Parents, teachers, and students are up in arms over the Department of Education’s plan to close a West Harlem middle school and open a charter school in the same building.
Parents, teachers, and students protested a Department of Education plan to close a West Harlem middle school and open a charter school in the same building at a hearing Tuesday evening.
The DOE plan would shutter the sixth through eighth grades of the Academy for Social Action, a public school on 129th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. It would also open a new branch of Harlem Success Academy II in the building, which ASA shares with three other public schools. The plan, which the DOE’s Panel on Education Policy will vote on on Mar. 11, would implement the changes over several years.
DOE officials said they were replacing a failing school with a successful one, but opponents fear that the change would worsen the existing space crunch in the building. The other three schools currently housed there are the Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts, the Urban Assembly School for New Technologies, and Renaissance Leadership Academy.
According to Marc Sternberg, a deputy chancellor in the Department of Education, the DOE had proposed shuttering the ASA middle school due to “very troubling trends” at both the middle and high school levels.
“We see a similar set of concerns reveal themselves when we ask families, teachers, and students at this school about whether they feel safe in this building, whether they feel challenged, whether they feel that there is a rigorous academic program that’s preparing them for college,” Sternberg said.
He added that closing the middle school would enable ASA to “focus on building on its strengths” at the high-school level.
Although the DOE gave both the ASA’s middle school and high school F grades in its 2012 progress reports—and in individual categories such as student performance—teachers, students, and parents said they saw potential for growth.
Caroll Wilder, ASA’s PTA president, said closing the school would be a “travesty”.
“We’ve just started to turn the corner. We have plans in place. We’ve taken corrective action where it needed to be taken,” Wilder said. “I think we’re just giving up.”
Several ASA students who spoke said that they valued their education at the school, even though overcrowding meant they sometimes didn’t have enough chairs for everyone in a class.
“A charter school should not be able to bully a public school out of space,” Solasse Murphy, a senior at ASA, said.
Officials and students at the other public schools in the building also said that the co-location would be detrimental.
Fia Davis-Rouse, founder and principal of the Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts, said that her school would lose space if the charter opened. According to Davis-Rouse, UASPA is unique in that it is a performing arts school that does not require auditions and serves students from four of the five boroughs.
“I can’t imagine how one could have math class in a dance studio that has sprung-wood floors and mirrors and bars,” Davis-Rouse said.
UASPA senior Trevon Barnes gave a vocal performance during public testimony to emphasize the importance of the UASPA’s arts-based curriculum.
“I also believe that our art equals our expression … That’s who we are,” ninth-grader Winter Santiago said. The change would “take over who we are as people, and we’re just not going to be able to get that same opportunity,” she said.
Daphne LaBua, who has taught at New Tech since it was founded six years ago, said she sees an “immense undercurrent of promise” at the school, but fears that co-location would threaten its progress.
“I am afraid of how I can look at my students in the eye and tell them, ‘You matter, you can reach your potential, but sorry, I have to transition out of my classroom right now because I share it with two of my colleagues,’” said LaBua, who is also the school’s United Federation of Teachers representative, said.
LaBua also said she worries that her students will have fewer resources compared to the charter school. For example, New Tech currently owns 22 nonfunctional laptops.
Both UASPA and New Tech representatives said special education would also suffer. A New Tech special education teacher said 46 percent of the school’s students have special needs, and UASPA assistant principal and founding teacher Ben Schott said that UASPA graduates 60 percent of special-needs students, relative to the 39 percent that the city graduates.
“We use every inch of our school,” Schott said, adding that less space would make “flexible programming” for disabled students more difficult.
Representatives from Senator Bill Perkins and City Council member Robert Jackson’s offices also voiced opposition to the co-location.
Sternberg said at the end of the hearing that while he appreciated the attendees’ advocacy for their schools, the restructuring would be the best way to allow the Academy for Social Action to continue.
“Our decision to truncate is a decision that allows and encourages this school to focus on its strengths,” Sternberg said.
Some attendees said that despite the meeting to solicit feedback, they felt the decision had already been made.
“We got our point across, but they always say that these meetings are a waste of time,” ninth-grade parent Thomasina Moore said.
Avantika Kumar contributed reporting.