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South Bronx Parents Fight to Improve District 9 Schools

By Patrick Wall | February 11, 2013 6:21am

SOUTH BRONX — In the fall of 2011, a group of parents in District 9 — which has some of the city's lowest-performing public schools — decided they would not wait for Superman, the schools chancellor or anyone else to fix their district.

“I would like to be part of changing the history of District 9,” Juana Gonzalez said at a November rally organized by the group, called the New Settlement Parent Action Committee.

Since forming, the group has staged marches, convened forums and drafted a detailed district improvement plan, which members are now showing to principals and local leaders to garner support for their cause.

"Parents are frustrated with the lack of progress,” said Sasha Warner-Berry, an organizer with the group. “If there’s not a real process of planning and addressing the problems together with all the stakeholders, then of course there won’t be any change.”

The city’s Department of Education recently said it intends to close two of the struggling district's elementary schools, P.S. 64 and P.S. 230.

Still, District 9 has seen some encouraging developments.

Last fall, the reform group’s umbrella organization, the nonprofit New Settlement Apartments, opened a five-story, $100 million complex that houses two new schools — P.S. 555, known as The Mt. Eden Children’s Academy, and I.S./H.S. 327, known as The Comprehensive Model Project School.

The building sports an indoor swimming pool, a dance studio, a rooftop garden and a community center, and will eventually serve 1,100 students from pre-K to 12th grade.

“We want to demonstrate that there are district schools working effectively and serving the needs of students,” Jack Doyle, New Settlement’s executive director, said in an interview last year.

Still, many local parents enter their children into charter school admissions lotteries.

The district’s two Icahn charter schools — the second, Icahn 6, opened in the fall of 2012 — are among the most popular.

Icahn's state test scores, with 90 percent passing rates in math, trounce the city average and best those of every charter network in the city except for one. As a result, 5,745 students entered a lottery last year for the network's 288 open spots.

Michelle Reyes, 53, a member of the parent-organizing group, entered her daughter into Icahn's lottery twice, but did not win a seat.

She said that is one reason why parents can’t rely on charters to save the district.

"I would like them to share their secrets," Reyes said last fall. "We all have the same goal — to help our kids get a good education.”

Here are some of the noteworthy elementary schools in the South Bronx's District 9:

P.S. 35, Franz Siegel, 261 E. 163 St.
The school, which sits in the shadow of the new Bronx Hall of Justice, has made remarkable improvements over the past decade or so, driving its students’ English exam pass rate, for example, from about a third to half of students. It is known for having experienced staff, before- and after-school tutoring, and strong parent involvement.

P.S. 63, Author's Academy, 1260 Franklin Ave.
Like P.S. 35, P.S. 63 Author’s Academy has made serious progress in the past decade. Where about 20 percent of students passed the state math tests in 2000, more than 70 percent did so in 2012. The school also boasts after-school sports programs and a vigorous PTA, which opposed the DOE’s recent plan, ultimately approved, to temporarily co-locate a charter school in the building.

P.S./I.S. 218, Rafael Hernandez, 1220 Gerard Ave.
Although this magnet school earned a C on its most recent report card — with an F in the section that measures test-score growth since the previous year — it is well-regarded in the community. The dual-language Spanish-English program teaches students to speak and write in both languages. The school benefits from partnerships with several nonprofits that run arts and after-school programs.

P.S. 555, The Mt. Eden Children’s Academy, 1501 Jerome Ave.
The nonprofit housing and social service agency, New Settlement Apartments, opened this elementary and high school inside a new $100 million campus in the fall of 2012. The agency, which has deep roots in the community, will operate a community center from within the school and offer after-school activities.

Icahn Charter Schools 1, 1525 Brook Ave., and 6, 1701 Fulton Ave.
This top-flight charter school network, founded by billionaire financier Carl Icahn, operates two schools in District 9 — Icahn 1 and 6, the latter of which opened in fall 2012. Last year, 91 percent of Icahn 1 students passed the state math tests and three-quarters passed English — some of the highest pass rates in the city. Hundreds of families enter the annual admissions lottery for the school’s open seats.