Testimony regarding co-locations in New York City public schools

Testimony of UFT Vice President Leo Casey before the New York City Council Committee on Education

Good morning Chairman Jackson and members of this distinguished committee. My name is Leo Casey and I am the Vice President for Academic High Schools for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of our president Michael Mulgrew and our 200,000 plus members, I want to thank you for this opportunity to testify before you today.

Our public schools have been forced to endure numerous misguided policies, failed educational strategies and disruptive reorganizations over the past ten years, thanks to the Bloomberg administration. Today’s topic — co-locations in our schools — has been pursued by this Mayor and his Department of Education in the most destructive way, working in tandem with the abandonment and closure of public schools that has come to define the Bloomberg DOE legacy.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with locating a number of public schools in the same building. In the years before the Bloomberg administration, large school buildings were thoughtfully and carefully transformed into campuses that became home to multiple schools. Today, if one visits a building such as the Julia Richman Educational Center, which houses three regular high schools, a transfer high school, an elementary school and a District 75 special education program, one can see how such an arrangement can work well, with each school benefitting from the presence of its sister schools and all the schools working together harmoniously for the common good of education all of their students.

When this practice of co-location worked well, it was guided by a number of important principles:

  1. The building must have sufficient space to house all of the schools located within it without any one school having to truncate or eliminate parts of its educational program and offerings.
  2. Each individual school must have dedicated, contiguous space for its classrooms and offices, as well as access to the common space of the building — the auditorium, the gymnasiums, the library, the lunchroom and the playground.
  3. Equity among the different schools has to be the foundation of all relationships in the building: each school must have an equitable share of space for its classrooms and offices, and equitable access to the common space. Further, any improvements to the building must be provided to all schools equitably.
  4. There must be a governing building council, which includes representation from all schools and all school constituencies, to manage and address the myriad of building issues that arise in shared space.

Unfortunately, under the Bloomberg DOE, these principles have been regularly ignored and violated. Co-location has become identified with a Bloomberg DOE vision of New York City public education in which, to borrow a phrase from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, some schools “are more equal” than other schools. Schools associated with the politically powerful and the wealthy, such as Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools and Spencer Robertson’s PAVE Academy, receive favored treatment at the expense of the district public schools sharing the building. Worse, many schools experience co-location under the Bloomberg DOE as a destabilizing force, causing overcrowding and oversized classes, and sending them into a spiral of academic decline that leads to their eventual demise. As a result, co-locations in New York City public schools now regularly pit student against student, parent against parent, and school against school. They have become so problematic, and so connected to the failed, reckless Bloomberg policy of mass school closures, that the UFT and the NAACP were forced to step in and sue the Bloomberg DOE over this issue in 2010 and again 2011.

Time after time, schools that had Bloomberg DOE co-locations foisted upon them were left shortchanged on the use of common spaces such as gyms, cafeterias, auditoriums, libraries and playgrounds. What’s more, programs and services that these schools had in place — programs that helped the students in these schools succeed — were lost as the Bloomberg DOE favored schools were given the facilities necessary to run them, with science labs, health clinics and rooms for art and music among the first to go. Schools that were previously operating well are now struggling as a result.

The stories from the field regarding co-locations have ranged from the bizarre to the downright outrageous. We literally had cases where kids weren’t permitted to use certain bathrooms. One school, PS 9 in Prospect Heights, battled all the way to the State Commissioner of Education, after the DOE all but took away the library that the parents there had fundraised for and built for their students. We have had high schools having to implement a schedule of 14 periods a day, beginning very early and ending very late, so that all the students can use the same facilities and take advantage of the same opportunities. We have buildings were students in one school are forced to eat lunch at 9:30 in the morning, while the students in the other favored school are able to eat lunch at a normal time. At PS 15 in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, students with special needs receive services in hallways and converted closets as a result of the loss of space to the PAVE charter school, which has remained in the building, growing and taking more and more space year after year, despite the fact that there clearly is not sufficient space for two full elementary schools. Long after the Bloomberg DOE promised that PAVE would be moved from what it called a ‘temporary’ siting, it remains in the building.

On top of the inequitable distribution of space, new schools also frequently benefit from new desks, equipment, books, technology and even refurbished bathrooms and paint jobs, all while the other school(s) in the building go without.

The educational vision of the Bloomberg DOE, such as it is, has also had a negative impact on campuses shared by a number of schools. The DOE and its Leadership Academy have taught prospective principals that collaboration between the principal and the teaching staff is a bad idea: writing in The Atlantic Magazine, former Chancellor Joel Klein opined that “collaboration is the elixir of the status quo crowd.” In the Bloomberg DOE’s corporate model of schooling, the principal is the all-powerful CEO of the school, issuing directives, and the educators his compliant employees, following orders. Not surprisingly, principal after principal trained in that vision has been unable and unwilling to collaborate with the principals of other schools on their campus. Today, we have high school campuses where all of the students are denied access to a library, which sits empty and unused, simply because the principals of the different schools cannot agree on how to support this vital common educational resource. One of those campuses is Washington Irving, where a few days ago the Bloomberg DOE swept in to spruce up the closed library, making its facilities appear to be an active, thriving library. With a ‘Potemkin Village’ backdrop, the Irving library was then used for a press conference at which the Mayor evangelized the virtues of his policy of mass closing schools, to be replaced with new schools and charter schools. The irony of it all was entirely lost on Tweed and City Hall.

