Education

Charter schools group hopes to open local school

Zeta Charter Schools gets nod from community board

A new charter school is considering Hunts Point/Longwood as a potential landing spot, touching off a familiar debate among parents and education advocates.

The founder of Zeta Charter Schools told Community Board 2 at a June meeting that she hopes to open a new charter school in the neighborhood in 2018, with a curriculum that will emphasize technology and preparing children for the modern work force. The plan prompted a heated discussion about whether Hunts Point needs another charter school.

“What makes you qualified to teach our young children?” a parent at the meeting, Alexandra Guadalupe, asked Zeta’s founder Emily Kim.

Guadalupe says her own experience with charter schools gives her pause about seeing a new one come to Hunts Point. When her son struggled while a student at a charter school, the administration put him on an individualized education program, a move she disapproved of, suspecting that it was a pretext for the school to secure government funding.

“I transferred my son to another public school and he’s doing fine, he does not need IEP,” Guadalupe said. “They did that to so many other parents, it was ridiculous.”

After Kim made her presentation and the vigorous debate ended, the board narrowly voted to support the school, by a 16 -10 margin, with four abstentions.

Even Board 2’s current and former education committee chairs disagreed. Former chair Richard Sherman, who spent his career teaching in Hunts Point public schools, was concerned because the new school administration has roots in the Success Academy, whose “negative press” alarmed him.

Current chair Cedric McClester, however, voted yes, saying that the link with the Success Academies “puts them in the plus column for me. McClester says he supports charter schools “because they’re not hamstrung by union rules.” His granddaughter, he said, has attended a Success Academy school through tenth grade, and is already showing college-level proficiency.

“I’m not anti-public schools, I’m anti-system, and the system is what they protect, to the detriment of the kids,” said McClester.

Kim, a former English teacher in city public schools who later served as vice president of policy and legal affairs for the Success Academy network, says charter schools get an unfair rap.

“Children should have a great education regardless of socioeconomic status or race,” she said.

Critics of charter schools typically see them as a threat to traditional public schools and teachers’ unions, said Jeffrey Henig, politics & education program director at Columbia University Teachers College. In addition, charter schools’ lottery system has been criticized because there are no guarantees children from the communities the schools are located in will be selected—-a common sore point in the South Bronx.

There are plenty of examples of charter schools and public schools doing poorly, but opportunists on either side of the debate tend to cherry-pick negative examples of the other side for political gain, Henig said.

“If what you’re trying to do is figure out how to make public education better for students, a simple framing of this as a clash between the two sectors is probably creating more smoke and confusion than it is helping us find out what generally makes a school better,” said Henig.

Zeta Charter Schools’ mission statement, however, says that “children residing in the NYC Community School Districts where our schools are located will receive lottery admissions preference.”

Co-location of numerous schools in cramped buildings has been a point of contention. Critics say that by moving into buildings housing public schools, charter schools have made the school overcrowding problem worse, although that has been the practice for more than a century. Kim has asked the Department of Education for space to open the new school in.

If it moves forward, Zeta would be the sixth charter school in District 12, out of a total of 76 schools, according to the Department of Education.

Kim, who originally presented her plan at Board 2’s education committee meeting in June, said she appreciates community members’ willingness to hear her out, despite the angst that the charter vs. public school rift often causes.

“I appreciate the fact that I’m somebody who they don’t know, why am I coming into their community and saying that I’m going to deliver a great school?” Kim said. “They want to learn more, so I thought it was very positive to have the discussion and debate.”

Supporters of charter schools say the success of students illustrated by the numbers should be sufficient to prove their case. During the 2015-16 school year, 48 percent of New York City charter school students passed the New York State math exam, compared with just 36 percent at public schools, according to the NYC Department of Education. The results were similar for the English exam, which 43 percent of charter school students passed, compared with 38 percent of public school students. A 2017 report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford concluded that the city’s charter schools are some of the best public schools in the country.

Kim says she will base her curriculum on what she has learned both while at Success Academy, and from schools she plans to visit during the coming school year. .

“Charter schools are meant to be tools of innovation in education,” Kim said. “I have what I think are pretty innovative things that we’d like to try out, and we’re excited to do that.”

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