As the Recovery School District-New Orleans continues its move to convert many traditional public schools in New Orleans to charter schools, this article about traditional public school students being shortchanged when they share a school building with charter school students is a must read.
By Ben Wrobel
At the Harlem Branch of Carver Federal Savings Bank, the walls are filled with creative artwork that exudes promise and potential. To the surprise of many customers, the art is not the work of professional artists, but of students from across the street at P.S.149 Sojourner Truth. For years, the bank has displayed the students’ art. And if the artwork is sold, the bank gives the student artists a savings account and a financial adviser. This amazing opportunity may be nothing more than a memory if the charter school co-located inside the P.S. 149 building expands this year to take over the school’s art classroom.
Co-location occurs when the city mandates that a charter school and traditional public school share space in one building. To protect programs like the one at P.S. 149, and to ensure educational quality and equality, the NAACP has taken on the New York City Board of Education in a court of law. The lawsuit, which lists parents, teachers, and the NAACP as plaintiffs, challenges New York City’s decision to close nearly two-dozen public schools without proper parental engagement, and to create inequities as they co-locate charter schools. Charter schools serve four percent of New York’s public school students while the majority of students are still educated in traditional public schools.
Many believe the fight in New York City is emblematic of the national fight for education equality. With legislators in some states attempting to strip funds from public education, the results of this lawsuit could have a major impact on school systems nationwide. Co-location plans are also being considered in other states and counties nationwide, from Florida to Texas.
In New Orleans, plans to co-locate a charter school for over-aged students on the first floor of John McDonogh High school on Esplanade Avenue are underway. Operated by Renew Schools, the charter school is for older students—some as old as 20—that have not yet graduated as a result of academic or discipline problems.
John McDonogh parents, alumni, and community members have expressed serious concerns about placing older students in the Renew School in the same building with younger students at McDonogh. And many are more outraged that the RSD-New Orleans moved forward with the plans without seeking real community and parental input. While new RSD leader John White has acknowledged that not reaching out to the community before making the decision to allow Renew to co-locate on the John McDonogh campus, was a misstep, he also told McDonogh supporters that the future of the John McDonogh was altogether uncertain, signaling that the high school could soon face closure or be turned over to a charter school, which has become a pattern with traditional public schools operating in the state-run RSD system.
Meanwhile, New York City has increasingly resorted to co-locating charter schools inside existing public school buildings. When handled improperly, co-location can lead to visible disparities, division and tension among students. In addition to art class, many other successful programs like robotics and music are being shuttered to make room for the charter schools. Parents have complained that traditional public school students at some schools are forced into shorter playground periods, shorter library hours, and earlier lunch schedules to better accommodate students enrolled at the co-located charter school. At one school, according to parents, traditional school students have suffered accidents because they had use a bathroom on a different floor, while closer bathrooms were reserved exclusively for charter school students. The inequities were too glaring not to intervene, said the NAACP.
“In some schools, hallways serve as a stark dividing line of inequality,” said NAACP General Counsel Kim Keenan. “Classrooms with peeling paint and insufficient resources sit on one side, while new computers, brand-new desks and up-to-date textbooks line the other. One group of students has air conditioning and smartboards, while others under the same roof have neither air nor working Wi-Fi. The separate but unequal culture in these schools is unacceptable.”
The lawsuit, which has drawn national attention, it just the latest in a series of efforts that the NAACP has made to ensure quality education in the New York City school system. Going to court was a last resort, according to the civil rights organization, after they tried for months to resolve the issues and get the school board to allow parent engagement, develop plans for the low-performing schools and implement the co-locations equitably – all of which is mandated by state law.
“For a century, the NAACP has been on the front lines fighting for a quality education for every student,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “We will continue this fight until all students have the opportunity to receive a world-class education.”
NAACP officials are hopeful that new chancellor Dennis Walcott will take a different approach than his predecessors and work to resolve the problem fairly and quickly.
“Our goal in New York is to solve this expeditiously so that all children can go to the school of their choice this fall,” said Jealous.
The New Orleans Tribune staff contributed to this report.