April 12, 2006
In East Hampton: Protest Against Ross Charter School Planned
It all comes down to space, they say, or rather the lack thereof. The Parent-Teacher Association of a public school on the lower East Side of Manhattan is planning a protest in East Hampton next Monday to speak out against the Ross Institute opening a charter school inside their facility.
The Institute's Ross Global Academy plans to make its New York City debut within the physical confines of the New Explorations in Science, Technology and Math (NEST+m) building, a public school for gifted students, in the fall. Parents and administrators at NEST claim their facility is too small to house both schools, and that the union could jeopardize their children's education.
Provided permits are in place, the protest will take place in front of the Ross School in the morning while students return to school after spring break. The activists hope to persuade Ross representatives to hear out their concerns, since the school has reportedly failed to respond to NEST's inquiries. Phone calls to the Ross School for comment were not returned as of press time.
Traditionally, charter schools occupy spaces that have been vacated. The NEST PTA found 39 alternate sites for the academy on the lower East Side.
Calling it a "grammatical error" Lou Gasco, a NEST PTA member, said that the New York City Department of Education has miscalculated the amount of space the school has available, thus giving the state and Ross the impression there is more room at NEST than actually exists — the DOE counted the school's library and a room deemed unsafe for health reasons as additional classroom space.
"We've been fighting a numbers war with the Department of Education for about a year and a half now," said Gasco.
Also, the public school will be adding a fifth grade for its 2006-07 school year, making it a complete educational package, from Kindergarten to 12th grade — it has 1050 students enrolled for next year, but according to Gasco, the DOE told the school to limit enrollment to 899 students, presumably, to make room for the academy.
"Our administration has made a stand. They are not going to reduce the enrollments," said Gasco.
The Ross charter school intends to enroll 180 students for Kindergarten and grades one, five and six in September, and has a projected enrollment of 500 students by the fall of 2009. Parents at NEST are concerned that these additional enrollments will push class sizes from around 23 to 35 students per class.
The Academy, which was authorized by the New York State Board of Regents in January, is a collaborative effort with New York University. NYU will provide tutors and student teachers, tuition vouchers for the academy's faculty, access to the university's library, support for the early-to-college program, and student interns.
Charter schools receive funds from the school district and are also partially financed by parents, educators, and companies, such as nonprofit organizations. They are not bound by the same rules that public schools are under New York State law. Teachers, for example, do not have to be certified, and students are accepted through a lottery system. NEST, on the other hand, is a selection school.
Public school districts also have no say on whether charter schools will be accepted into their district. They are obligated, in fact, to forward money to a charter school that opens within the district's boundaries, whatever the cost per pupil. Some experts believe that the Academy is anomalous in its intention to open its doors within an active school facility.
"I don't know how that's going to work side by side with a public school program," said Dr. Dominic Annacone, Superintendent of Wainscott School, and the Independent's "Eye On Education" columnist. "I mean it's competitive enough; imagine in the same buildings. There's usually not the tenderest of feelings between public schools and charters, especially when a charter school is siphoning off funds from a public school; you're starting out on a negative note. So I don't see how they can co-exist in the same building."
Annacone considers the goal of a charter school admirable — where public schools are failing, the charter provides parents with an option to send their kids to another school where they could benefit from broader opportunities — but, he says, the state should level the playing field.
"The theory is that by letting the charter schools be more experimental, by relaxing some of the mandates and requirements, they would come up with innovative practices, alternatives to the public schools," he said, adding later, "If they think it's going to result in innovations and improvements, why not relax the standards in public schools? Let them be innovative too. I don't follow the logic."
The Global Academy's curriculum will reflect that of the Ross School in East Hampton, with a focus on interdisciplinary study for intercultural understanding. Gasco said that while the curriculums at both schools would compliment each other, given the space confinements, they would ultimately self-destruct.
"What we're really trying to do is get somebody's attention over at Ross because they're about to step into a world of hurt. It's going to look bad for everybody," he said. "They're going to crush their program; we're going to crush our program because the DOE is not about to admit it made a mistake."
What might have been Ross's noble incentive to share its high-quality education with inner city children has left NEST parents feeling uncertain of what lies ahead.
"How is the space to be shared, exactly?" asked Gasco. "And does the Ross Global Academy really want to spend their years in trailers?"