Parents Voice Strong Support For Charter School; DOE’s Handling of Hearing Criticized

Supporters of Manhattan Charter School turned out in large numbers last week at a state-mandated charter renewal hearing. Parent after parent came to the front of an auditorium at the school on Attorney Street, praising its high academic standards and caring teachers. There was no apparent opposition to the renewal application. But following the hearing, District 1’s Community Education Council (CEC) passed a resolution strongly criticizing the Department of Education’s (DOE) handling of the hearing and urging state legislators to take action.

As we reported last week, the CEC had protested the Department of Education’s scheduling of the hearing at the same time as the Education Council’s regular monthly meeting.  The resolution (excerpted in part below) asserts that the DOE’s decision reflects a blatant disregard for state law:

The hearing is being held at the convenience of the charter school parents… without proper notification to or concern for the availability of the local district community, CEC and parents… Setting up a public charter hearing during an established CEC meeting time demonstrates a complete lack of respect for the CEC and nullifies the whole point to the modified regulations (written into the renewal of mayoral control by the State Legislature last year) requiring the DOE to hold the public meetings in the community affected… An email (from a DOE official)… explains that the… hearing was scheduled to take place on the (Manhattan Charter Scool’s) Open School Night in order to maximize their parent participation in the school’s renewal hearing process, demonstrating that the DOE’s only concern is that the charter parents… be aware of and available to attend the mandatory renewal hearing, and leaving out the surrounding and affected community at P.S. 142 (the traditional public school sharing space with MCS) and beyond, despite the legal requirements to include them… The P.S. 142 community was not apprised of the meeting, according to the Principal, who was herself unaware… Therefore be it resolved that the CEC… is seeking a strong remedy to the repeated and flagrant disregard for the NYS law requiring hearings by asking our representatives in the NYS Legislature to strengthen the law to ensure proper notice (to the entire community)…

In response to the resolution, DOE official Michael Duffy said notice of the hearing was “done in the usual and customary manner, which included notice to the Community Education Council 1 (CEC1) and to elected officials, among others.” City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who attended the hearing said it was worth looking into the CEC’s concerns. While not addressing the specific issue in her public remarks, she did speak more broadly about the rising tensions in the district’s schools::

Let’s not separate and divide public schools and charter schools. Right now the DOE is really causing the trouble. They’re not building enough schools. They want to start new schools but they’re not finding places for them, so there’s overcrowding, and they’ve made us fight against each other. We’ve got to make that stop.”

Chin, who was just appointed to serve on the City Council’s education committee, added, “Let’s work together. In this district, let’s fight for more resources. We’ve got to make education number one.”

CEC1 President Lisa Donlan was generally supportive of Manhattan Charter School, saying the Education Council embraces parental choice and innovative small schools. But since the DOE has not released the details of the school’s renewal application, she suggested it was difficult to assess what impact a new charter might have on other schools in District 1. Some parents at the hearing called for the K-5 school to add a 6th grade, but school officials did not indicate whether that’s something they’re asking for in their renewal application. DOE officials did not discuss any specifics during the hearing, saying only the feedback expressed Wednesday night would be taken into account, in evaluating te application.

During the hearing, speakers expressed great passion for Manhattan Charter School. One parent asked, “where (else) do you find a teacher who sheds a tear for your child, that’s sincere?”  Chin, who was once a public school teacher herself,  praised the high level of parental involvement at Manhattan Charter. Principal Genie DePolo touted the school’s performance on standardized tests and its commitment to serving a diverse population.

Following the hearing, the CEC went ahead  with its scheduled meeting.  In her report, District 1 Superintendent Daniella Phillips updated the CEC on another charter school issue, the controversial expansion of Girls Prep. Phillips said there was no word from the state about their renewal application, but she said the DOE is assuming the application, which includes a proposal to add 300 middle school students, will be approved. Phillips said there will be a state mandated public hearing February 11th, seeking feedback to the DOE’s decision to give Girls Prep 12 more classrooms in a building the school shares on East Houston Street with P.S. 188 and P.S. 94. The Panel for Educational Policy will vote on the proposal February 24th.

In a separate conversation, Phillips made reference to a recent agreement between the DOE and the Shuang Wen School, which calls itself “the first dual language and dual culture public elementary and middle school in English and Mandarin Chinese on the east coast.” After determining that the school did not meet city, state or federal requirements for the “dual language” designation, the DOE has been working with Shuang Wen to implement new programs and admissions policies. Shuang Wen was, for a time, caught up in the Girls Prep Controversy. But in December, the DOE decided the school did not have “under-utilized space” to spare, in part, due to “existing commitments around the dual language program.”

We’ll have more on the changes ahead at Shuang Wen soon.