US: Harlem, a Test Lab, Splits Over Charter Schools

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

The schools sit side by side in a handsome red brick building in Harlem overlooking Morningside Park. But they could not be more different.

The fifth and sixth graders at KIPP Star College Prep Charter School earned some of the highest scores in central Harlem on last year's citywide reading exams. At Public School 125, only 36 percent of the third- through sixth-grade students met city and state reading standards last year.

The contrast in the building on West 123rd Street is emblematic of the inequities, opportunity and experimentation that define education across Harlem after decades of stagnation, and as gentrification is increasing pressures for better schools.

By the end of next year, Harlem will be home to 17 charter schools, publicly financed but privately run - more than in Staten Island, Queens and Lower Manhattan combined. The Bronx has a high concentration, too, but only Brooklyn is expected to have more charter schools by the end of next year.

Harlem also has dozens of struggling traditional schools and six of the Bloomberg administration's new small themed schools.

The variety is prompting sharp debate. Some parents in Harlem are delighted with the new choices and are showing up by the hundreds at lotteries for the limited charter school seats. Others charge that the charter schools are unproven and are milking the traditional public schools of the most promising students.

"The public system failed my first grandson," said Margarita Maya, a Harlem resident, explaining that he did not earn a diploma.

Now, Ms. Maya said, her younger grandchildren attend the Harlem Village Academy charter school. "I wanted something different for the rest," she said, "and I found everything I could ever want in this new school."

But Carmen M. Colon, the president of an association of school district parent councils, says the changes are contributing to resentments between those who are able to grasp the limited new opportunities and those who are not among the chosen.

"You see a lot of interesting and sometimes shocking things in Harlem, mainly the disappearance of the middle ground in terms of schools," she said. "It's a gap that many people think is growing."

Chancellor Joel I. Klein has encouraged the educational ferment. "We're moving on all fronts," he said in an interview. "When I took over the job, what was the lowest performing district? District 5, Harlem. What you do is try to create opportunity."

Mr. Klein said: "I want parents to say, 'Look, we could lose people to charter schools if our school doesn't improve. Competition in this thing works."

Eight percent of the 35,000 students in Harlem, which spans three school districts across Upper Manhattan, attend charter schools. In contrast, only 1 percent of the 1.1 million students citywide attend charter schools.

City education officials do not track where the students in charter schools come from, but say they most likely live in the schools' immediate area.

They also know that the population in Harlem's traditional schools has declined, saying the numbers have dropped by about 1,500 in central Harlem and East Harlem since 2002.

Parts of Harlem stretch into District 3 on the West Side and District 4 in East Harlem. But the heart of the neighborhood is covered by District 5. The schools there range the gamut.

There is Intermediate School 172, which earned a reputation for violence. There are the KIPP schools, part of a growing national chain (it stands for Knowledge Is Power Program). They enjoy Mr. Klein's blessing along with the Village Academies, a local network of charter schools.

The sprawling social service center, the Harlem Children's Zone, is there, too. Its chief executive is Geoffrey Canada, who has opened two charter schools since last year.

Then there is I.S. 275, which is being closed next month because of persistent poor performance, but also P.S. 154, which turned itself around and is in good standing.

Dennis M. Walcott, the deputy mayor for education, said that Harlem would get a new middle school in the fall and that the six new small schools serve almost 1,000 students.

To parents, who have seen the redevelopment of the past decade bring safer streets, new stores and higher-income residents, the level of desire for the new reflects the area's swelling ambition, the aspiration to move away from schools that do not work even if it is into the unknown.

QuYahni Lewis said that she gave up on elementary schools in Harlem when her 9-year-old daughter came home with bite marks and a pencil stab wound. Next year that daughter will be going to KIPP Star, and two of her other children will be at Harlem Link Charter School, where she works as a secretary. "Thank God we ended up getting that," she said of the charter schools.

Ms. Lewis added: "Every day there was another story about this bully or that bully. I found that there were really no good options here outside of paying for school. Where else are we going to go? What else are we going to do?"

Others are suspicious of the charter schools and ask whether they are drawing the most promising students and only making the older, struggling schools worse - not improving them through competition.

Cordell Cleare, an official of the community education council for District 3, said of the new charter schools, "If they're so rich and golden, why aren't they everywhere?"

Robert A. Reed, the president of a central Harlem council of parent associations, said, "They've picked this population as a guinea pig district."

But he also acknowledged that he entered his young daughter in a charter school lottery and she won a seat for next year that she may take.

When Mr. Klein became chancellor in 2002, schools in District 5 still lagged in test scores, as they had for decades, and he said he made improving them a priority. Now, scores there have begun to rise.

In Grades 3 through 8 in 1999, 19.3 percent of students in District 5 met city and state reading standards. In 2005, 36 percent did. School safety and leadership stability continue to be nettlesome issues, parents say.

"We're seeing progress after decades of nonperformance," Mr. Klein said. "We have a lot of work to do, but the thing to do is to continue creating options while we improve existing schools."

Options, however, remain limited, and the harsh feelings about the new schools are particularly strong among longtime residents who see themselves as having already been on the losing end of the recent real estate boom.

Race may also be a factor; some parents refer to charter school operators as "outsiders" who do not understand the local culture. While the schools' populations are mostly minority, a number of the operators are white.

Parents like Mr. Reed also complain that charter school quality varies too wildly, or that their academic results are simply unknown. On many report cards issued by the state, the space for test scores from some charter schools is blank - either because results have yet to materialize, or the school did not include fourth- and eighth-grade classes, which until this year were the only grades subject to state testing.

"Any new school by definition is new," Mr. Klein said, speaking about the lack of data. "When you see a thousand people on a waiting list, you see that, and what does that mean? That's what parents want."

Not so, said former Councilman Bill Perkins, a longtime Harlem representative now running for the State Senate. "They're not going toward charter because it's proven as good, they're going away from what is proven as bad," he said. While some parents said they had thought the gentrification of much of Harlem throughout the 1990's would be accompanied by the improvement of the older public schools, they did not see it happen. Instead the charters started opening.

"Despite this infusion of economic development, the children were failing, and that is exactly the answer to why, in 2001, when we set out to create a model public school, we picked Harlem," said Deborah Kenny, the founder and chief officer of Village Academies, a network of charter schools based in Harlem. "The children were really, really deeply in need."

For her new school, Harlem Success Academy, former City Councilwoman Eva S. Moskowitz chose Harlem, too. "District 5 in central Harlem has had a very long history of significant underperformance," she said. "Something has to break the lock of whatever's going on, and I'm certainly hoping it's charter schools."

Ms. Moskowitz ran head-on into the neighborhood skepticism of new charter schools, when parents and the teachers' union successfully fought her plan to put Harlem Success into P.S. 154. Parents complained that Harlem Success would put a strain on space and resources and the city found her a space in a different school, P.S. 162, where she is also encountering opposition.

"The chancellor comes in and says they're doing us a service with charter schools," said Dawn DeCosta, the teachers' union chapter leader at P.S. 154. "But if your service is crushing somebody else's program, that's not a service."

Parents like Heriberto Ramos, the parent-teacher association president at P.S. 129, remain suspicious that the improvements are not for them, but for the new class of residents whose middle-class backgrounds give their children a head start.

"Schools are a service for the public," he said. "And I feel all this is not for all of us."

On 123rd Street, at least, there is a spirit of cooperation between P.S. 125 and KIPP Star. Sometimes they share a gym or the pool. Often, they share advice.

"Their teachers have asked us for help and I have asked their principal for help," said Maggie Runyan-Shefa, the principal at KIPP Star. "We have stuff to learn from each other."

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