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Brooklyn community fights charter expansion

New York Teacher
Several UFT teachers holding signs that say "Stop charter expansion"
Jonathan Fickies

IS 291 staff, including (from left) math teacher Mohanad Bensetra and bilingual special education teacher Yolly Vidal, make their feelings known about the expansion of a co-located charter school at a hearing in Brooklyn.

Educators, students and parents in Bushwick, Brooklyn, turned out in force at a hearing on Feb. 10 to protest the proposed expansion of a charter school in their district.

The charter school — Math, Engineering and Science Academy (MESA), which serves grades 9 through 12 — shares a building with JHS 291 and Bushwick Community HS. Under the proposed charter revision, MESA would expand to grades 6–8 and enroll an additional 300 students.

Community members at the hearing strongly opposed the proposal, pointing out that MESA's expansion into the middle school grades would compete with District 32's existing eight middle schools.

"We already have a school that offers Regents credits and other programs in this very building," said Veronica Wilensky-Sorkin, the UFT's District 32 representative. "It does not make sense to take more space and resources from our community public schools."

Wearing matching T-shirts in support of JHS 291 and Bushwick Community HS, students and parents chanted "Don't squeeze us out" and "You expand, we expire!" during the contentious hearing.

"I'm here to show respect for my school and for my teachers, because they've done a lot for me," said Joshua Morgan, a student at Bushwick Community HS. "This isn't just a school; this is my family."

Catherine Rhee, the chapter leader at JHS 291, said, "Everything MESA wants to offer, we already provide. We deserve to continue thriving."

MESA representatives announced at the hearing they don't plan to seek additional space in their current building. It is not yet clear where the proposed middle school would be located.

Wilensky-Sorkin said a co-location in another District 32 school would be equally detrimental. "They are not welcome anywhere in Bushwick," she said.

Several members of the District 32 Community Education Council and representatives of local elected officials also spoke against the proposal, saying  another charter school inside a public school building would sow further divisions in the community.

Teachers at both public schools said charter schools in District 32 have gained a reputation for cherry-picking students.

Alona Phillips, who has taught at JHS 291 for 20 years, noted many students who arrive at the school say they have been pushed out of local charter schools.

"Charter schools have discarded our special needs students, and they take funding away from our community," she told the crowd.

"We're a transfer high school, which means that our students have already been through at least one other school, and many of them have come from charter schools," said Gabrielle Troya, a special education teacher at Bushwick Community HS. "Our students need space to build that sense of community."