HARLEM — Parents and administrators at a pair of district East Harlem public schools say the Department of Education is undermining their efforts to grow into a middle school, giving away nearby expansion space to a charter school just months after Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said no space was available.
Central Park East I and II, a pair of philosophically affiliated progressive schools founded by educator Deborah Meier and located at 1573 Madison Ave. and 19 E. 103rd St. that emphasize hands-on, experiential learning, have been asking for four years to tack on a middle school for sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
But their dream space at the soon-to-be-closed down J.H.S. 13 at the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex, where Central Park East I is also located, was unexpectedly given to newcomer East Harlem Scholars Academy Charter School 1 and 2 instead, infuriating parents.
"Obviously, there is room to expand," said Naomi Smith, principal of Central Park East II. One of the two Central Park East schools has been asking for additional space for a middle school since 2009. Smith's request was rejected last year for what the DOE described as a lack of space.
Central Park East II parent Raven Snook, 41, a freelance journalist, called the move "underhanded." She said the lack of a progressive middle school in the area has her worried that her daughter Marlena, 7, a rambunctious second-grader, won't continue to thrive as she has in elementary school.
"In District 4 your options are to send your kid to a failing school or try to get them into a charter school," said Snook, who said a Central Park East II teacher taught her daughter how to knit when she was having trouble sitting still in class, a surprising strategy that has helped her to focus.
"The community here is very unique and that's what I want for my children," added Jody Mercier, 30, a freelance editor whose son Mason, 7, is in the second grade at Central Park East II.
Yhane Smith, 43, a stay-at-home mom who praised the school for giving kids in the neighborhood one of the few opportunities to learn in a non-segregated environment, says she would have loved for her daughter Nina, 11, a graduate of Central Park East II, to be able to continue into a middle school there.
But she said the DOE's surprise move gave her pause.
"Transparency is the issue. It seems like out of nowhere they made a decision," Yhane Smith said.
Parents say this is the latest in a long line of snubs by the DOE to area public schools, and it comes on the heels of the DOE's decision to give away space in Washington Heights promised to Julie Zuckerman, former principal at Central Park East I, to open Castle Bridge School. Instead, the DOE gave the space to KIPP Charter School, one of the largest charter school chains in the country.
Castle Bridge School was co-located with another public school until a permanent space can be found.
Parents are also angry that the move comes months after Walcott said in an email to a Central Park East II parent that he understood the desire for a progressive middle school, but there was just no space for one.
"We recognize that there is demand for a progressive, small middle school in District 4, and we applaud CPE II's success, indicated by its A grade on the 2010-2011 progress report," Walcott wrote to Central Park East II parent Debbie Meyer in an August 20, 2012 email.
Walcott said in the email that there was no space in Central Park East II's current building and that moving the entire school to a new location or splitting up its middle school would be too difficult.
"In both scenarios, there are significant logistical and administrative challenges to overcome, and in any district, such proposals must be considered among existing, competing priorities. Currently, given the volume of space needs in upper Manhattan, the DOE is unable to consider this request for a school expansion," wrote Walcott, who also said the DOE would continue to evaluate the request.
DOE officials said they want to work with Central Park East I and II "on an expansion of that program," said DOE spokesman Devon Puglia.
“Our proposals for East Harlem Scholars are intended to encourage the continued growth of an organization that has a demonstrated, deep commitment to the East Harlem community.
We want to provide additional options for neighborhood families and we believe these schools will serve the students of District 4 well," Puglia added.
Central Park East parents believe adding a progressive middle school will also provide more options.
"We are serving kids who don't have other progressive options. School choice should be actual choice not just charter schools," Meyer said.
Jeff Ginsburg, executive director of East Harlem Tutorial Program and East Harlem Scholars Academies, said his schools deserve the space because they serve kids almost exclusively from East Harlem and the poorly ranked District 4. Central Park East II has preference for students in districts 4 or 5 and over 50 percent of kids at the school live in those districts, said Naomi Smith.
Although the charter schools are new, their founder, East Harlem Tutorial Program, has been providing academic based after-school programs in the neighborhood since 1958, Ginsburg said.
East Harlem Scholars Academy 1 has plans to grow to a K-8 school and move to a new $40 million private space at 105th Street and Second Avenue by the 2015-2016 school year. The building will also house after-school programs for 600 kids.
"I don't think we are getting preference in this building because we are a charter. I think we are getting space because we are investing $40 million in private money for a space for the community," Ginsburg said.
Community Board 11's Youth and Education committee voted to support the East Harlem Scholars Academies co-location plan Tuesday night, but the full board has yet to review the proposal.
East Harlem Scholars Academy 2 will begin phasing in grades until it is a K-8 school as J.H.S. 13 phases out and remain permanently at the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex. Hearings on all the changes will be held later this month.
"The space [at the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex] is the linchpin in making that work. It's a very practical investment," Ginsburg said.