November 22, 2011
Eva Moskowitz says that each of the charter schools she runs will always look exactly the same, from their robotics labs to their chess rooms to their classrooms filled with wooden blocks.
There’s just one significant difference at Upper West Success Academy, which opened this year on Manhattan’s Upper West Side under a steady drumbeat of opposition from community members.
“Our schools in Harlem and the Bronx are far less diverse,” Moskowitz said today, speaking to reporters on a tour of the first-year charter school.
Enrollment at Upper West Success mirrors that of District 3, according to data provided by the school: The kindergarten and first grade student body is 35 percent white or Asian, 49 percent are black or Latino and 16 percent multiracial. About 40 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. English language learners make up 5 percent of students and 12 percent of students receive special education services, officials said.
The racial and socioeconomic diversity of students at Upper West provides a stark contrast to the student bodies at other school in the Success Network in Harlem, the South Bronx, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, neighborhoods that have high concentrations of poor black and Latino residents.
Moskowitz is hoping the diversity will attract parents in District 15, a similarly diverse district, to enroll at her network’s new school next year. Seated in a kindergarten-sized chair in an empty classroom today, Moskowitz told reporters that she has been giving tours of Upper West Success to hundreds of parents from Brooklyn’s District 15.
Throughout the city, she said, “There are affluent people living right next to public housing.”
At Upper West, which occupies two hallways on the second floor of a building that also houses five high schools, students in a class called simply “Blocks” worked in groups to build castles and freeways out of wooden blocks.
The class is play time, but with a purpose, Moskowitz said. “We believe in play time as a critical intellectual experience.”
Down the hall, students learned the most basic concepts of computer programming. Using a striped robotic bug whose movements corresponded to its directional buttons, a student had to think carefully about which commands she wanted program before the bug moved.
“They have to think about the moves before they make a decision,” said the teacher, Sarah Unger. “It teaches them to be less impulsive.”
At the end of the corridor, where the school’s two hallways intersect and lead out to a stairway used by students from the five high schools, a school safety officer stands guard to prevent older students from entering the Upper West Success. Beyond those doors, there is a different perspective about the Department of Education’s decision to open a new school here.
Rachel Dahill-Fuchel, a founding vice principal at the three-year-old Global Learning Collaborative, said she had nothing against Eva Moskowitz or her schools.
“They are lovely people and the children are adorable,” Dahill-Fuchel said this afternoon as she checked student passes at one of the building exits. “But we’re dreadfully overcrowded.”
The DOE estimated that the Brandeis building less than two-thirds filled before Upper West Success moved in. By the time all schools reached capacity, the building would still be underutilized, according to the DOE’s space plan. Even more room will be available next year after Brandeis High School finishes phasing out.
Dahill-Fuchel says she would have preferred that no new schools be added until the four new schools in the building expanded to full capacity. Already, she said, updated enrollment numbers – there are 45 more ninth-grade students than the DOE expected when it determined capacity rates – were causing a significant space crunch for her students.
“We don’t have room to grow,” Dahill-Fuchel said. “They don’t have room to grow.”