On Tuesday, May 26, 2009, the Marine Park community mobilized massive numbers of people to an overflowing auditorium to protest at the Department of Education Public Hearing at IS 278 over the upcoming placement of the Hebrew Language Academy (HLA) charter school, funded and founded by the billionaire Michael Steinhardt (the Steinhardt Conservatory at Brooklyn Botanic Garden) in the building. His daughter Sara Berman is spearheading the school and spoke at the meeting. The Steinhardts should have stuck to gardening.
The back story is that when HLA received approval there was an absolute promise that they would find their own space. They looked and looked - they say — but couldn't find a suitable location. One minute they were looking for 25,000 square feet of space and the next it was 50,000. One parent said he found loads of locations in about 10 minutes on the web and asked how they couldn't find a space in two years. There was just a bit of suspicion that there was never any intention of finding a space, for which HLA would have to either buy or pay a lot of rent. Space in public schools is free for charters. A no-brainer. IS 278 with great facilities and right in Marine Park - the target all along. Few believed that HLA would only be there for the promised two years while they looked for a space. There is a tendency to demand more and more space as grades are added. Witness Eva Moskowitz' Harlem Success Schools attempts to take over as many public school buildings as they can.
There's more. IS 278 has been asking to turn their school into a 6-12 grade school so kids can continue the special arts programs, much of which will be taken away when HLA occupies 6-8 classrooms and 6 more rooms for administration. Suddenly, the DOE is offering a deal of sorts - or a bribe. Take HLA for two years and then get your 6-12. Most people weren't buying it, as the arrogant and condescending patrician-looking Tweed official John White does not exactly come off as trustworthy. Numerous parents asked, "Why should we assume HLA will find a space in the next two years when they haven't found one over the last two?" The charter lottery was held in a YMHA on a Sunday afternoon and many in the community claimed it was not advertised widely. HLA claimed they sent out many notices. Three hundred people applied for 150 positions. HLA reps claimed there was diversity, but brought no numbers to back it up. Sara Berman raved about how there would be two teachers in a room. And low class sizes. Wow! No wonder parents, even in Marine Park where schools generally do pretty well, are tempted. But that is a part of the divisiveness of charter schools, which ultimately undermine neighborhood schools. I bet no parent at IS 278 ever saw two teachers in a room. Or real low class sizes.
The Hispanic speaking principal chosen to head HLA, who speaks no Hebrew, spoke. Would you be surprised if she is a temporary figurehead who at some point in the next year will leave to spend more time with her family? Politicians can't resist a crowd. Anthony Weiner, Bill Thompson, State Senator Marty Goldman, local Councilman Lew Fiddler and reps of other politicians showed up to make statements "supporting" the community. Hypocrites all. The problem is putting the schools in control of the mayor and almost every one of them still supports mayoral control of the schools. Brooklyn State Senator Karl Kruger, whose rep, wearing a yarmulke no less, spoke out against placing HLA (http://hlacharterschool.org/) in IS 278, made a strong statement challenging Bloomberg's control over the schools. Kruger, a conservative Democrat, "vehemently opposes Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith's support for mayoral control," according to the Gotham Schools blog. "Kruger's proposal eliminates the position of schools chancellor and replaces it with a commissioner of education, who the mayor would select from a list of three candidates nominated by the Panel for Educational Policy board." Good start Carl, but the power to control education should be totally removed from the hands of politicians. That's why the IS 278 community is in the pickle it's in. As one would expect, the UFT was absent. I heard people asking why and I told them the UFT couldn't help you protest the placing of a charter school in your middle school since they had done exactly the same thing with their charter middle school in East NY at IS 166 - George Gershwin (my Alma Mata). I urged teachers to put pressure on the union.
Most speakers, while opposing placing the charter in IS 278, said they supported HLA and wished them well in finding other space. Educational historian Diane Ravitch disagrees. She wrote an op-ed in the Daily News in January: He [Steinhardt] is asking taxpayers to support an institution that has obvious religious overtones. In a city with a great variety of Jewish schools and other agencies that encourage Jewish identity, it makes no sense to create a public school with the same purpose. If the goal of the Hebrew Language Charter School is to strengthen the religious identity of Russian and Israeli Jews, then it should be a private school. If the goal is to teach Hebrew to a broad variety of students, then the Regents should encourage the teaching of Hebrew in the regular public schools.
If the IS 278 community succeeds in keeping HLA out and the DOE shoves HLA into another public school with less activism, the IS 278 community doesn't seem to think there would be anything wrong with that.
I spoke at the meeting representing the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM). I told them they were not alone, as the DOE is attacking its own public schools (don't they run them?) and favoring charters. I said I was against the very idea of charter schools that funnel public money into the hands of private interests. The much trumpeted "school choice" is just a marketing concept to undermine neighborhood schools and privatize them. I spoke directly to the few HLA supporters sitting in the front row with big white "I Support HLA" buttons. "If you wanted a dual language Hebrew school, why didn't you approach the mayor and ask for one to be established as part of a public school? After all, there are many dual language public schools in existence. The mayor has dictatorial control of the schools you probably could have accomplished it. Or why not just open a private school? But you want to jump onto the charter school gravy train and grab public funds for your own private use." Michael Steinhardt lost millions in the Bernie Madoff scheme. He seems to have come up with a nice one of his own. Learning from the master.