By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — Angry Upper West Siders lashed out a plan to open a charter school in their neighborhood Tuesday night, charging that existing public school students will become second-class citizens if Upper West Success Academy opens in District 3.
"You can support charter schools, but when you (put) them in our District 3 schools and squeeze our kids out, that's an issue," said Noah Gotbaum, president of District 3's Community Education Council, at a rally on the steps of the Brandeis Educational Campus.
Gotbaum and other opponents of Upper West Success Academy's move into District 3 staged the protest before a heated hearing on the Department of Education's proposal to put the charter school inside the Brandeis building on West 84th Street.
Gotbaum said he had the backing of 17,000 parents and "every single elected official who represents District 3," which stretches from West 59th Street to West 122nd Street.
"Our community, from Harlem to the Upper West Side, is saying we want investment in our public schools," Gotbaum said as the crowd chanted "Stop the squeeze."
Upper West Success Academy, part of the Success Charter Network group of schools founded by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, says it will provide high-quality public education options in an overcrowded district.
But opponents accuse Success Charter Network of being a poor neighbor when it shares buildings with existing public schools, forcing regular public school students into basement classrooms and gobbling up art studios and computer labs.
"They do not work together, they take what they want," said Ellen Darensbourg, a teacher at P.S. 241, which shares a building with a Success Charter Network school. "They will come into your building and they will take over."
Success Charter Network officials say those horror stories are exaggerated.
They say there's plenty of space for the charter school to open inside the Brandeis building, now home to five high schools. One of those high schools is closing at the end of next year, which will leave 300 unused seats in the building, according to Department of Education documents.
The three-hour-plus hearing featured passionate testimony from dozens of District 3 parents, who defended the neighborhood's existing public schools and begged the DOE to invest in them instead of steering resources to the charter school.
But others stuck up for Upper West Success Academy, saying it would solve some of District 3's overcrowding crisis.
George Schneiderman, a father of three who lives on West 117th Street, said he applied for seats at the school for his 4-year-old twins.
"I don't care whether my children go to a regular public school or a charter school," Schneiderman said. "I do however care if my children, and all New York City children, have great schools to go to. Upper West Success Academy is part of the solution."
Brian Smith, a science teacher at a Success Charter Network school, tried to tell the rowdy audience that the debate is "about the children."
When a heckler shouted, "Stop whining," Smith gave up.
"I can see that anything else I have to say is not going to be listened to by the audience," said Smith before sitting down again.
The Panel for Educational Policy votes Feb. 1 on the plan to open Upper West Success Academy inside the Brandeis building.