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Arts High School Fears Loss of Performance Space to Charter School

By Janet Upadhye | December 11, 2012 6:55am

FORT GREENE — A heated battle is raging for control of arts space at a local performing-arts high school that's also the site for the proposed co-location of a charter school.

The space in question — the third floor of the Susan McKinney Secondary School for Performing Arts (JHS 265) — is being eyed for takeover by the ever-expanding Success Academy Charter School.

Success Academy, which was founded by former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz and has 14 schools in New York City, is currently looking to secure six new co-locations inside school buildings, including McKinney, for the upcoming school year.

But some in the Fort Greene community want the charter school to look elsewhere, because they fear Success Academy's move into the building's third floor could jeopardize McKinney's rich arts curriculum.

"To squeeze these children out, to take away the third floor where they practice, to take away the third floor where the dance group gathers, to take away the third floor where the arts program is, it would basically cut out the heart of this school,” Councilwoman Letitia James said.

On Friday night, students, local artists, politicians, and teachers protested Success Academy’s possible third-floor takeover with a cultural showcase performed by McKinney’s young students. The students danced, played music and sang in an attempt to show what would be lost if their arts space was given to Success Academy.

Among the protesters was sixth-grader Dezeray Lynch, who dreams of being a dancer.

"This is the only school around here that has [a dance program]," she said. "If they shut down [the program], the school will be really boring."

When asked what she would say to Mayor Michael Bloomberg about the proposed co-location, she said, "Mayor Bloomberg, what you're doing is unintelligent. Get the charter school their own building."

McKinney is a beloved arts school in the community, where each student must audition and select a talent to concentrate on in order to attend. The school has produced successful alumni like Grammy Award-winner Lisa Fischer, who came out to support her former stomping grounds on Friday. McKinney has a 96-percent black and Latino student population and received a "B" grade on its most recent progress report by the Department of Education.

“McKinney is successful,” James said. “It is Fort Greene’s Alvin Ailey, and it produces nothing but excellent children.”

The District 13 Community Education Council, a body that voices community priorities and concerns to the city Department of Education, held a public meeting directly following the student performance. According to Olivia Leirer of New York Communities for Change, the majority of attending parents and community members were fearful of losing art programming at the school.

But Kerri Lyon, spokeswoman for Success Academy, said that she has seen approval for the charter school in the district.

"There is overwhelming support for Success Fort Greene across District 13, as evidenced by the fact that 218 families have already applied for next year even though the application deadline isn't until April," she said.

And Miriam Sondheimer, of the DOE's Portfolio Management Division, said that all of McKinney's art programs and space would remain intact.

"McKinney's performance space might be relocated or replaced in order to meet students' needs," she said. "But we do not anticipate that they will lose art programs or have to share performance space."

However, some community members are concerned about overcrowding at McKinney.

“If Success Academy were to move into McKinney, the school would be at 102-percent capacity,” Leirer said.

Councilwoman James agreed.

In an October protest against Success Academy’s attempt to take space in McKinney, James claimed that the DOE miscalculated student enrollment numbers when it suggested McKinney as a co-location site — listing 440 students when the actual enrollment number is 510.

"They got it wrong,” James said. “And our students need this space to be artistic and creative. They need room to be great. “

The city's Panel for Educational Policy is scheduled to vote on the co-location at its Dec. 20 meeting.