Perhaps no situation better tells the story of how the Bloomberg DOE has ignored the principles that guide successful co-locations, misusing and abusing its power to co-locate schools, than the dangerous and destabilizing situation it is creating on the Bronx Regional Campus. For years, the Bronx Regional Campus — established long before Bloomberg took office — was a model co-location. The schools and programs in the building — all serving at risk, high needs students — worked together harmoniously to ensure that every students who entered their doors was academically successful. Each school and program had its own dedicated space, and equal access to common space. Each school and program was treated equitably.

But now the Bloomberg DOE has made a decision to bring onto that campus a new school, Roads Charter School, which is dedicated to serving the most challenging at risk population, students returning from incarceration. When the DOE established a school serving this same student population a few years back, it was so unsuccessful in meeting the extraordinary challenges those students face that it was quickly closed down. Since the Bronx Regional building does not have sufficient space for another school, Roads is being placed on the same floor as Schomberg Satellite Academy, a transfer school serving at risk youth. (The Blue Book capacity numbers for the floor now occupied by Schomberg was mysteriously and inexplicably increased by hundreds of students a few years ago.) Given the layout of the floor — the location of student restrooms that will have to be shared and the location of science laboratories — there is no way to separate the space of each school, and the students will be constantly comingling. This is a recipe for disaster: it promises to destabilize Schomberg and the entire Bronx Regional campus, and to keep Roads itself from a becoming a successful school.

The Bronx Regional debacle points to the underlying problem with co-location as practiced by the Bloomberg DOE. It has become the main battle line in the Bloomberg policies of school abandonment and mass school closure, of the replacement of closing schools by new charter schools and new district schools. These policies have made communities such as Harlem, which now has the highest concentration of charter schools in the United States after New Orleans, into an educational battleground. As a consequence, the term co-location has increasingly become synonymous with a frontal attack on public schools.

In a style reminiscent of Queen Victoria’s colonial armies sweeping through Africa and Asia, Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy Charter Schools have been using Bloomberg DOE co-locations to take over public school building after building. In the last year alone, we have seen nearly $11 million dollars in federal grant money for P.S. 185 and P.S. 208 in Harlem threatened by a Success Academy Charter co-location, as the schools will be unable to meet the enrollment diversification goals and develop the programs required by the grants. In Wadleigh Secondary School, a co-location of a Success Academy Charter School endangers the specialty rooms that are necessary for Wadleigh to maintain its widely recognized performing arts programs. Two improving schools — Brooklyn School for Global Studies and the School for International Studies — are confronted by a Success Academy Charter co-location that places their progress in jeopardy, after Eva Moskowitz engaged in a “bait and switch” operation that moved one of her schools from District 13, where it would have served a high needs population, to the middle class community of Cobble Hill. In Williamsburg and Greenpoint, the community has mobilized against a co-location in MS 50 that serves as a stalking horse for two more Success Academies next year. And Harlem’s Opportunity Charter School, unique among New York City’s charter in educating a large number of special needs students (1 in every 2 students) and graduating them from high school at twice the rate of the Bloomberg DOE, first had a Success Academy Charter placed in its building where there was no room to grow and then this year found itself inexplicably on a list of schools that might be closed by the Bloomberg DOE. Only a strong campaign of opposition beat back the threat of closure.

In each of these cases and many more, the Bloomberg DOE treats community sentiment on co-locations with dismissive contempt. It does not seek the approval of local Community Education Councils (CECs) and it ignores the voices of the very people who live and work in these communities, and know these schools. Rather than engage parents and educators in a respectful and collaborative way, the DOE has frozen them out of the process.

The DOE is required by law to prepare an Educational Impact Statement (EIS) for every co-location that analyzes issues such as classroom utilization and student displacement, including how sharing of space is to be accomplished. Our latest lawsuit, brought in May of last year, charged that the DOE subverted the legislatively-mandated process through faulty procedures and boilerplate disclosures, depriving stakeholders of an informed and meaningful opportunity to participate in school governance.

The State Education Commissioner has even ruled that the DOE’s planning has been deficient and fails to justify how proposed co-locations result in equitable resource allocations. But despite these actions, the DOE continues its practice of bypassing the law and shortchanging  the students and public.

Bloomberg DOE co-locations have fostered inequality and division, plain and simple. Their corporate co-location model creates “winners” and “losers”, and breeds competition rather than collaboration among students, parents and schools. The impact of these harmful decisions cannot be understated. It’s irresponsible and harmful to everyone involved. This is no way to run a school system.

Strong actions need to be taken to reign in the DOE’s reckless co-location strategies, beginning with meaningful engagement of the communities in question. Legislation now making its way through Albany would ensure that schools cannot be co-located, re-sited or reconfigured without the approval of the local CEC. The bill has widespread support in both the Assembly and Senate, as well as among parent and education advocates, and the UFT supports it wholeheartedly.

Other solutions include mandating fair and open criteria to guide co-location decisions, such as making sure that any co-location plan allows for all schools involved to keep class sizes under agreed-upon limits.

Co-location plans should also guarantee that each schools receives adequate space and equal access to all common areas in the building, so no one is short-changed — State law already requires this. Efforts should be in place to foster communication within the buildings so that everything from space to safety and health are covered. Capital improvements in one school should also be reflected in other schools in the buildings, so that every child receives the same benefits.

Equality is one of the guiding values of our nation, and that is why the UFT and others will fight for our students, their parents and their school communities. Our students deserve no less. We thank you for your support and advocacy on behalf of our schools, and we ask that you support us in this effort.

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