February 20, 2013
At a public hearing where accusations flew about who is responsible for a South Bronx school’s challenges, only one person stood up to take blame.
“I apologize publicly for not doing what was expected by the community of me,” said William Hewlett, the founding principal of M.S. 203, at a hearing last week about the school’s proposed closure.
The Department of Education announced in January that it would seek to shutter M.S. 203, open since 2001, because of low performance. The middle school’s test scores put it among the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state, and it earned a C grade or lower on its last three city progress reports, which focus on student growth.
As M.S. 203 phases out, the department announced, a charter elementary school, Bronx Success Academy 1, that had shared its building for a year would be able to expand to serve middle school grades. Two other schools in the building — the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters and P168, which serves students with severe disabilities — would stay on, but with new neighbors.
The proposed changes, which the Panel for Educational Policy is set to approve next month, would be only the latest shakeup in District 7, an area with many high-need students where schools have long struggled.
District 7 parents and teachers said they worry that if the city closes “failing” public schools and allow charter schools to expand, local students won’t have good educational options in their neighborhoods if they don’t win spots in charter school enrollment lotteries.
Amber Bennett teaches middle-school science at Bronx Letters and lives in District 7’s Mott Haven neighborhood. With only a few non-screened middle schools left in the area, phasing out M.S. 203 would mean “further isolating and disadvantaging our most vulnerable families,” she said.
“Look at the whole district,” said Neyda Franco, president of the District 7 community education council. “Where are our kids going to go?”
Franco said she isn’t against charter schools; in addition to having one child at Bronx Letters, she has children and grandchildren who attend various charter schools in New York City. But she said she doesn’t think charter schools should be allowed to expand at the cost of traditional public schools.
And despite Hewlett’s statement, members of his staff said M.S. 203 was hampered most by not getting enough support to meet the needs of a very challenging student population.
“There has been a complete and total lack of support from the district and our network,” said Dean Gross, speaking on behalf of the M.S. 203 school leadership team.
Looking directly at Marc Sternberg, the deputy chancellor in charge of school closures, Gross asked, “Are you shutting us down because it’s easier?”
The department “believes that only the most serious intervention — the gradual phase-out and eventual closure of M.S. 203 — will address the school’s performance struggles and allow for new school options to develop,” according to the city’s official statement about the impact of the proposed changes.
Sternberg said at the hearing that the department hasn’t yet made a decision about M.S. 203’s closure or the expansion of Success Academy.
“[The hearing] is not a decision point,” said Sternberg. “I am here to gather feedback and intelligence over whether this is the right choice.”
Although the hearing was supposed to focus on the closure and co-location proposals, much of the feedback came from supporters of Bronx Academy of Letters. The city says changes in the building would not affect the small secondary school, but teachers and students argued otherwise. (A teacher at the school, Elana Eisen-Markowitz, previewed the testimony last week in the GothamSchools Community section.)
This year, the school gave up some middle school classrooms to Success Academy. The replacement rooms are smaller and on the other side of the building and have left students feeling squeezed.
“The [middle school] rooms are tiny,” said Zarquin Taylor, who goes by Quin. “It’s not good for the health. I worry about that.”
Taylor, a high school junior, has a younger sister in second grade at Success Academy. Samia is getting an excellent education and having her in the same building is convenient, Taylor said, but she said the schools should get an equal crack at space.
Because of the changes to Bronx Letters’s layout, high school students and middle school students do not interact as much, said junior Ashley Cruz. “The school spirit is broken,” she said.
Often, the Success Academy charter school network has supporters turn out in droves for public hearings about their schools’ bids for space. But no one from Success Academy spoke at the hearing, and representatives of the Bronx Success Academy 1 declined multiple requests for comment.
The Panel for Educational Policy, the city’s school board, is set to vote on the changes to the South Bronx building and dozens of other schools next month. A majority of panel members serve at the will of Mayor Bloomberg, and the panel has never rejected a city proposal.
“The decision to close M.S. 203 has already been made,” said Rich Farkas, vice president of the United Federation of Teachers, who represented the union’s central leadership at the hearing. “[Success Academy] is going to expand at the cost of M.S. 203.”
Kyesha Christopher, a junior at Bronx Academy of Letters, offered the same sentiment. “I have a feeling that nothing we do is going to change it,” she said.