Published: April 4, 2013
Publication: The Villager
By Lincoln Anderson
A new 500-seat charter school is planned to open this August in the Washington Irving High School building, and — as has frequently happened elsewhere when charter schools come in — a battle is brewing to block it.
Arthur Schwartz, a Greenwich Village activist and attorney who has represented plaintiffs against other New York City charter schools, told The Villager he expects to file a class-action lawsuit that will include the planned Success Academy Union Square and also possibly a charter school slated for Tilden High School, in Brooklyn.
“This is Eva Moskowitz’s beachhead in Lower Manhattan,” Schwartz said of the K-to-4 school in the Union Square/Gramercy area. The school is actually K-to-8; the students will continue on through the middle-school grades, though at another, yet-to-be-determined location.
Moskowitz, a former Upper East Side city councilmember, is the founder and C.E.O. of the Success Charter Network. Her first charter school, Success Academy Harlem 1, opened in 2006, and has since been recognized as a Blue Ribbon School, the federal government’s highest honor. By next year, the network is on track to have 20 Success Academies serving 5,000 students in New York City.
Success Academy Upper West, co-located in the Brandeis High School building, is in its second year. Success Academy Cobble Hill, co-located in a building with two high schools, is in its first year. Also slated to open this fall is Success Academy Hell’s Kitchen.
A spokesperson for Success Charter Network said there has been an outpouring of interest by local parents in the planned Union Square school.
“We’ve seen overwhelming demand from the community for another high-quality public school option,” she said. “We’ve had more than 1,000 applications for the coming school year for fewer than 200 seats. And I’d put that to Success Academy’s record of achievement as to why there’s such demand for such a school.”
Success Academy Upper West, she noted, “is off the charts in terms of popularity.”
The plan is for the Union Square charter to open with kindergarten and first grade and then add one new grade per year.
It won’t, however, be a traditionally “zoned school” with its own restricted catchment area, like the Village’s two schools, P.S. 3 and P.S. 41. Rather, priority will be given to students throughout all of Community School District 2. The sprawling district stretches from Battery Park City to 59th St. on the West Side and to 97th St. on the East Side, taking in Tribeca, the West Village, Soho, Gramercy Park and the Upper East Side. There is no admission test. A lottery is being held soon, possibly this week, to fill the school’s first two classes.
Throughout the Success Charter Network, 80 percent of the students are low-income, 15 percent are in special education and 10 percent are English language learners.
“The hope is to create an integrated, high-quality school that reflects the diversity of the surrounding neighborhoods,” the spokesperson said.
According to Schwartz, on March 11, the Department of Education’s Panel for Education Policy voted to approve a Success Academy for the Washington Irving building, at 16th St. and Irving Place.
Schwartz said the Success Charter Network’s strategy is to target school buildings that are “underutilized,” meaning there is some unused space in them. Despite the opposition of Councilmember Rosie Mendez, parents and teachers, Washington Irving High School is being phased out, which has opened up space in the massive Gramercy building.
But the building still houses a number of smaller high schools, including Union Square Academy of Health Sciences, Gramercy Arts High School, High School for Language and Diplomacy, International High School at Union Square and the new Academy for Software Engineering, the latter which has the backing of local tech heavy hitters, like Fred Wilson.
Schwartz blasted the idea of co-locating an elementary school in a building with five other high schools, calling it “really weird.”
“In the middle of that whole hodgepodge, they’re sticking an elementary school, which is projected ultimately to have 600 kids,” he said, citing a higher figure than the Success spokesperson.
“All of the high schools’ students, 80 percent to 90 percent, get free lunch — they’re very poor. The kids come from all over the city,” Schwartz said, adding, “Would you want your 8-year-olds walking around in the middle of high school students who come from all over the city? I wouldn’t.”
According to Schwartz, right now, there are about 1,900 high schoolers in the building. Once Success Academy is at capacity in a few years and the Academy of Software Engineering grows a bit, the building is expected to have close to 3,000 students, he said.
Teachers and parents at the existing high schools are concerned there will be a space crunch, according to Schwartz. This will be felt most painfully by the schools’ special-education students and English language learners, who, Schwartz maintained, need smaller classroom sizes to learn effectively — which translates into more space.
