Parents and students on opposite sides of a fierce fight for scarce classroom space faced off on East Houston Street Thursday afternoon. On one side, supporters of P.S. 188 and P.S. 94, carrying handmade signs and chanting, “save out schools.” On the other side, a smaller group from the Girls Prep Charter School, responding with their own slogan, “we want choice.” The theatrics on a blustery sidewalk near Avenue D served as a prelude to a public hearing on the Department of Education’s plan to allow Girls Prep to expand its middle school in the P.S. 188 building (which all three schools share).
The protest was orchestrated by a coalition representing several neighborhood schools, District 1’s Community Education Council and Councilmember Rosie Mendez. When Mendez arrived in front of P.S. 188, the Girls Prep contingent began chanting, “Rosie works for the UFT. Rosie does not work for me.” Shouting over the protesters, Mendez said, “I don’t work for the UFT, but I am proud to be endorsed by (the teachers’ union) and to work for the children.”
Mendez was joined by Councilmember Margaret Chin, who said it was important to send a strong message to the DOE that they cannot “play divide and conquer” with the parents of the Lower East Side. The expansion of Girls Prep – at the expense of other schools is “unacceptable,” she added.
Shortly after 5pm, the protest broke up, and parents went inside to prepare for the main event. District 1 Superintendent Daniella Phillips opened the hearing by outlining the DOE’s plan, in which Girls Prep would eventually take over 12 more classrooms and add 300 students. Explaining that a DOE assessment found the school building is operating at only 67% capacity, Phillips said no current P.S. 188 or P.S. 94 students would be displaced. Michael Duffy, head of the DOE’s charter school office, said Girls Prep had received several hundred applications for 50 available middle school seats, indicating “robust parental demand.”
According to an Educational Impact Statement, space will also be be created through “graduation of current (P.S. 94) students over the next several years, thereby reducing the total number of sections from nine to five with corresponding declines in student enrollment and space need.” P.S. 94 is a special needs school serving children with autism.
Members of the Community Education Council (CEC) and representatives from P.S. 188 and P.S. 94 expressed serious doubts about the DOE’s assessment and about the process leading up to Thursday’s hearing. Arguing the DOE had no intention of taking community concerns seriously at the state-mandated hearing, CEC President Lisa Donlan said “we are co-hosts of this event in name only. This process is inauthentic and bankrupt.”
John Englert, president of the Council on Special Education, complained that the DOE failed to supply requested documents necessary to evaluate the plan until a few hours before Thursday’s hearing. That, he asserted, was reason enrough to declare the hearing invalid. Ben Marcus of P.S. 188 – responsible for building safety – said adding hundreds of new students would be “disastrous” on a daily basis, but especially in an emergency. He said the building would clearly be “over a cpacity,” a claim the DOE officials disputed.
In her public remarks, Mendez said, “today the DOE has pitted parent against parent. It was sad to people yelling at each other outside.” She said the question at hand was not whether to support charter schools or whether Girls Prep should be allowed to expand. “It’s whether they can expand in this building,” Mendez explained. She recalled the loss of two neighborhood schools, P.S. 97 and High School 22 (both replaced by citywide schools). Responding to Duffy’s contention that “robust parental demand” for the Girls Prep Middle School, Mendez said there’s also robust demand for the Earth School and the Children’s Workshop School (their expansion efforts have been rebuffed).
She closed addressing the suggestions from Girls Prep parents that her views on their expansion plan were heavily influenced by the United Federation of Teachers. “I think I’ve been a good advocate for this district, but also a good advocate for the disenfranchised in this city (93% of P.S. 188 students live in poverty). When you say no student will be displaced, it’s disingenuous.”
But Girls Prep co-founder Miriam Raccah said Mendez was “letting her opposition to charter schools obscure” the school’s strong record serving a student population that’s 98% black and latina. She contended that Girls Prep has “closed the achievement gap (a claim that is in dispute). Raccah vowed to continue working with the principals of P.S. 188 and P.S. 94 and to not let “rallies, unions and campaign politics stand in the way.”
Harley Sanchez, a Lower East Side resident whose 4th grader attends Girls Prep, was not quite so diplomatic “I want to scream at the top of my lungs… I am quite familiar with the game of politics…. Our girls are not pawns in your game. We will not stand for it.” Sanchez noted that a high percentage of students across the street at the academically competitive NEST School and Bard Early High School are white. “God forbid we bring that up,” she added.
Most others, speaking on behalf of Girls Prep, said they didn’t want to hurt any other school. They simply wanted “room to grow.” One parent, Omar King, said, “We all know there’s a dearth of good schools in District 1… I have seen tremendous growth in my child since she started attending Girls Prep.” Another parent said, “our kids aren’t any better than yours. We don’t want to hurt you. We just want the right to exist.” Kimberly Morcate, principal of the Girls Prep Middle School, said “we are a public school… we serve a need in District 1.”
But P.S. 188’s principal, Mary Pree pointed out that more than 50% of Girls Prep students live outside District 1. “This tells me there is not a hunger” (in this community) for what the school is offering… they could have a middle school anywhere,” Pree said. Other advocates of P.S. 188 noted that, even by the DOE’s standards, it is a successful school that serves a high percentage of special needs students (including English Language Learners).
Several parents spoke passionately about P.S. 94, saying it was wrong to push out “the most vulnerable” students, kids with autism, who don’t adjust to new environments easily. One father, suggesting the decision lacked compassion, said his son didn’t learn to say, “I love you dad,” until he was 9-years old. Another parent said she was “disgusted and ashamed” by what’s transpired.
Monica Harris, the PTA president at P.S. 20 said to the DOE officials, “I am sick and tired of what you are doing to our community.” Last year, parents from many of the schools potentially impacted by three expansion proposals formed a coalition. Addressing Girls Prep administrators, Harris said, “I call upon you to join our coalition.” Saying they did not need more space but their own building, she asserted, “anything less is unacceptable.” And John Englert of the Council on Special Education argued the issue was not politics (as some had alleged), but money. He said kids are suffering due to the DOE’s unwillingness to pay for new school buildings.
Many speakers argued that the 100-year old building is already overburdened. P.S. 188’s physical education teacher underscored how difficult is already is for the three schools to share common spaces. Her school cannot have basketball or volleyball teams because there’s no place to play. The cheerleading squad cheers for Girls Prep teams. In order to accommodate all three schools, kids begin eating lunch at 10:30am. A speech pathologist said she has been forced to move offices three times in the past year. She now works with students in the back of a classroom, while a class is in session. Criticizing the DOE’s definition of “under-utilized space,” parents and teachers said rooms for art, science labs and computer labs would inevitably be lost if the expansion plan is approved.
By the end of the evening, more than 60 speakers got to address the public meeting. The feedback Thursday night will be relayed to the Panel for Educational Policy, which will vote on the Girls Prep plan February 24th. The proposal is almost certain to be approved. The group has never rejected any Department of Education decision.