Battle Over Girls Prep Middle School Intensifies

The operators of the Girls Prep Charter School are stepping up their campaign for expansion on the Lower East Side, while opponents, including the District 1 Community Education Council (CEC), line up to oppose any plan impacting other schools in the neighborhood.

With the Department of Education’s deadline for public comments on three proposed plans just two days away, Girls Prep CEO Miriam Raccah has sent an email to supporters and the CEC, saying the school has a strong desire to stay in its current location, a building it shares with P.S. 188, the Island School. If the DOE agrees, a third school, P.S. 94 (serving disabled students) would need to move out of District 1, and a new program serving kids with special needs would be created at the Shuang Wen school. Meanwhile, CEC President Lisa Donlan is working with parents from the affected schools to pressure the DOE to deny the Girls Prep request, or to find space for the middle school in some other district.

Last month, hundreds of parents attended a boisterous, emotional public meeting to discuss the three options. In addition to the plan described above, the DOE is considering another scenario, in which Girls Prep’s middle school would move to building now shared by the School for Global Leaders, the Marta Valle Secondary School and the Lower East Side Preparatory High School. The School for Global Leaders would then move into P.S. 20. The third option would involve locating the middle school in P.S. 20′s building. At the meeting, parents and elected officials blasted the DOE’s contention that each of these schools has “under-utilized space.”  On the contrary, they said, valuable programs, such as art classes, occupational therapy and guidance counseling would be sacrificed.

The fight over Girls Prep touches on many of New York City’s most vexing education issues, including the wisdom of Mayor Bloomberg’s strong advocacy of charter schools. It also has underscored deep dissatisfaction among parent activists about their ability to influence education decisions in the era of mayoral control. And, the debate highlights growing concerns about the space crunch in many of the city’s public schools. But the controversy has also focused new attention on the management of Girls Prep, which according to Donlan, has been willing to do whatever it takes (including reneging on agreements) to get their way.

Girls Prep originally opened on East 4th Street, in a building shared with P.S. 15, but quickly outgrew that location. They then worked out a deal with P.S. 188 to move into their building on East Houston Street, near FDR Drive. In renewing with the state, Donlan says, the school claimed “they were revising their charter down to K-5, two sections per grade, in order to fit into the footprint that was peacefully negotiated with 188.” She told me, “for them a year later to act like this never happened, and was not their intention… is absolutely indicative of how they operate as a partner.” Donlan points to Girls Prep’s renewal application (October 2008) indicating the school would “terminate” at the 5th grade, while a revised application submitted a year later specified enrollment through the 8th grade. She also said the prospect of adding a middle school was never mentioned at a hearing in which the move to P.S. 188 was discussed.

In a phone interview this morning, Miriam Raccah disputed this allegation, saying P.S. 188 always understood Girls Prep intended to add a middle school and was supportive of their plans to grow. In her letter to the CEC, Raccah called staying in their current location “the best solution for our students and their families. We believe this scenario also best fits the needs of the Lower East Side community. Raccah told me it’s clear the other options aren’t viable, since there’s clearly not enough space in either P.S.20 or in the Marta Valle school.

In a separate conversation today, John Englert, president of the Citywide Council on Special Education, said he was “alarmed” by Raccah’s letter. He has sent his own email to Chancellor Joel Klein, questioning why Girls Prep was trying to “dictate where kids should go to school.” Raccah said she sent the letter because the DOE had asked for her “guidance on which plan works the best” for Girls Prep.” Raccah told me she apologizes if the letter was inappropriate. She expressed a desire to “work with everyone to find a solution.”

In spite of her concerns about past dealings with Girls Prep, Donlan said she wants to find a solution, as well. “If Girls Prep wants to grow a middle school in a way that does not impinge on successful, hard-working school communities, I am not opposed to their providing that service to their population.” She added, however, “I believe there is not more space that won’t cost more at-risk kids services that are important to their academic success.” Donlan said that, while 12-percent of the students in the district are in ELL (English Language Learner) programs, Girls Prep has none. She also argued the school hasn’t taken on any special needs students. Raccah said it may be true that not as many of her kids are designated as “special education students” but that this is because Girls prep customizes programs to fit the needs of each learner.

Another difference of opinion between the two sides in this debate – claims Girls Prep is making in an online petition:

At Girls Prep, where 97% of our students are African-American or Latina, 100% of all students passed NY State Math exam and 96% passed the English Language Arts exam in 2009. In 2009, only 63% of African-American and Latino students in District 1 passed the ELA exam, and only 82% passed the Math Exam… Girls Prep is the number two (2) ranked charter school in NYC. Girls Prep outperformed ALL the District One schools and is the ONLY SCHOOL IN DISTRICT ONE TO CLOSE THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP.

Donlan believes these numbers are skewed because Girls Prep has taken so few special needs students, and because they don’t serve boys in the district. She also takes issue with the notion that Girls Prep is serving the Lower East Side as fully as traditional public schools do. Raccah concedes that, while preference is given to applicants from the neighborhood, over half of her students are coming from other districts. Donlan doubts there’s enough demand to support an expanded middle school. Raccah, meanwhile, contends the school has six applicants for every available seat. A total of 50 students would be added in the 5th and 6th grades next year (300 in year five).

Like many parents, Donlan believes centralized control of the Education Department has made her main contact, the district superintendent, virtually powerless. That, she says, means parents have no voice in the decision the DOE is about to make. “We may still prevail,” she suggested, “as a coalition of community school members to present our reasons why we don’t think the growth as it’s been presented makes sense in our community and why each one of the schools has valid arguments for not giving up space in order to allow that growth to occur.”

Raccah said Girls Prep parents are furious and feel they’re not being supported. Arguing that the school deserves the same accommodations as “any other public school” she said “pressure needs to be applied” on the DOE to find room in District 1 for her students.

Note: Recently, Donlan shared her thoughts with us on the state of the schools in District 1, charter schools and mayoral control. We’ll have more on those subjects later this week.