A New Charter School Poses the Question: Is There Room for One More?

Daniel T. Allen |

A sign outside of school building K117 advertises the Apr. 3 public hearing about whether a new charter school will be "co-located" there. MetroFocus/Daniel T. Allen

In a shared Brooklyn school building, the New York City Department of Education has asked four existing schools to make room for one more. But educators, students and community members at the border of the Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods are responding with a clear message: “No vacancy.”

The Education Department has proposed to temporarily “co-locate” the Urban Dove Charter School for Sports, Health and Fitness for two years in middle school building K117, starting this September. The building is already occupied by two high schools and two middle schools.

Schools sharing building space is not unusual. The Education Department says 40 percent of public schools share buildings with another public school and about half of the city’s 136 charter schools share space with another school.

On paper, the co-location of Urban Dove in building K117 at 300 Willoughby Avenue makes perfect sense. According to the Education Department’s building utilization report, K117 can accommodate 1,290 students but currently only serves about 850 — leaving more than enough room for the estimated 100 students that would comprise Urban Dove’s inaugural class.

James O'Brien is the principal of the Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School (BCAM), which occupies the third floor of K117. He says that the introduction of any new school into the building would negatively impact his students. MetroFocus/Daniel T. Allen

But observing the hallways tells a different story. The Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School (BCAM) is the largest school in the building with around 430 students and occupies the third floor of K117 and a handful of classrooms on the second floor. The few minutes in between classes can be hectic as high school-size bodies squeeze through middle school-size hallways, creating bottlenecks around corners. According to a review on the website Inside Schools, the “cramped, shared middle school building limits [the] school’s growth and offerings.”

“I’m not trying to label or resent this school [Urban Dove] but I’m saying that it’s presence here would create a next to impossible ability to share space,” said James O’Brien, the principal of BCAM, speaking in a video interview conducted by students.

He is working with a journalism class at BCAM to make their case at a public hearing scheduled for Apr. 3. Additionally, he has drafted an open letter to the Education Department suggesting that rather bringing a new charter to the building, the existing four schools should be allowed to grow.

O’Brien says that the co-location of any new school presents serious safety issues and amounts to “a real educational disrespect of and discrimination towards our community.”

According to Thomas Francis, an Education Department representative, the majority of school co-locations are successful. He would not comment on whether or not the DOE would consider Mr. O’Brien’s counter-proposal.

A political cartoon by Joanna Sledge, a BCAM senior from Bushwick, depicts a crane labeled "DOE" lifting a net filled with students into an overcrowded school. In the cartoon's final panel, one Education Department official turns to the other and asks "do you think they'll fit, Bob?" The other responds, "of course they can!"


Co-locating a charter school that incorporates fitness into its curriculum also makes sense at K117, which just completed a multi-million dollar outdoor track. However, Francis says that the new track was not a factor in the Education Department’s decision to co-locate Urban Dove at K117.

The move does rankle City Councilwoman Letitia James. Last year she allocated $400,000 from her capital fund for the track that was intended to serve K117’s students and residents of the surrounding community. “I’m offended that this school will focus on athleticism because I worked hard with [Brooklyn Borough President] Marty Markowitz to help fund a new track and field facility and we haven’t even cut the ribbon,” she said.  Markowitz’s office foot the remainder of the bill.

The Urban Dove School’s charter was approved by New York State in December 2010. A non-profit organization, Urban Dove currently runs a number of after-school programs in the Bronx and East Harlem.

Jai Nanda, the school’s founder, said that Urban Dove is accepting applications from students until Apr. 15. He said that most of the applications were from students in the vicinity of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.

Nanda said that he was unaware of K117’s new athletic facilities and that his school was prepared to go off-site for sport activities. “For example, if we wanted to play soccer, we would go to a local park to play soccer,” said Nanda. The original proposal for the Urban Dove School mentions a potential partnership with the Aviator Sports and Recreation Complex at Floyd Bennett Field.

Nanda said he’s looking forward to learning more at the hearing on Apr. 3 but that he was instructed by Education Department officials not to contact the leadership of the other schools already in the building.

But perhaps he’ll find camaraderie in an unlikely place. BCAM’s OBrien said: “We invented a school from scratch six years ago. They’re in that same position now.” BCAM replaced a school that left building K117 in 2007. “It’s not that we’re opposed to this school but we are opposed to any fifth school coming into our building.”

Neighborhood opposition to charter schools is nothing new. In Canarsie, one public school that was given an “A” rating by the city was denied an expansion in favor of a new charter school opening in its building. Former City Council member Eva Moskowitz continues to create friction in neighborhoods where she plans to expand her Success Academy charter schools. It is a trend that is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s preliminary budget set aside $51 million to open two dozen new charter schools next year, reported The New York Times.

MetroFocus’ Daniel T. Allen mentors students at the Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School as part of the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs program.

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