Harlem Teachers Block Access to Charter School

Published October 29, 2009

A group of teachers, parents, and union officials staging a protest of a charter school with which they share a facility in the Harlem section of New York City temporarily blocked the entrance from a group of charter kindergarteners trying to get to class on September 9.

Parents of children in P.S. 123 claimed Harlem Success Academy 2 has better desks, furniture, and facilities than their children do.

Charters Get Less Funding

The protestors complained Harlem Success is “privileged” and that schools should be “equal” to each other.

Harlem Success Academy–like other charter schools nationwide–gets less public funding than government-run public schools such as P.S. 123.

“New York charter schools are funded by the government at levels that are significantly less than their public school counterparts,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a national advocacy group based in Manhattan. “There are all sorts of estimates about what that funding gap is, but many pin it around 75 to 80 percent of traditional public school funding.”

In addition, the schools are by no means equal in student achievement. According to a recent study conducted by Stanford University economist Caroline Hoxby, Harlem-area charter schools’ scores are catching up to those in Scarsdale, a more affluent suburban area. (See “NYC Charter Schools Improve Student Achievement,” page 12.)

Hoxby and her fellow researchers examined test scores of at least 43 charter schools in New York City and found their students tended to score 30 points higher on standardized tests than students in government-run public schools.

Strong Reactions

Meanwhile, the parents of children attending Success Academy 2 have received no help from the man who represents them in the state legislature.

State Sen. Bill Perkins (D-New York City) has written opinion pieces for local newspapers saying it’s “segregation” to allow Harlem families to send their kids to charter schools, and school advocates say he helped organize the September 9 protest against the school. Cordette Cleare, Perkins’ press secretary, said he was in a committee hearing that day.

Williams’ reaction was blunt.

“The Brown v. Board of Education talk was total bulls– and represented a warped view that all Harlem kids should be subjected to the same crappy conditions as one another, rather than the competing notion that Harlem kids deserve the same as kids up in Scarsdale,” Williams said. “It was a stupid argument, and it shows how pathetic the discourse around school choice can get in New York City.”

Striving to Succeed

Jenny Sedlis, Success Charter Schools’ director of external affairs, said the staff and students are just trying to do their work instead of worrying about what’s going on at P.S. 123 or on the sidewalk outside the school.

“The Senate has been very supportive of charter school parents,” Sedlis said. “Even if [Perkins] were to introduce a bill to hamper our goals, I don’t know [if] he could get much support from his [colleagues].”

Harlem Success touts a rigorous curriculum more involved than that of an average public school, consisting of more hands-on learning, frequent monitoring of students’ progress, and communication between parents and teachers. It is designed to equip each student ultimately to graduate not just from high school but also from college.

Equal Opportunity

Harlem Success has received strong support from the neighborhood, even if it hasn’t had much from its senator, with 66 percent of local schoolchildren applying for admission to the school, Sedlis said. The student body is 100 percent minority, as is the neighborhood around the school.

Sedlis points out Harlem Success not only has been listed in the city’s top 10 schools but has outperformed some of New York City’s gifted and talented programs in English and math.

Harlem Success recruits students aggressively, placing applications under every door in the neighborhood, Sedlis said. Selection of students is based on random lottery, and those not accepted are able to apply to the 23 other charter schools in the vicinity.

Maia Lazar ([email protected]) is an intern at the National Journalism Center in Washington, DC.