Schoolyard brawl: Parents fight over Fort Greene charter expansion

Schoolyard brawl: Parents fight over Fort Greene charter expansion
Community Newspaper Group / Kate Briquelet

Parents at a Fort Greene elementary school are lashing out against the city’s proposal to move a new charter school into their building, claiming that their own expansion plans were denied to make room for a school with more political clout.

Hundreds of parents packed the auditorium of PS 287 on Wednesday night, waiting for their chance to speak their mind about the Community Roots Charter School’s bid to open a new middle school within the Navy Street learning institution — a plan that already has the support of a local councilwoman and the city’s chancellor of schools.

Tensions erupted after charter school proponents hogged the microphone for two hours before PS 287 advocates could even chime in. One PS 287 mother was pulled out of the auditorium screaming as rumors swirled that critics of the plan were being silenced to stifle opposition.

“Community Roots is robbing our children,” said Cynthia Garrett, who has a kindergartner at PS 287 and is a graduate of the school herself. “They’re taking over our cafeteria and our library, and we just get to hear about how great their school is.”

PS 287 PTA president Edgardo Rivera bristled as supporters of the plan shared Community Roots success stories.

“What about us? What about this community and this school?” said Rivera, who claims his school has tried in vain to expand to include a K-8 program. “We’re trying so hard but the [Department of Education] keeps telling us no. If the city were shoving a school down your throats, you’d be out there fighting.”

PS 287 already shares its facilities with a charter school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy — an Arabic language school that is currently being phased out and relocated. Rivera said that parents aren’t against Community Roots — they also demonstrated against Khalil Gibran in 2008, because they wanted the space for their own expansion.

But the city has repeatedly scuttled PS 287’s attempts to add middle school classes, citing low enrollment.

This isn’t the first time that Community Roots — which operates a K-5 program just blocks away on St. Edwards Street in a building it shares with PS 67 — plotted an expansion in a public school. Last year, the city scrapped plans for the charter school to occupy more space inside its current home after PS 67 families complained.

But this time the move has drawn support from elected officials including Councilwoman Letitia James (D-Fort Greene), who has slammed charter schools in the past.

It also has the backing of the city’s Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who claims he’s “very bullish” on Community Roots because “there’s a great opportunity for quality education to take place.”

“We have been working with the community over the last year,” said Walcott at a town hall meeting in Gravesend on Wednesday night. “We’re confident that there will be support there.”

A big crowd of Community Roots parents showed up at PS 287 to defend the charter school.

Abi Fenelon says Community Roots went above and beyond to help her daughter, who has been diagnosed with autism.

“The [Department of Education] told me that she would never read above grade level,” Fenelon said. “She reads and does math above grade level, she writes music and plays guitar. Every child who dreams big needs to be here at Community Roots Charter School!”

Department of Education spokesman Frank Thomas said that PS 287 has enough room for both schools, since the Khalil Gibran International Academy, an Arab language charter school that also resides in the building,

PS 287 currently utilizes only about half of its 571-student capacity — while Community Roots has a waiting list of 700 students, according to city data.

PS 287 has gone from receiving an F in city progress in 2006-2007 reports to earning an A in 2008-2009 followed by two straight Bs. Community Roots received an F in its first progress report in the 2009-2010 school year and took home a C last year.

The city is big on wildly popular Community Roots despite its low scores, citing its strong culture of parent involvement and ties with the community. According to an Education Department survey in 2010-2011, 100 percent of parents reported that they are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the school.

If the city’s plan is approved, the charter school will host its first class of 50 sixth-graders in September.

The Panel for Education Policy will vote on the Community Roots expansion on Jan. 18 at Brooklyn Tech High School [29 Fort Greene Place between DeKalb Avenue and Fulton Street in Fort Greene, (212) 374-0208], 6 pm. For info, visit http://schools.nyc.gov.

Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly reported the number of charter school supporters and opponents who attended the Jan. 11 meeting. Altogether, hundreds of parents showed up.

Reach Kate Briquelet at [email protected] or by calling her at (718) 260-2511.