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All We Hear Is Radio Ga-Ga: Is Anyone Really Listening When It Comes To NYC Schools?

October 24, 2019

This article was originally posted on New York School Talk.

Last week, I wrote about The Surprising Integration Skeptics of NYC (It’s Not Who You Think). As one mom on the Lower East Side advised, “Integration activists need to touch base with people they are trying to help” when it comes to proposed school rezoning and mergers.

This week, we’re headed uptown for a hearing in Harlem about the KIPP charter school network opening an “intentionally integrated” middle school in District 3 for September 2020 to see whether the Department of Education (DOE) would listen to the members of this community.

KIPP had previously wanted to launch a 5th through 8th grade program, similar to The Center School, which is also located on the Upper West Side. However, after consulting with over 200 families as well as various elementary school principals who were worried about the funding they’d lose, KIPP opted to amend their plans and begin in 6th grade.

According to Jeff Li, Co-Founder and Teacher at KIPP NYC, “[b]ecause the change from a 5th grade to a 6th grade entry point requires a material revision to our charter, a hearing was requested by our authorizer (SUNY) and set up by the NYCDOE in order to hear public comment on the proposal.”

Among those attending the October 7 hearing were Kimberly Watkins and Kristen E. Berger, President and First Vice President of Community Education Council 3.

They were the first to stand up and make public comments, as dictated by the agenda. They read the names of the elected leaders who had signed letters of opposition to KIPP’s expansion. It should be noted that none of those leaders who signed letters of opposition nor their staff showed up to hear their constituents.

They spoke about the almost 800 people who signed the CEC’s petition against KIPP’s expansion. (I broke down that petition, point by point, here.)

Ms. Watkins asserted that KIPP’s arrival in the neighborhood “will render harm” to the “government ordered voluntary desegregation” efforts of District 3.

It would specifically harm a school like Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts where, as I wrote almost exactly a year ago, “not one student passed either the state math or English Language Arts (ELA) tests in 2015, 2016, or 2017….Wadleigh was set to be closed in 2012, but parents and community leaders protested. It was added to the Renewal program in 2014, but, as with the majority of schools in that program, no progress was made.”

Ms. Berger conceded that “we have more middle schools than we probably need for our population…. If someone is out there appealing to more students, enrollment drops, and funding dries up with it. It is unfair to allow a school to atrophy. It is unfair to not step in when we can.”

They both categorically stated, “We condemn endorsing the placement of this school in District 3.”

And then, as described by Joe Negron, KIPP Beyond’s Principal, “Right after their remarks, they left the building.  Within their comments, they asked us to be patient with the various initiatives they are undertaking as they continue to gather feedback from the community. And then they left… before listening to feedback from the community.  We were disappointed that they did not stay because they could have seen and heard the incredible support for KIPP Beyond we are hearing from such a diverse group of community members, families, and educators.”

“If the people in District 3 are upset, I say then do it better, and do it now,” offered one young African-American woman.

An African-American dad and K-8 charter school principal agreed, “If you can do it better than us, go do it.”

While a mother with two children currently in District 3 middle schools accused, “They don’t have a plan (for integration). They don’t know what to do with the low-scoring kids who got into these ‘great’ schools, and now they have no support. Do you know how they’re supporting my daughter? They’re not returning my calls. They have no plan!”

No community members spoke against the school.

It’s not only disappointing but also ironic that Ms. Watkins and Ms. Berger left.

Because on the day after the KIPP hearing, in reference to the School Diversity Advisory Group’s recommendation to get rid of Gifted & Talented programs, West Side Rag published the following (all bolding mine): 

Kim Watkins, President of the Community Education Council for District 3, said she worried about unilateral decisions being made in a city as big as New York.

She said that District 3 is already working on its own diversity plan and is concerned about whether districts would “continue to be encouraged to develop and execute their own plans or whether mayoral control would be executed without parent feedback and involvement.”

“I think checks and balances and engagement with constituencies is really important even if it makes it ugly. The process needs to bring out the voice of the people,” she said.

She also said that while her primary commitment was to ensure that all zone schools in her district could educate students properly, there are many parents who aren’t satisfied with their zoned schools based on attendance, grades, and test scores and want an alternative.

“The gifted and talented program in District 3 is a big deal – for a lot of parents and not just those escaping a zone school,” she said.

We suspect the folks who came out to Harlem to discuss KIPP’s middle school are very sorry that Ms. Watkins feels unheard on an issue so important to so many members of the District 3 community.

And that they can relate.

Alina Adams is the author of "Getting Into NYC Kindergarten" and "Getting Into NYC High-School." For her books, videos, blogs and more on navigating the NYC school system, visit: www.NYCSchoolSecrets.com.

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