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.
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.
Not every charter gets such high compliments. City charters enroll a lower percentage of special education students and only 5.9 percent English language learners — compared to 15.6 percent at public schools, according to the New York City Charter School Center, a nonprofit charter advocacy group. And even MESA’s inaugural group of 20 special education students and 30 English language learners, both higher proportions than the overall average for the district’s high schools, doesn’t necessarily guarantee that those students are getting the services they need.
“I think it’s great the school is making this effort to serve the majority of the children in the neighborhood,” says Paulina Davis of Advocates for Children of New York, an anti-discrimination group for special needs students. “But, like with anything, it’s more than just getting them in the door.”
MESA scores well on at least two of Davis’s indicators for schools that provide adequate support for disadvantaged students. MESA hired four teachers for the school’s special education students and two specialists for the English language learners, and all school communications come in both English and Spanish.
Samuels worries that he may have to reduce overall staffing at MESA if the school has to pay rent, as de Blasio may require of city charters that share public school buildings. Critics of co-located charters charge that they get the benefit of public facilities without paying for utilities, security staff, or maintenance; according to a 2011 study by the Independent Budget Office, this allows charters to spend $649 more per student than traditional public schools.
A fee based on the cost per pupil for using the public buildings could net the city up to $92 million per year, and de Blasio has made a point of flogging the most visible representative of city charter schools in public appearances and debates. “There is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, OK?” de Blasio said to cheers at a candidate forum last summer. “There are charters that are much, much better endowed in terms of resources than the public sector ever hoped to be. It is insult to injury to give them free rent.”
De Blasio’s other proposal, a moratorium on new co-locations, comes after he took the Bloomberg Administration to task as public advocate for treating hearings on co-locations as mere “procedural hurdles,” with few parents being aware of imminent space-sharing arrangements at their children’s schools, according to a July 2010 report by his office.
A resolution calling on the State Legislature to adopt a one-year ban on any new co-locations has widespread support in the City Council, and other Bloomberg critics raised their strong opposition to the 58 proposed new co-locations for 2014 and 2015 at an Oct. 3 hearing with Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. Ponderous examples — such as a new school for a campus in Brooklyn that has occupied moldy trailers for decades; the final approval of four new school-sharing arrangements in Queens just 30 days after they were first made public; and a proposal to co-locate a nonexistent school without a name, administrator, or identity at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn — filled the six-hour hearing.
For MESA, the most important question is whether a proposed ban will keep existing charters from expanding. MESA expects to grow from its current ninth grade class of 132 students this year to a full high school of more than 500 students by 2016 under the city’s building utilization plan. Over the same time period, J.H.S. 291’s enrollment will fall from 596 in 2012 to a range of 510 to 540 students, and the community high school will stay level with 340 to 380 students. Prior to MESA, the building was about half full, according to the city Department of Education. Once the co-location is complete, the building will still house only 68 to 76 percent of the students it has space for.
Shared space is not a charter-school issue alone. Only 10 percent of 1,100 co-located schools in 538 buildings are charters, according to DOE officials. The practice of public schools sharing buildings in New York City has been going on since 1898, but accelerated under Bloomberg, as the DOE closed 164 schools and opened 654 new ones citywide. The speed of the changes, the diminished enrollment numbers and space for existing schools in the same building, and the disparities in city funds turned charter co-location into an issue of haves and have-nots.
“What happened is that some charters are basically squeezing out public schools,” says Noguera.
But on the day the Village Voice visited MESA, differences in the facilities were difficult to identify. Unlike at some charters, students don’t get free iPads; MESA’s only computer lab has a dozen old PCs.
The real disparity lay in how MESA students were learning. A special education teacher helped three students organize their notebooks for a new trimester. Just down the hall, Zalykha Mokim taught a dozen or so non-proficient students how to write an analytical essay in English, calling them her “angelitos” even as she quickly scolded any student whose attention waned.
In general, MESA has enjoyed support from its neighbors. Both Bushwick Community High School principal Llermi Gonzalez and Jacqueline Rosado, principal of J.H.S. 291, have spoken out in favor of the co-location at past public hearings. (Gonzalez and Rosado declined Voice requests for comment.) At a hearing last January, only one strong dissenter spoke out against the co-location, expressing safety concerns about adding another group of older students at the building.
Local councilman Rafael Espinal, who says he supports de Blasio’s charter moratorium because of the Bloomberg Administration’s “irresponsible” approach to co-locations, painted the walls of MESA and the community high school along with students at the two schools over the summer. But while he notes that neither of the public schools in the building actually pays rent, he doesn’t rule out a delay in MESA’s expansion to study the system-wide effects of co-locations.
“I think it’s something we should take seriously because we can’t favor one school or the other,” Espinal says.
Still, Espinal acknowledges that Samuels and Cheung made a significant effort to work with the community to gain support for MESA. “They didn’t blindside the community,” he says. “And they were willing to work with everyone in the community.”
Samuels says he doesn’t expect de Blasio’s proposals to hamper MESA’s growth or success. The state, rather than the city, authorized MESA’s charter to be a full high school by 2016, and he hopes his independent school won’t get lumped in with the larger and more cash-strapped chains.
“At the end of the day, there’s politics and good practice,” Samuels says. “And when they’re done right, I think they’re the same thing.”