South Bronx School Fears Incoming Charter Students Will Bring Chaos

By Patrick Wall on February 21, 2012 7:53am 

Cheyenne Lee, 18, and Mireya Ruiz, 17, presented a poster during a community meeting on Feb. 16, 2012, which listed their concerns with a city plan to move a new charter school into their high school building.
Cheyenne Lee, 18, and Mireya Ruiz, 17, presented a poster during a community meeting on Feb. 16, 2012, which listed their concerns with a city plan to move a new charter school into their high school building.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

FOXHURST — The city’s plan to move a charter school for at-risk teens into a building that already houses two high schools could threaten the incumbent students' learning and safety, teachers and students from one of the existing schools fear.

Staff and students at the Schomburg Satellite Academy and the Bronx Regional High School — both of which are housed inside 1010 Reverend James Polite Avenue at East 164th Street  — say they are worried about the city's decision to move the ROADS Charter High School II into the building this fall, despite concerns.

“We’re going to have strange kids wandering the halls,” Dirk Peters, a Schomburg English teacher, said before the meeting. “I think there’s a very real threat they’re going to have beef and violence.”

The two existing high schools in the building serve students aged 16 and older who transferred from other high schools, often because they struggled with academics or discipline. The building also houses a full-time GED program, a childcare program for pregnant students or those with children, a medical center and a student referral center.

ROADS II, whose charter application was approved last March, plans to enroll students ages 15 to 17 who have faced a host of challenges, ranging from dropping out of school to placement in foster care to history with the juvenile or adult court systems, to homelessness. Like other charter schools, ROADS will use a lottery admissions system, but it will give preference to students in the local district who meet its at-risk criteria.

Critics fear that adding the new school population will tip the scales in the building, pitting new students against existing students by disrupting their schedules, encroaching on their space and possibly sparking fights, teachers and students said Thursday at a meeting.

Department of Education officials last week confirmed that they were “exploring” the option of installing security cameras and metal detectors at the building. They would not say whether the decision was connected to the proposal to move ROADS into the building.

City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who represents District 17, said members of the school community should express their concerns to the DOE.
City Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who represents District 17, said members of the school community should express their concerns to the DOE.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

Schomburg teachers and students said that while space is sometimes cramped in the building, the different occupants have learned to co-exist peacefully. In addition, each school currently gets its own floor, a situation they fear will change the minute the ROADS charter school moves in.

Although some current students transfer into the building because of behavior problems, fights have become increasingly rare — even without the use of metal detectors or cameras, critics of the charter school added.

“Over these past years, we’ve progressed so much,” said Schomburg student, Cheyenne Lee, 18. “We all get along now.”

“If they bring in students that we don’t know, that affects us,” she said. “We want to feel like we can walk into our school and not get hurt.”

Elena Day, chief operating officer of the charter school’s support organization, called ROADS Schools, told DNAinfo, “The safety of everybody in the building is the highest concern of everyone involved.”

She also noted that the DOE, not ROADS, had determined the school’s placement. And she added that all youth are entitled to a public education, including students with criminal backgrounds.

ROADS boasts a high-powered board of directors that includes Jeff Li, the executive director of Teach For America in New York, and chairman Mark Gallogly, co-founder of the private equity firm Centerbridge Partners, and a member of President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. The board plans to open another high school, ROADS I, in Brooklyn this fall.

If the city’s plan to move in the charter school is approved, Schomburg would lose about two-fifths of its classrooms and Bronx Regional would give up about a quarter. The DOE, however, said these changes would not affect enrollment or scheduling at either school.

Schomburg science teacher Carol Kennedy, who has taught at the school for 19 years, believes otherwise. She said the addition of a new school into the building will wreak havoc on the existing students — by undermining a scheduling model implemented in September that divides semesters into shorter cycles with longer class periods.

The new system has improved student engagement and grades so far this year, she said, but the system would be undermined if Schomburg is forced to share its science labs and other spaces with a new school on a traditional schedule.

“This schedule that we’ve designed to help our students graduate quicker is going to fall apart,” Kennedy said Thursday.

Students and staff said school resources, such as the single computer lab, are already stretched thin and that sharing certain spaces, such as the gym and cafeteria, with just one other school is a challenge.

The DOE considers the building to be officially under-utilized. According to a building assessment, the city found the school has a “target capacity” of 1,622 students, but it only held 1,080 students in the 2011 - 2012 school year — a “utilization rate” of 67 percent. In addition, the current schools in the building are using more classrooms than they were allotted based on enrollment numbers, the DOE said.

Parents, staff and students from Schomburg Satellite Academy and Bronx Regional High School attended the meeting Thursday.
Parents, staff and students from Schomburg Satellite Academy and Bronx Regional High School attended the meeting Thursday.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

“Given that space in New York City is a valuable commodity, we don’t believe that it hurts schools to share it,” said DOE spokesman Francis Thomas, who added that more than 40 percent of the city’s schools share space.

The DOE informed the school principals of the charter plan in mid-January, before it posted required public notification documents online on February 2, Thomas said.

The city will hold a public hearing about the plan on March 12. An educational oversight panel, which traditionally approves the DOE’s proposals, will vote on the plan March 21.

Kennedy, Schomburg's longtime science teacher, said she will soon be eligible to retire, but had not considered it until she found out about the DOE's plan.

"I don't know if I can do this," said Kennedy, 55, who drives nearly two hours from upstate New York to the South Bronx each day. "It's just going to be so difficult."

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