At the heart of Mayor Bill de Blasio's charter school controversy is Harlem Central, a Success Academy charter middle school currently located in a public-school building on 113th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
Under a co-location plan approved in the last months of the Bloomberg administration, Harlem Central was slated to move to another building on 117th Street and Lenox Avenue already home to two public schools that offer special-education services. But in February, the Department of Education reversed the approval. Parents of the public schools' students applauded the decision, saying that the co-location would have placed additional space pressures on students.
Nineteen parents of students at Harlem Central and Success Academy Charter Schools filed a lawsuit against the city's Department of Education last week, saying the reversal of co-location approval was unlawful and did not follow procedure.
"It is disruptive and heartbreaking to evict students from their school, especially one that is so successful and high-achieving. In addition, the secretive way in which the city arrived at this decision violated the due process rights of families and the law's guarantee of a child's right to a sound, basic education," a spokesperson for Success Academy said.
Velma Howell, one of the plaintiffs and the mother of a sixth-grader at Harlem Central, said she did not apply to other middle schools because she thought her son was guaranteed a spot in the fall.
"To me the lawsuit is about finding a location for my child to get an education," she said. "I don't know what to do at this point. ... I may have to think about something I can barely afford: private school."
The complaint said that the displaced students may be forced to attend "low-performing" public schools, depending on where the families live. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that the city's middle-school application deadline passed on March 12, two weeks after the co-location was reversed. According to the complaint, Harlem Central students rank in the city's top one percent in overall student performance, while district public schools perform, on average, 70 percent worse in math and 48 percent worse in English.
But Noah Gotbaum, a member of Community Education Council 3, which oversees the school district where Harlem Central is located, disagreed.
"There are half a dozen at least, middle schools where they can go right now," he said. "A number of them have A's and B's," he added, referring to the progress-report grades the DOE uses to indicate school progress.
Complicating the matter further is that many students currently at Harlem Central do not live within CEC3, which stretches from the Upper West Side to Central Harlem. Fourteen out of the 19 parents mentioned in the lawsuit live outside CEC3.
Concerns about how co-locating Harlem Central would affect special-needs students at the two public schools in the 117th Street building, P.S. 149 and P.S. 811, also remain an obstacle for reinstating the original co-location.
Sonya Hampton, a parent and president of the PTA at P.S. 149, which occupies the building into which Harlem Central was originally slated to move, said that the two public schools in the building are already crunched for space, creating problems with providing services to their special-needs students.
"Everybody can look at the lawsuit that she's filing for, but they need to look at what she did," she said, referring to Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz, who has already operated another Success Academy school, Harlem Success Academy I, in the P.S. 149 building for seven years.
Hampton said she has seen the charter school "constantly taking space from special-needs kids."
She described an instance in which a parent witnessed a fight break out between two students. "He said, 'Why you can't take one out and put him in the other class?' I said we can't do that because we don't have another class," she said.
Still, de Blasio said in a speech Sunday morning that he was not against charter schools and pledged to work with different education groups to improve the city's education system.
"There's a charter school with 194 children. It's a good school doing good work, and we are going to make sure those 194 children have a good home this year. But we will not do it at the expense of our special-education children," he said about Harlem Central.
Meanwhile, Howell is left searching for a place for her child in the fall.
"Currently we have not heard anything," she said. "A lot of the information I'm getting scarily enough I get through the news ... before it gets filtered down through the school."
"I hope that they're given the space so that these kids can learn," Howell said. "We want the opportunity to get what we select for our kid's education."
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