Public and charter school administrators came together with education advocates for a panel discussion at Hostos Community College, to exchange views about ways of easing tensions over scarce resources.
The May 25 event, titled The State of Elementary School of Education in The Bronx, was organized by Hostos’ Center for Bronx Non Profits. The panel was moderated by Amanda Septimo, Rep. Jose E. Serrano’s district director, who tried to set a non-adversarial tone, by encouraging the panelists to find common ground.
One of the panelists, Dr. Joan Kong, the principal at P.S. 11 in Highbridge, recalled crossing the street to introduce herself to her counterpart at a charter school in the hopes the schools could team up.
“She gave me a nice tour,” remembered Kong. But after she left, the two principals never spoke again. “I cannot honestly say there is any kind of collaboration.”
However, an administrator from a Hunts Point charter school said that there is frequent cooperation between hers and nearby public schools. “I’ve had several experiences of collaboration,” said Miriam Raccah, executive director of The Bronx Charter School for the Arts. When her charter school first moved into a building with a public school, she said her attitude was, “I’m coming into your space, I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Yet Luis Torres, the principal at P.S. 55 in Morrisania, said that, in his case, there’s no collaboration, even with the charter his school shares the building with, Success Academy Bronx 2.
“They’re one of the highest performing schools in the state,” said Torres. “And they don’t share their curriculum.”
Septimo pointed out that charter schools were originally created to test out new pedagogical ideas and share results with the education department, but skeptics abound, now as then. “The other school of thought says that charter schools were designed to be disruptive,” she said.
Creative curricula make charter schools unique, said Raccah, but added that more collaboration would be easy to achieve on some issues, such as student nutrition. The DOE and community groups should be the ones to forge those links, she said, since school administrators are already overburdened.
Torres said he is eager to share what he’s learned at P.S. 55 with other educators, but because his school will be unfairly judged by the low grades it has received, he doubted the DOE would listen. All of his students live in public housing, he said, and their poor test scores are a reflection of the hard lives they lead. He said the city should instead focus on his school’s creative strategies for raising scores in a challenged community. He recalled a recent instance when 32 students took the state exam a day after being evacuated from a burning building in the middle of the night.
“What mindset is that child taking this test in? Is the data accurate of what’s really happening in the school?” he said.
Many charter schools will continue to avoid sharing their curricula, he added, as long as the city rewards and punishes schools using existing performance measurements.
“We have to change this competitive mindset,” he said.
Elizabeth Clay-Roy, co-director of the advocacy group South Bronx Rising Together, agreed DOE policies make cooperation difficult. She stressed the importance of schools joining forces within neighborhoods and said those collaborations should be limited to small numbers of schools, to prevent dependence on scores and data.
In smaller team-ups, “You can say ‘How are the kids doing?’ ‘Are they reaching their goals?’ ‘Are they living life with less trauma?’” she said. “And then design best practices around that.”
One panelist thought Chancellor Carmen Farina’s “Learning Partners Program,” in which the city will fund 50 charter-district collaborations, needs tweaking. Jill Roche, executive director of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, said well-staffed schools that have more time to experiment are the ones that will benefit, rather than the neediest.
“I just really think collaboration needs to be local,” Roche said.
Not all agreed that charter schools always enjoy an advantage. Raccah argued that The Bronx Charter School for the Arts receives less funding per pupil from the city, meaning the school must pay for the space. Retaining teachers is also a challenge, she said, because teachers prefer the financial security and benefits of working in the public school system.