August 13, 2010
Strapped for space, a Brooklyn charter school network sent its students to classes at a facility that was only approved for factory and office use — not educational purposes, according to security camera footage and interviews with people who witnessed students’ use.
The footage and accounts document students’ regular trips to the space this summer and during the last school year. A student at the school told me that the space, a former factory at 33 Nassau Ave. in Williamsburg, is known to students as “the art building.”
View the full footage in a slideshow below.
The charter operator, Believe High Schools Network, appears to have begun to send students to the office space after its plan to open two new schools in a private facility hit a snag in 2009. Forced to improvise, the network arranged to house both of the two new schools in the same district school building used by its original school, Williamsburg Charter High School, a former employee said.
That was despite the fact that the second floor office space at 33 Nassau Ave. is certified by the city Department of Buildings only for use as a factory, shipping, storage, or office space.
State education law requires that charter schools use buildings approved for educational use. For that reason, Believe officials originally used the 33 Nassau space only for offices, said Joshua Morales, a former consultant to Believe.
In the last month, both the city and state departments of education have launched investigations into Believe’s use of the 33 Nassau space. The city department oversees Williamsburg Charter High School, and the state department oversees the two new schools, Northside and Southside charter high schools.
Officials at Believe did not return several phone call and e-mail requests for comment today.
The arrangement highlights the risks of the city’s current charter school space situation. New charter schools open each year, but they are promised no space in city buildings, leaving school leaders to make arrangements on their own — either by haggling and politicking with city officials to get a few floors inside a district school or by finding some other space and signing a lease.
The city investigation launched when a city school official visited 33 Nassau Ave. for a meeting. Believe’s official fliers advertise that 33 Nassau is used only for administrative reasons, but the official found students there taking class, said a source with knowledge of the situation.
Photographs from security cameras inside the school, obtained by GothamSchools, show students walking up the industrial building’s concrete stairway, through Believe’s heavy second-floor door, and into rooms where they sat at tables together. The photographs hold a time stamp from May 2010.
On a visit that I took to the office space earlier this month on the last day of summer school, most desks in the mainly open-plan office space were filled with adults sitting at computers. But a sign taped to a door said “Algebra.” I didn’t see any students, but people who work near the building said they saw children discussing their algebra class outside just before I arrived. A student I found outside the building on his way to the subway said the building was used for art classes during the year and summer classes during July and August.
During the school year, photographs taken by a former employee show that a privately chartered bus with the company Orzan Tours shepherded students between the office site on Nassau Ave. and their official school building, P.S. 126 on the other side of the McCarren Park.
Jackie Rivera, Orzan’s office manager, confirmed that the company held a contract with Believe. She said Orzan was hoping to renew the contract.
In a statement, State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said, ”We are aware of the situation at the Believe Charter Schools and will investigate the matter thoroughly. Until that investigation is complete, we cannot provide further comment.”