HOST INTRO: Residents of the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn have been contending with the effects of gentrification for more than a decade. Upscale restaurants have forced out mom and pop residents and poor residents worry that they’re getting priced out. Now gentrification may be coming to Williamsburg schools. A nonprofit charter school is slated to open in an existing public school building and that’s divided the community. Jackie Mader reports.
N1: Stand in East River state park and you get a really clear vision of what has happened to the Williamsburg waterfront.
AMB: Water lapping against the shoreline. Distant construction sounds.
N2: Fifteen years ago, this park was an abandoned former freight depot. Now you can see residential high rises stretching down to the Williamsburg Bridge. Median income in the neighborhood has shot up as the area has attracted more residents and businesses. It has also attracted the interest of a charter school chain called Success Academy. The non-profit has launched an ad campaign in the neighborhood to let everyone know that it’s coming.
AMB: Subway: “The next L train is now arriving”
N2 The Bedford Avenue subway stop in Williamsburg is plastered with posters for the new school. Opponents of Success Academy have placed stickers on top of the ads. One accuses the charter school chain of spending too much money on marketing. Another accuses the schools of enrolling too few students who speak English as a second language. And its those two issues- money and ethnicity- that are at the center of the fight over Success Academy in Williamsburg. Along the waterfront and north of Grand street, the neighborhood is primarily white and more affluent. South of there, it is primarily Latino and poorer. Opponents of the schools say their founder, former city council member, Eva Moskowitz, is ignoring the south side and targeting the north side for a specific reason.
DEVOR: Her business model cannot succeed, at this point, without an affluent parent body.
Jim Devor is a parent in Cobble Hill. He says Moskowitz targets affluent parents because they’re more likely to make donations to the non-profit that runs nine schools.
DEVOR: To the extent that her schools are successful is because, and to some degree they are, it is because there is substantially greater resources. Not necessarily coming from public funds, but coming from outside funds.
While Success Academy is targeting parents on the north side, it is actually going to be located in the south side. Latino residents in that area feel that the school has completely ignored their needs. Esteban Duran is the chair of the education and youth committee for Community Board 1 in Williamsburg.
DURAN: What about the South side of the community which actually- is Spanish, speaks Spanish predominantly and where the school is located. They do any of the gathering of signatures there, they didn’t do any advertisements in Spanish until after the first hearing. Its not a public process.
Duran says that what the community actually needs, is another middle school. He’s also worried because the charter school is going to be located in an existing public school building. He thinks the charter school, with its greater resources, will crowd out the struggling public school.
DURAN: You’re gonna see a school that’s gonna get more resources and then a school that is left to die on the vine, and that’s the public school.
Supporters of Success Academy say that’s not likely to happen. Vanessa Bangser is principal of a Success Academy in the Bronx. She says that when a charter school and a public school operate side by side in a public building, good things can happen.
BANGSER: The bigger point is to go back- what was the root of charter schools? It was to provide choice and provide options but also innovate different ideas for schools and to partner with district schools to help improve all schools. So if we just share best practices and work together, definitely both schools can improve.
The four elementary schools in Williamsburg nearest to where the charter school will open could use improvement. Only 30 percent of their students are proficient in English. Success Academy teacher Jessica Johnson says the controversy more about what adults want than about what children need.
JOHNSON: if you don’t want to send your kid to Williamsburg success, fine then don’t. You have the option to send them wherever you want. I just really strongly believe in parent choice.
But Success Academy opponent Estaban Duran says that parents should be concerned if the new school is going to weaken the existing schools.
DURAN: The larger story here is really this interest of public property, public resources being given over to a public entity. That would be ok if there was actually community input. That’s the real issue here.
Success Academy will open in Williamsburg in August with room for nearly 200 kindergartens and first graders. Jackie Mader, Columbia Radio News.