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Brooklyn school fights off charter’s expansion

New York Teacher
JHS 291 Chapter Leader Catherine Rhee (left) and paraprofessional Frances Rivera
Jonathan Fickies
JHS 291 Chapter Leader Catherine Rhee (left) and paraprofessional Frances Rivera distributed T-shirts supporting their school prior to a Feb. 10 hearing about a co-located charter school’s expansion in the building.

Parent and community opposition has thwarted a proposal to expand a co-located charter school in District 32 in Bushwick, Brooklyn. After a vote by the state Board of Regents in April, the school will look to locate additional classes in a private space in another district.

“Our schools could not stand by while another charter was going to take students from us,” UFT District Representative Veronica Wilensky-Sorkin said. 

Wilensky-Sorkin said the UFT came together with the entire school community in a “huge organizing effort” to say “we are not going to lose children” to the expansion of Math, Engineering and Science Academy (MESA) into the middle grades.

Under the proposed charter revision, MESA, which serves grades 9 through 12, wanted to expand to include grades 6–8 and enroll 300 additional students in the building it shares with JHS 291 and Bushwick Community HS.

Instead, the middle school classes sought by MESA, one of several charter schools in District 32, are expected to be housed in a private space in nearby District 19 and not co-located in a school building in District 32.

Those who joined together to oppose the plan felt MESA’s proposed expansion would compete with District 32’s eight existing middle schools.

“The middle school we send our kids to would’ve lost more of their students,” said Debra Elhadri, a UFT chapter leader who teaches at PS 75, another school in the community.

Elhadri said the union played a pivotal role in getting parents involved.

“The parents really did take ownership of the movement,” she said. “A lot of the parents initially thought, ‘Oh, it’s just another school coming into the community.’ But the union held meetings with the parents, engaged the parents and mobilized them.”

At a hearing on Feb. 10, many parents joined educators to protest the expansion.

One parent who got involved was Neyda Garcia, who has children at Bushwick Community HS. One of her children — who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities — previously attended a charter school until Garcia pulled him out.

“Charter schools are not capable of handling students with special needs or behavioral issues,” Garcia said. “They failed him miserably.”

Charter schools tell parents they can help disabled students, she said, but that’s not the reality. “They only want the children who excel,” she said.