Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-Queens, Nassau) joined charter school parents and advocates in Jamaica on Tuesday in what he said is an effort to dispel some rumors surrounding the charter movement.
“We want to make sure that all kids are educated, and that all are treated equally,” Meeks said on the steps of the New Jerusalem Baptist Church on Smith Street.
The rally was sponsored by Families for Excellent Schools, and included about a dozen parents, many of them holding signs asking the city to treat charter schools equally when it comes to funding, especially for capital projects.
The Rev. Calvin Rice, pastor of New Jerusalem and a co-founder of the Rochdale Early Advantage Charter School, said the church charges the school only what its own costs are to host it.
And while Meeks stressed the need to find common ground, Rice believes charters are under attack in New York City
“If they had to pay market rent, they couldn’t survive,” he said. “But if the School Construction Authority had to pay the cost of building a new school for these children, the city would be paying $3,000 or $4,000 per student per year just for debt service.” The church has hosted the school since its inception in 2010.
Charter schools, especially some of the Success Academy charters operated by former Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, have come under fire from Mayor de Blasio since he was a candidate; and from Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina.
Three charter co-location plans, including one at Jamaica’s August Martin High School, recently were denied by the city after they had been agreed to by Mayor Bloomberg. More than a dozen others were approved, but parents in Harlem are going to court over one of the denials.
Gov. Cuomo has promised to back the three booted charters, though the de Blasio administration subsequently agreed to find a new location for the Harlem school.
“Some people want to paint this as the mayor against the governor or public versus charters,” Meeks said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m here to support charter schools. But I want to support all schools. My office has practically adopted IS 59 to make sure they get everything they need for students to succeed. We want parents to have all options on the table”
Lena Richardson, principal at the Rochdale charter, said she has 193 students in grades K through 4, and that grade 5 is coming next year.
She said the students’ achievement levels compare well to those at similar schools, with a B rating under the grading system enacted under Mayor Bloomberg
And she said accusations that charters handpick only those students who will do well enough to keep test scores afloat simply are untrue.
“We fill slots with a public lottery,” she said, citing a waiting list of more than 300. “No parents here have seen any evidence of cherry-picking.”
Parent Priscilla Rivas of Elmhurst said her child is thriving at a Success Academy school in Harlem, because it was the closest available at the time.
“You should not have to go to Manhattan or Brooklyn to educate your child,” she said.
Parent Shamona Kirkland said the mayor’s talk of booting some co-located charters or charging them rent — they are not entitled to city capital funding for facilities — is unjust.
“Public charters only serve 70,000 students, but they are still public schools,” she said. “Every public school should be treated fairly in New York City.”
Meeks fully acknowledged that some charter opponents’ concerns are genuine. He referenced a recent meeting with city clergy that also was attended by Public Advocate Letitia James.
James is party to a lawsuit to stop 30 co-locations, and wants the schools’ admission lotteries suspended.
“She said things that we agree with,” Meeks said. “She said schools need the voice of parents. We agree. She said they should not be in schools that are overcrowded ... We agree. No co-location should push a school beyond 100 percent capacity. They should not force children to be educated in trailers. You don’t want elementary school children co-located in a high school? Fine. Let’s find another place for them. Let’s just talk about it. We can figure it out.”
Numerous parents in Southeast Queens were highly critical last fall when the Panel for Educational Policy — then under the control of Mayor Bloomberg — approved numerous charter co-locations at their children’s schools with just weeks to go before de Blasio took office.
And their complaints were not limited to putting elementary and high school students together in close quarters.
Parents at established schools, including some who had attended the schools themselves as children, felt the new schools and new students in established buildings would be competing for funding, equipment and use of limited common spaces such as gyms, libraries and cafeterias.
Meeks said the Eagle Academy, a school opened by One Hundred Black Men in 2010, is an ideal example of a temporary co-location.
The school was designed to serve at-risk boys and young adults from inner-city populations. It now has its own building on Linden Boulevard in St. Albans.
“They knew that they wanted to expand,” he said.
Meeks himself was instrumental in the founding of the Merrick Academy in Jamaica in 2004. The school’s board has come under scrutiny in the press recently for its finances and some other dealings. Published reports said Meeks and others resigned from the school’s board several years ago over concerns involving a real estate deal.
Meeks said Tuesday that he left the board at the time because he could no longer dedicate the time that was necessary for meetings and other functions.
Meeks said he was troubled by recent media reports. Without singling out Merrick or any other school, he said it is just another point in an argument for absolute fairness, and the need to deal with charters on their individual merit.
“If the schools are successful, fine,” he said. “If they are not doing the job, shut them down.”