Morrisania parents try to keep a charter school out

Parents of students at four Morrisania public schools have filed suit against the city to block a new charter school from co-locating in their building.

Success Academy Bronx 3 children at the K-2 building at 968 Cauldwell Avenue. They hope to attend third grade at 1000 Teller Avenue this year.
K-2 students Success Academy Bronx 3 at 968 Cauldwell Ave.

Success Academy looks to expand; some local families say ‘no way’

Parents of students at four Morrisania public schools have filed a lawsuit against the city to block a new charter school from co-locating in their building. They argue that 1000 Teller Ave. is already crowded enough and that the presence of a new, resource-rich school could demoralize students of the cash-strapped public schools.

Advocates for Justice, the nonprofit group representing them, says angry parents will keep their children from attending the first day of the upcoming semester, Aug. 17, if Success Academy Bronx 3 moves in as expected. The building is home to Arturo Toscanini Junior High School 145, New Millennium Business Academy, and Urban Science Academy and an Alternative Learning Center.

Across the city, parents have clashed with the Department of Education in recent years, arguing that the shoehorning students into cramped school buildings takes a toll on student performance. In a study, Class Size Matters, an educational advocacy group, found that crowded classrooms lead to higher dropout rates, lower grades and poor results on college-entrance exams.

“All of the classrooms in the building are already being used,” said Laura D. Barbieri, an attorney for Advocates for Justice.

Although the DOE has classified the building as “underutilized,” saying it is at half of its capacity, Barbieri countered that Blue Book, the system the city uses to calculate numbers of students, is inaccurate.

“You can’t use a system that you’ve already determined is wrong,” she said. Until last year, for example, Blue Book did not count thousands of students housed in temporary trailers as part of each elementary and middle school’s enrollment, she said.

But Success Academy is primed to follow through, despite the controversy.

“We’re set to move our kids in,” said Pat Wechsler, Success Academy’s managing director of communications.

A spokesman for the education dept. said Mayor de Blasio is aware of criticisms of the Blue Book system, and has convened a working group that will make recommendations to improve it. He added that the department will work to help students from the four existing schools and the new charter school alike.

“We will continue to provide strong support to all students in that location,” said the spokesman, Jason Fink.

Advocates for Justice previously tried to block Success Academy’s k-2 school from co-locating to Cauldwell Ave. in Melrose, by appealing to the state’s education commissioner, but that appeal was dismissed. Now the organization has upped the ante by suing the city in federal court. At a recent public hearing, two education dept. appointees voted against co-location in the Teller Ave. building, but they were outvoted.

“We just want what the mayor promised,” said Barbieri, adding that then-cadidate de Blasio vowed to add resources for poorly performing schools while on the campaign trail last year.  During the campaign, he pronounced that Success Academy’s founder and CEO Eva S. Moskowitz “has to stop being tolerated, enabled, and supported.”

Last year, the mayor blocked two Success Academy schools from co-locating to public school buildings.

But about two-dozen parents of Success Academy Bronx 3 students are fighting back against the lawsuit, demanding to have a say in the fate of the 92 incoming third graders. They worry that if the new charter school is prevented from moving in, their children will be forced to attend weaker schools.

One parent, Isis Murray-Carillo, said she feared her son could end up in a local public school like “a prison, with children sitting in the dark watching a video all day.” Another, Emily Carrasquillo, said her daughter, DJ, is comfortable with the teachers she studied under and got to know on Cauldwell Ave., and being unable to continue with them would be a blow.

Success Academy is the largest of the city’s charter school networks, with about 35 schools, and plans to expand to 100 schools within a year. Moskowitz’s annual salary of $567,500 is about 2 1/2 times more than the city’s schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, who earns $212,614 to oversee about 1,800 schools.

Success Academy students rank among the top one percent in math among all schools in the state, and the top three percent in English. In contrast, only one percent of students who attend Arturo Toscanini Junior HS met state standards on their math exams and just six percent of Urban Science Academy students did so on their English exams. Only one in four teachers at New Millenium Business Academy said they would recommend that school to parents, according to the DOE. There are many special needs and English language learning students enrolled in the four schools, and the alternate learning center is devoted entirely to suspended students.

Moskowitz boasts that those kinds of numbers show that the charter schools she oversees are a viable solution to the city’s public education system problems. But for every 21 applications Success Academy receives, only one applicant gets in.

No matter how much parents in the four Teller Ave. public schools yearn to enroll their children in schools with more extensive resources, said Barbieri, they can’t, which leaves the public schoolers feeling demoralized. To avoid that imbalance, she said, the incoming children should be absorbed by existing Success Academy locations elsewhere instead of being wedged in with her students.

Wechsler disagreed.

“This is the location the Department of Education gave us,” she said. “It’s our only option.”