New York City threatens to evict public school in favor of charter

NEW YORK CITY -- Two weeks ago, parents of children at the Manhattan East School for Arts and Academics, a public middle school in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood, received an alarming letter from the PTA president.

It seems that the PTA and the school's leadership had just heard, quite by accident, that discussions were underway at the city's Department of Education to evict and relocate Manhattan East to provide space for a charter school, the Harlem Success Academy.

While the DOE has an official - and very controversial - policy of moving "underperforming" schools to make way for "smaller, better and more efficient" charter schools," more is at play in the case of Manhattan East.

Manhattan East is a successful school. So what could the reason for the move be, asked parents at the emergency meeting held in the school's auditorium on February 8? Harlem Success Academy's interest in Manhattan East's space may have to do with the many improvements that have been made in the 15 years the school has been there, including a fully equipped science lab, sound-proof music room, rooftop garden and gym.

One parent said, "ME is not an under-performing school in any sense of the words ... it is the pride of its community, and beyond. It's shocking that such a decision could be made about its future by the DOE with no involvement of its administrators, families, students or community."

Rose Jimenez, PTA president of the Mosaic Preparatory Academy, a nearby public K-8 school, described what happened when the Harlem Success Academy moved in to their school.

"First they took over half of one floor, and then the whole floor. Then they installed playground equipment and put a fence around it to separate it from the area where the children from Mosaic have recess."

After a big fight, the fence was taken down. The story is emblematic of the elitism that parents and educators charge characterizes the charter schools. State Senator Bill Perkins points to the concentration of charter schools in Harlem (24 of 29 in Manhattan are located north of 96 Street, traditionally the dividing line), and says that this creates a system that is "separate and unequal."

Manhattan East families are being urged to send letters and make phone calls to the city's 311 help line, the education department, elected officials and the media, and to participate in a demonstration called by the Coalition for Educational Justice on Tuesday, February 23. The theme of the rally is, "Make all schools good schools - No more pitting of schools against schools and parents against parents."

While the eviction of Manhattan East may be averted, the bigger picture of encroachment on the public schools by charter schools is a sobering one. Last month, the DOE decided to close 19 schools, despite protests and a demonstration of 2,000 people outside the meeting. Opponents charge that the closings are part of the city's attempt to abandon the neediest and most at risk students and open the door for more charters.

Coming soon: On charter schools, what exactly does it mean to be "privately run and publicly funded?'