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Conflict of interest at Brooklyn high school

Pat Arnow

Brooklyn Theatre Arts HS students make their feelings known.

"They're not giving anything to us," says history teacher Angelica Melendez. "It's about taking space away from us."

Edgar Maldonado remembers the day in June when “the charter people” walked through the Brooklyn Theatre Arts HS in Canarsie. “They were looking at our space,” said Maldonado, a social studies teacher. “It was very demoralizing.”

To make matters worse, teachers suspect a Trojan horse: Brooklyn Theatre Arts HS Principal David Ward once worked for the Uncommon Charter Schools network, helping to open one of their charters in Williamsburg, said Suzanne Nelson, a co-founder of the high school and its chapter leader.

“He told me he was happy they’re coming,” Nelson said. “It’s a massive conflict of interest.” Ward just became principal last year, the fourth change in leadership at the school in seven years. “People are very, very unhappy,” said Nelson.

Parents, staff and students flocked to the Oct. 7 hearing to make their unhappiness known.

“I’m angry about the co-location. I’m all for giving parents and students choice, but they went about it the wrong way,” said Brooklyn Theatre Arts history teacher Angelica Melendez. “They’re not giving anything to us — it’s about taking space away from us.”

The charter high school is expected to grow to 600 to 800 students in five years and is proposing to take seven rooms from Brooklyn Theatre Arts — where many teachers already share classrooms. Maldonado, the social studies teacher, said almost all of his classes are near the 34-student limit. Enrollment at the school has picked up, and AP classes were just launched.

“We need about five rooms, and we’ll lose seven,” said Nelson, who teaches English. “We’re bursting at the seams. It makes no sense. It’s counterintuitive, that he would jam us together to fail.”

More than 400 students attend Brooklyn Theatre Arts HS, one of seven schools or programs that occupy the South Shore Educational Complex, the former site of South Shore HS, which closed in 2010. Brooklyn Theatre Arts HS has partnered with the Vital Theatre Company of New York to offer a curriculum that motivates students through theater and prepares them for further study and careers in theater. Nelson said the theater company was instrumental in helping the school obtain nearly $1 million from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, another champion of the school, to renovate the auditorium.

It’s exactly the kind of public-private partnership that Mayor Bloomberg has extolled, she noted. It was Bloomberg, too, who encouraged small schools. So it is a bitter irony that he would force another high school into their building, she said.

Nelson remembers the demoralization that accompanied the closing of South Shore HS, and she’s bracing for another round, especially as the charter school will boast renovated classrooms and updated equipment, including computers, that its host school will not have.

It’s a sentiment shared by Maldonado. “The charter school will serve a small group of kids at the expense of ours,” he said. “We’re going to be marginalized and forgotten.”

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