February 28, 2013
The strength of the United Federation of Teachers’ opposition to contested co-locations is being tested.
The union has been so hostile to the city’s controversial space-sharing arrangements within school buildings — particularly those involving charter schools — that it sued the Department of Education to put a stop to them. And union organizers have regularly rallied around unpopular co-locations as a potent weapon to discredit Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies.
But in a twist of fate, the union’s own embattled UFT Charter middle school is now set to move into public space where it’s not welcome. Students, teachers and the administration at J.H.S. 292, a 750-student district middle school with a gifted and talented program and robust performing arts offerings, are vehemently against the plan and organizing to reverse it.
According to the city’s planning documents, J.H.S. 292 is using twice as much space as it needs and would give up 21 of its 50 full-size classrooms to the incoming charter school. The UFT Charter School’s elementary grades already operate in the building.
All together, the UFT Charter School would have 40 classrooms next year, 11 more than J.H.S. 292, even though the two schools would have around the same number of students, according to Gloria Williams Nandan, J.H.S. 292′s principal.
At a public hearing about the space-sharing plan Wednesday evening, Williams Nandan said the disparity struck her as not just unfair, but a little ironic as well.
“Come September, our teachers will lose their classrooms and there begins their dilemma, for when our teachers are kicked out of their classrooms, to whom will they turn?” she testified. “Their union? Oops, sorry, it’s their school that would have taken over their classrooms.”
Supporters for J.H.S. 292 packed the school’s auditorium for the hearing. Eighty people, most of whom opposed to the plan, signed up to speak. In between, there were performances from a marching band, African drummers, karate students, and pairs of dancers doing the waltz.
Students have even written business letters to Chancellor Dennis Walcott aligned to Common Core literacy standards.
“The assignment was to express our opinions about the recent proposal,” said Isabel Lewis, an eighth-grader, explaining her work. She wrote that she opposed the plan because she was concerned about overcrowding and student safety. “Due to the fact that we had already learned persuasive writing recently, they wanted us to use the techniques they taught us.”
Allowing charter schools to share space with district schools at no cost has been a signature education policy of the Bloomberg administration. The policy has allowed the city’s charter sector to expand quickly in a city with a tight — and pricey — real estate market. It also let the Department of Education fill space vacated as the Bloomberg administration phased out more than 150 low-performing schools, in a school closure push that the UFT has resolutely opposed.
Usually, the union would get behind a school with so much community support in pushing back against a co-location plan.
“Our objections have been to co-locations where there isn’t enough room and/or community opposition,” UFT spokesman Dick Riley emailed GothamSchools in response to a question about UFT Charter School’s proposed co-location plans.
But in this case, it was the UFT that asked for the city make the move. As part of a plan to improve the academic performance of its middle grades, the union sought to move the school under the same roof as its elementary school, which has been coexisted peacefully with J.H.S. 292 since 2005. In fact, the move was an important condition on which state education officials renewed the struggling charter school’s right to operate this week.
“It’s like you have this house where you use up every square inch of space and then you have to give up half that space to a school that really doesn’t deserve it,” said Jennifer Barrett, who coordinates J.H.S. 292′s performing arts programs, which she believes could be most affected.
Barrett was among several people at the hearing who questioned whether the UFT Charter middle school should even be allowed to stay open because its students have struggled academically for years.
Supporters of the co-location plan said that since city had already pegged J.H.S. 292′s building as underused, it would just fill the space with students from another school if the UFT Charter’s middle grades did not move in. It would be better, they said, to build on an existing relationship.
“All of the same things they’re concerned about, we’re concerned about,” said Craig Taylor, a music teacher in the UFT’s charter elementary school. “We just hope that we can make this work.”
Above, watch a video of Michael Maiglow’s testimony at Wednesday’s public hearing. Maiglow, a social studies teacher at J.H.S. 292, was among 80 speakers who signed up to testify at the heated hearing about the city’s plans to place a union-run charter school in a district school building.