Supporters, opponents clamor as PEP backs charter co-location
by Rachel Cromidas, at 12:10 pm
March 2, 2012
Led by a trio of PEP “puppets” produced for the occasion, dozens of protesters marched around Brooklyn Technical High School at the start of the first March PEP meeting.
After hearing nearly two hours of public testimony in support of a charter school slated for Williamsburg, a member of the Panel for Educational Policy said she worried charter school supporters’ voices were being drowned out.
Lisette Nieves, a mayoral appointee to the citywide school board, defended her plan to vote in favor of the school’s co-location proposal against the suggestion that vocal community opposition to the plan should sway panel members’ votes.
“Even in our last meeting we had about a third who were in support of seeing change … so when I keep hearing that there’s only one large group feeling one way, I know there’s dissent that’s not allowed to speak,” Nieves said. “I can vote with complete confidence to support the co-location because at the end of the day I know that I am too impatient and will not accept that young people who look like me … to be in a school that’s not high quality.”
About 100 parents and students who attend schools in the Success Charter Network came to the panel meeting to advocate for the network’s plans to open a new school inside Williamsburg’s M.S. 50. That plan has drawn vocal opposition, particularly among the neighborhood’s Spanish-speaking community, that has included both a guerrilla sticker campaign and a lawsuit.
The plan also drew a spirited protest outside the panel meeting.
“We are boycotting the meeting! It is a puppet panel!” declared a ring of protesters organized by the advocacy group Southside Community Schools Coalition during a rally outside Brooklyn Technical High School, where the panel was meeting. The protesters were referring to the fact that the PEP has never rejected a city proposal.
Earlier in the day, the Southside coalition and other Williamsburg residents filed suit charging that the Success network had failed to gather support from within the community and should lose the charter for the school. Arthur Schwartz, the Advocates for Justice lawyer who filed the suit, told the protesters that the PEP’s vote to locate the school in M.S. 50 could be reversed if he prevails in court.
Joined by another group of teachers and City University of New York students calling themselves Occupy the Department of Education, roughly 80 protesters marched around Brooklyn Tech chanting, “Education is a right,” just as lines of Bronx and Harlem Success Academy students, teachers, and parents — clad in the network’s trademark bright orange shirts — began forming at the entrance.
By 6:15 p.m. close to 100 parents and children dotted the auditorium, and one after another testified about their desire for the Success network to expand. Most were from the network’s Bronx and Harlem schools. Some spoke Spanish and required a translator. A few identified themselves as Brooklyn parents.
“I’m asking the panel to give us more space,” said Ijeoma Ohuabunwa, a Bronx Success Academy 2 parent. After her testimony she told me her son Emmanuel has thrived since entering kindergarten at the school last year.
“I want the school to grow because the school is great with my son,” she said. Success Academy representatives “told students we could come speak in favor of parents’ choice, and I registered three weeks back.”
The panel also approved the relocation of Bronx Success Academy 2 to a building occupied by P.S. 55 in the Bronx.
Vanessa Bangser, the principal of Bronx Success Academy 2, told panel members the ability to opt out of one’s neighborhood elementary school was an important right for both parents and educators.
“I made the decision to switch to an organization I believed in,” she said. “That’s why I support parent choice.”
Sarah Porter, a parent whose two sons attend P.S. 132 in Williamsburg, was one of just a couple of dissenting voices in the stream of pro-Success testimonies. She told the panel that her community does not support the creation of the school or its co-location with M.S. 50. The vast majority of protesters had already left Brooklyn Tech without speaking, but Porter said in an interview that she wanted an oppositional voice to go on the record.
“People in the room need to know why people aren’t here,” she said. “Our community met with [Chancellor Dennis] Walcott, and he essentially said, ‘too bad.’”
Nine of the panel’s 13 members attended the meeting and only Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s appointee, voted against the Williamsburg Success co-location plan. Noting the lawsuit against the school, he asked the panelists to consider whether Success Academy is “the right solution” for Williamsburg. None responded at the time, and Nieves’s comments came later, just before the vote.
Before the meeting closed, two Department of Education deputies detailed an amendment to revise the capital plan, which passed without much discussion. The panel also approved several changes to public schools admissions regulations.