Thursday, March 27, 2008

Questions and observations

In March, I was able to meet Spencer Robertson at a meeting held at PS15; Ms. Wyns-Madison, several PTA and School Leadership Committee members, PS15 staff members and a representative from the Department of Education were also present - and I'll go into more detail on this meeting in a separate post.

Mr. Robertson seems like a personable enough fellow, but he doesn't really seem to be all that familiar with Red Hook as a community - and I am willing to bet that the other participants in this meeting were even more sensitive to this than I am because they actually live and work in the neighborhood - I've only been visiting for the past decade (my husband lived there for a while when I first met him; I've been over to the neighborhood frequently for events at BWAC, and of course my son has been attending school there for the past 5 years). I didn't get the gut feeling that he has a real commitment to Red Hook itself - I got the sense that his commitment is primarily to promoting his charter school - but I also wonder how much experience he has running a private business (he seemed to be extremely offended when I pointed out that I was surprised that he was given approval to start up the PAVE Academy without having secured a definite location to run his business from; he seemed to have an issue with calling a non-profit (501(c)3 organization) a business - but it IS a business! Either he's incredibly naive, or his reaction was a pretense; either way, the reaction was completely weird.

During the conversation, it also turned out that despite what his proposal presented about serving the Red Hook community, citing statistics about the 50-50 ratio of Hispanic and African American students he felt should be enrolled in his school, it turns out that he has had the Department of Education do a mailing to parents throughout the 11231 zip code to recruit students. That zip code certainly includes Red Hook, but it also extends through several other neighborhoods with very different ethnic compositions - all the way up Court and Smith Streets to Union Street, for instance, which some people would refer to as Cobble Hill. Something isn't adding up right here, and I don't know whether it's Mr. Robertson's true intentions, or the way the DOE is "helping" him.

One parent pointed out, after he made a pronouncement about wanting to "share" for the sake of mutually helping each other, that this comment was ironic: it was like having an uninvited guest barge into their living room and start babbling about sharing. I'd been having similar thoughts before the meeting myself, and it was a relief to hear someone else actually voice that concern. He offered to help PS15 out with things like building a green roof for the school, or providing air conditioning.

Mr. Robertson, by the way, spent a lot of time at the meeting talking about how he would actually prefer to use the Miccio Center than PS15, because in some ways that building has several advantages from his point of view - including easier access to mass transit (it's closer to the Smith & 9th Street F station), which would be more appealing to the young teachers he wants to recruit to work in his school, as well as some of the families he's trying to recruit to attend the school. (Again, whatever happened to his original plan to serve student from the immediate Red Hook neighborhood?) Fine. He's got his eye on another location - but what he wants may not connect smoothly with what the DOE decides to do in the long run. He also took offense again when I pointed out that Red Hook has been cut off from the rest of Brooklyn with only bus access ever since Robert Moses built the expressway, and that despite that, PS15 has committed teachers and some families who value the school enough to make the effort to commute in from considerable distances EVEN THOUGH it's not right next to a subway station. His reaction to this was borderline hostile, and another parent attending the meeting basically told him to back off.

After he left the meeting, the DOE representative pointed out several things that PS15 may need to seriously consider: the PAVE School has more money attached to it than some other charter schools, and that with the low enrollment situation at PS15, the PAVE Academy might be one of the more positive alternatives because we might be able to negotiate more positive "sharing" options with them than some other schools with very little financial backing - for instance, an up to date science lab, rather than merely air conditioning systems which have a limited lifespan. It appears that - according to the DOE - as long as PS15 has low enrollment, it's almost inevitable that there will be pressure to place SOME charter school in its building. We may need to develop strategies to boost enrollment if we don't want another school dumped on us; we might add 6th through 8th grade to the school (which could actually be a positive move for many of the Red Hook families who may not want their kids bused out of the neighborhood for middle school). We could also include a bilingual lab, and/or a Mommy and Me program for kids who are younger than pre-K students (and this could be a feeder program for the pre-K program at the school).

Things to think about. I'll be adding more posts soon - but these issues have been on my mind for a while now.

I'd love to see some comments posted here - the webcounter is showing nearly 300 hits as of today (March 27), so I know people are looking at the blog.

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