“The concerns that a lot of the leaders have — every classroom is currently being utilized now,” he noted. “The programs that are going on in the schools really need the space.”
Schwartz said this negative impact on special ed and E.L.L. programs will be the lawsuit’s basis. In February, a similar suit he lodged defeated the city’s effort to start up a charter Brownsville Academy High School. However, he recently lost another suit, against Citizens of the World Charter School in Williamsburg, which is being started by Eric Grannis, Moskowitz’s husband.
Gregg Lundahl, Washington Irving’s veteran union chapter leader, predicted that use of the building’s space will be an issue because Success Academy will be insular.
“My basic concern is that, whereas the schools that currently are in the building share some of the facilities, there will be no sharing of the Success Academy provinces,” Lundahl said. “I anticipate that the charter school will be entirely barricaded from the other schools. The building is designed as a one-school building, so we use shared hallways, gyms and the cafeteria.”
Lundahl said word is that the Success Academy will get the whole second floor and some of the third floor.
“The historic lobby ceiling and staircase extend to the second floor,” he noted, adding, “We believe that she will want to expand into the first floor.”
Lundahl said he and other teachers and parents will be depending on the United Federation of Teachers union to assist them.
“The U.F.T. has been very helpful in providing information on how we can battle Eva’s schools,” he said. “I look forward to continuing that battle in court.”
They definitely won’t be rolling out the welcome mat for Moskowitz and Co., he added.
“Eva will not find co-locating at Washington Irving comfortable,” Lundahl vowed. “We are dead set against her due to her legacy of not playing fair with space.”
But the Success Charter Network spokesperson said the building can more than handle the new elementary school. There are, technically, currently 941 empty seats, according to the school’s official “educational impact plan,” she noted.
“It’s an enormous building,” she assured, adding that Success Academy “went through the whole co-location process” required to site a new school in a building with other existing schools.
“Two-thirds of all schools in the city are co-located,” she noted. The Success Academies that share space with Brandeis High School and with the two high schools in Cobble Hill are not having any associated problems, she added. As for Schwartz’s concerns about elementary school students walking around amidst high schoolers “from all over the city,” she said she didn’t know exactly how to respond to that one, and would “put it back on him” to clarify what he meant.
More to the point, she said, the Success Academies live up to their name — they’re successful. Last year, 88 percent of Success Academy students were at or above reading standards, while 96 percent were proficient in math — both far above the city average.
Speaking to its integrated student body, the Union Square charter would also try to narrow the district’s “achievement gap,” she said.
“The schools that are in the district are very segregated,” she noted. “The schools in the district that are predominantly white and Asian are high-performing, and the schools that are predominantly black and Latino are low-performing. The achievement gap in the district is huge.”
Charter schools are publicly funded but have more leeway in certain areas than regular city public schools.
Starting in kindergarten, the Success students have classes in science, chess, block play, arts, music and sports, among other things, and have regular field trips “to get them out in the city.” The school day is longer as well, stretching from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Students all wear blue-and-orange uniforms.
“It’s very progressive but it’s very rigorous,” she said. “They call it ‘joyful rigor.’ The philosophy is, ‘We can’t dumb down what we think our kids are capable of,’ and we don’t.”
Success Academy teachers aren’t unionized, though some teachers at other charters are union members. But normal city public school teachers generally decry charter schools as “union busters.”
Schwartz said he suspects Moskowitz will next try to put a charter school in 75 Morton St., a former state-owned building that the city has purchased for a new District 2 school. But the Success spokesperson said she doesn’t know where he’s getting that from, and that the city decides where to cite charter schools.
Keen Berger, who heads the Community Board 2 task force on 75 Morton St., said the community will soon make its recommendations on what it wants at the building, but that a charter school probably won’t be in the mix.
“The community is very clear that we don’t need a charter school at 75 Morton,” Berger said. “We need a good public middle school. We have no middle schools, that’s the problem.”
Plus, she added, “It’s not Eva’s victory — it’s our victory,” referring to the community’s finally winning the long-sought school space.
The task force, which includes the Community Education Council for District 2, will meet Mon., April 22, at P.S. 41, at 116 W. 11th St., at 6:30 p.m. After the meeting, C.B. 2 and the C.E.C. will each draft separate resolutions on what kind of school uses they feel should be at 75 Morton St., which will then be reconciled sometime in May.