Carol Burris asks a simple question: How would you feel if strangers moved in to your home, uninvited, taking away half your living quarters? You may not like it, but you can’t do anything about it.

 

That is what happens when the school district allows a privately managed charter to “co-locate” in a public school, taking choice space for itself. Critics used to call this practice a “charter invasion.”

 

Burris tells the story of a successful public school dedicated to the performing arts in a poor community. A charter school will move in, taking away the space for the performing arts. How is this fair?

 

 

Imagine this. You get a call telling you that another family will now occupy the second floor of your home. After you recover from your initial shock, you complain. “Outrageous,” you say. That is where I have my office, our second bathroom and the guest bedroom for when my mother comes to stay.” You quickly learn the decision is not yours to make. This is a top-down order, and you must comply.

 

As far-fetched as the above might seem, the above is what principals in New York City and other cities around the country face when charter schools demand space. And although principals may not “own” their schools, the community that surrounds the school surely does. Yet, no matter how strongly they protest, community voices are nearly always ignored.

 

With increasing frequency, community-based schools, located predominantly in poor neighborhoods, are being hedged in, disrupted and derailed by charter school co-location, which is the forced insertion of a charter school into an existing neighborhood public school.

 

The students and parents of Meyer Levin School for the Performing Arts (I. S. 285) are learning this lesson now. Meyer Levin, which is located in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, is a magnet for middle school students who want to develop their musical and performance talents. