went back and forth, relishing the slappy theatrics. Henry Mazurek, another Success supporter who was standing behind Notari, implored her to cut it out. Notari finished up her speech and, while walking back up the aisle, did a gleeful hip wiggle in the face of the women her booed her.

“I’m a public defender, so I’m used to this.” Notari told me afterward in the hallway. “There has to be someone to take on this role. If I have to be that person to fight for it, I accept it.”

More than three hours into the hearing, fewer than half of the 97 speakers who signed up for the public portion had spoken. Around the auditorium, there was a feeling that whatever had to be said on both sides had already been said, as well as a fear that the meeting might go past midnight.

Finally, Garden Acosta, a skilled orator who was once a Young Lord, took the mic and addressed Paymon Rouhanifard, the young C.O.O. of the Department of Education's Office of Portfolio Development.

“Paymon, you’ve heard tonight white parents, Latino parents," he said. "You’ve heard our congresswoman, our councilwoman...”  

He then proceeded to go down a list of charter-school opponents, picking up momentum the whole way. His speech reached a crescendo with, “You’ve heard the Southside! What does it take? What does it take?”

He called for all of his fellow opponents to rise out of their seats. He then led a chant, first in English then in Spanish, of, “The people. United. Will never be defeated.” Then he led the opponents out. Only 40 or so supporters remained in the auditorium.

I talked to Garden Acosta as he was leaving the school.

“What’s happening here is immoral,” he said. “An entire community comes together—an entire community!—and says clearly that it wants a different path. For people to deny this community is not only intolerant of our democracy, but is really a disgrace to anyone who would speak of good-government practice.”

As I was speaking with Garden Acosta, Councilman Stephen Levin, who represents nearby portions of Williamsburg as well as other areas, hurried into the building from another obligation.

“What’s going on?” he said, confused about the mass exodus.

“M.S. 50, the co-location,” Jason Otaño, a liaison for Borough President Marty Markowitz, told him.

“I know, but is it over?” said Levin, seemingly the only person around who was upset about this.

Inside, the D.O.E. representative who was attempting to run the meeting called out names of speakers who had already left. Finally, he called up a high school student who had attended the Success Academy. She spoke movingly about being positioned to become the only person in her family to attend college.

Levin took the mic after her, and got his opposition to the new school on record. He spoke of “what I’ve seen as a trend in the Success Network coming in despite community opposition. It has a real, to be frank, a real tone-deafness, how Success has approached its outreach.”

He had registered his opposition, and that was it. The public meeting was over.

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