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Charter Co-Location Plan Displaces Special Needs Students, Opponents Say

By Emily Frost | October 11, 2013 7:49am
 The co-location would reduce the number of special needs students attending the school. 
Harlem Success Academy Proposes to Co-locate at Harlem School
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HARLEM — A plan to move Harlem Success Academy students into a new school building by reducing the number of special needs students already there is being called a civil rights violation by opponents.

Officials propose co-locating Harlem Success Academy 4 with K-5 P.S. 149 and P.S. M811 — a special needs school for grades K-8.

The plan would increase the building's population to grades 5 through 8, an addition of roughly 200 students, according to the Department of Education's plan. 

To make room for the new Success students, the DOE would gradually reduce the number of special needs students attending P.S. M811, which includes kids who have autism or other developmental problems, by 30 percent by the 2018-2019 school year, it stated in its plans. 

Special needs students currently attending the school at 118th Street and Lenox Avenue would not have to leave under the DOE's proposal.

Parents and advocates, including the District 3 CEC, voiced their outrage at a public hearing Thursday night, protesting the disruption of the school community for the sake of the charter school, which they said would force special needs students to trek to other schools further away. 

"Kids are not numbers to be shuffled around," objected the school's theater teacher, Lynne Manuel. 

She and others took issue with moving students, who she said were mostly from the surrounding community, to other locations. 

And with autism levels growing, cutting special needs seats is not a wise move, she argued.

"There's no guarantee that in five years there is going to be adequate space," she said. 

But in its proposal, the DOE argues that "there will continue to be an excess of District 75 seats in Manhattan." 

A DOE spokesman said the department has new buildings opening to serve special needs students.

"There is overwhelming demand for our Harlem schools and this space will ensure we can continue to serve our middle school scholars," said Kerri Lyon, a spokeswoman for Success Academies. 

"No students in the other schools are being displaced as a result."

State Sen. Bill Perkins called the plan "an act of segregation," and said his office would pursue legal action for what he saw as a violation of civil rights laws. 

"There is a message being sent — that some people count," said Patrick Walsh, an ELL teacher at P.S. 149.

The 200 new students would put the building's utilization rate at 116 to 132 percent capacity, the DOE stated. 

"This rate does not account for the fact that rooms may be programmed for more efficient or different uses than the standard assumptions in the utilization calculation," the department said in its proposal.

"Those who end up remaining here — it will completely undermine both schools," said Noah Gotbaum, a CEC 3 member who called the plan "a war on the most vulnerable" students.

Many at the hearing touted mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio's negative stance towards charter school co-locations.

"I'm calling on the next mayor to put an immediate freeze on co-locations," said CEC 3 President Joe Fiordaliso.  

Students at both P.S. 149 and P.S. M811 already share their space with another one of the Success Academy branches, Harlem Success Academy 1, and teachers spoke of the difficulty it created, especially for special needs students. 

Cristina Lalli, 32, teaches a classroom of 12 second- and third-grade special education students who have emotional issues and intellectual disabilities. She said she feels an undercurrent of tension with the charter school. 

In her two years at the school, she's bumped into space issues that she said are more challenging for her students to handle. 

"I was asked to turn my students around and make them go another route, which would not work for students with sensory issues," she said. 

These regular dislocations will only get worse, she fears. 

"Many of my students have trouble with transitions," she said. 

The Panel for Educational Policy will make a determination about the co-location proposal on Tuesday, Oct. 18. 

The public can submit comments by email to do3proposals@schools.nyc.gov.