Education Supplement: Charter Corrections

As a new mayor moves to rein in charter schools, a Bushwick administrator navigates an unclear future

Two different bells ring on the top floor of the three-story brick school building at Palmetto Street and Wilson Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. One marks the end of the period at Bushwick Community High School, the other the end of a class at the new MESA Charter High School. After a teacher at J.H.S. 291, the third school residing in the building, complained about how early the middle schoolers would have to eat lunch, the bell for lunch at MESA now doesn't ring until 1:39 p.m.

Such considerations come from the limited P.A. system and space at the building shared by the schools through former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's policy known as "co-location." MESA, which operates with funds from the city Department of Education but without that agency's daily oversight, was launched by executive director Arthur Samuels and principal Pagee Cheung after the two former Columbia Teachers College classmates won approval for a school offering longer hours and college-admissions classes from day one. It's one of 24 public charters that opened this past fall in the city, just as voters overwhelmingly elected a mayoral candidate promising a new approach to the 183 city charters that have opened since 1998, when the state authorized their creation.

Charters have become a lightning rod for criticism under Bloomberg, especially from public-school parents who see them as seeking special preferences to import wealthy chain schools into already-cramped school buildings. (DNAinfo's report last month that the city Education Department "moved heaven and earth" to clear space for Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy chain only confirmed many parents' suspicions.) Mayor Bill de Blasio has often criticized well-funded network charters for creating winners and losers within city schools, and though he said last summer that "there are some very good charter schools, and I'm glad we have them," he has also called for charging co-located schools rent and a possible moratorium on co-locations.

MESA Charter High School executive director Arthur Samuels
Caleb Ferguson
MESA Charter High School executive director Arthur Samuels

The divisive conflict between those supportive of Bloomberg's charter policies and those adamantly opposed is not conducive to a quality education, according to one charter supporter who takes issue with politicians on both sides.

"They're creating a tense environment that's not helpful for the schools," says Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at NYU who resigned as chair of the SUNY board that authorizes charters last spring because he thought co-located charters had begun to undermine public schools.

Folks at MESA — which stands for Math, Engineering and Science Academy — are striving to show that not all co-located charters are alike. Ninety percent of MESA's student body comes from the majority-Latino Bushwick neighborhood, and most of the remaining 10 percent comes from nearby Bed-Stuy, the result of a lottery that gave preference to area families and students who aren't proficient in English.

"I think MESA is doing exactly what Mayor de Blasio wants," says Samuels, a 35-year-old former teacher and guidance counselor whose research with Cheung had shown that the neighborhood was ripe for a new high school. "We're serving these kids who haven't had access to a quality education."

Both the larger Bushwick neighborhood and MESA's building in particular have had troubles in that department. Only half the students who entered ninth grade in 2007 in Brooklyn's District 32 graduated, according to state figures. And 364 high schoolers in the neighborhood dropped out of school altogether last year. The building MESA is sharing with J.H.S. 291 and Bushwick Community High School had about three times as many criminal incidents as similar-size student populations during the 2011–12 school year, according to city education department figures.

The two high-performing public high schools in the district, meanwhile — the Academy for Environmental Leadership and the All-City Leadership Secondary School — only have space for a collective 641 students. But Samuels says he never tried to act as though he was a neighborhood savior.

"It was never, 'Here's the solution,'" Samuels says. "It was more, 'We have some ideas; we'd like to share them with you and hear what you think.'"

Samuels's ideas — honed at his previous posts at charter high schools in Williamsburg and Harlem — consisted of supplemental classes like the hands-on experiments and active discussions of a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) class in addition to regular science and math classes. Ninth graders would take writing seminars on grammar, sentence structure, and essay writing, and start mandatory annual "college bound" classes on the importance of attending college and how to get in. And a longer school day and year would give MESA students 35 percent more instruction than standard public schools.

On a recent school day, Samuels and Cheung greeted students at the 9 a.m. start of the school day and the 4:37 p.m. dismissal, praising well-behaved students who had earned what the school refers to as "shout-outs." In between, they roamed the halls between classes to ensure that students were moving at "MESA pace" rather than idling in the hallways. Parents receive emails each Monday with teacher comments and a rating of their child's effort the previous week on a scale of one to four.

Nilsa Cedeño, whose daughter Briana attends the school, says it's been amazing to see "the transformation of where they were in middle school to where they are today at MESA," noting that some parents say their kids have done a complete turnaround. She added that the weekly reports from teachers allow MESA parents to take a "proactive rather than reactive" approach.

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