By A. Campbell
KIPP, a national charter school network known for strong student achievement, was given permission by a state board to open a middle school in District 3, which includes the Upper West Side and West Harlem. The school will serve students in 5th to 8th grade, and be called KIPP Beyond Charter, but it’s not yet clear where in the district it will be located.
The decision comes after a passionate hearing last week held at PS/IS 76 on West 121st Street, which focused on whether a State University of New York board should approve KIPP and two other charter schools applying for new locations in Upper Manhattan.
Members of Community Education Council District 3 (CEC 3), a parent group that’s similar to a school board but with fewer powers, opposed the school, starting a petition that got over 500 signatures. In a letter to Board of Trustees Member and Chairman of the Charter School Committee at SUNY Joseph Belluck, members of CEC 3 argued that approval of KIPP’s application will “directly undermine two initiatives recently approved by CEC 3…to provide equitable educational opportunities in our district: District 3’s Middle School Plan and the New York City Department of Education’s (“NY DOE”) Harlem/EL Barrio Visioning Project.” It will be the twelfth charter school housed in District 3, they said.
According to Joe Negron, KIPP’s Managing Director of middle schools, there are several reasons KIPP wants to move in. District 3 has the most segregated schools out of all 32 New York City public school districts. Negron said District 3 maintains the largest gap in performance between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students, and that it has the highest percentage of public middle schools that apply some sort of screening to prospective students before granting admission. The screenings generally focus on a prospective student’s standardized test scores, attendance record and behavioral history, among other factors.
“We feel like we are providing an option that families want and that this district doesn’t currently offer,” Negron said. “A middle school that is academically rigorous and is unscreened – that option does not exist.”
Representatives from CEC 3 strongly disagreed. Kimberly Watkins, President of CEC 3, noted that 25 percent of all of the city’s charter schools are located in the northern part of Manhattan. Watkins said that in District 3 alone, families already have 22 options of where they want to send their children to school. “Why would responsible educational leaders make decisions like that,” she asked. “Because this is about politics. It’s about money.”
While charter school leadership and staff members at the hearing cited their record of high-quality education, low attrition rates, and integrated classrooms, public school teachers and parents noted the lack of oversight from SUNY as well as a dearth of services for students with special education needs. Some people at the hearing debated whether charter schools too often “counseled out” students who do not meet certain academic or behavioral standards. Traditional public school advocates noted that students who are counseled out often end up having to change schools mid-semester, leaving their parents to scramble while trying to find space for them elsewhere.
Representatives from KIPP asked that people refrain from painting all charter schools with a broad brush and reiterated that they would not resort to counseling out students. “We have a policy of trying our very best to hold to as many students who start with us as we can,” said Vicki Zubovic, Chief of External Affairs at KIPP. “I can tell you that our attrition rates are among the lowest, if not the lowest, in the city. It’s drilled into everyone at KIPP that if a parent is unhappy, you have to do everything you can to make sure the needs of the family are being addressed.”
“We feel like we’re being a compliment to [the Community Education Council’s] efforts and to be portrayed as anything else is just confusing to me,” Negron added. “The thing that ultimately aligns us is that we all want great things for the kids in this district. We truly want to work together with everyone in the community, and we have been doing that and will continue to do so.”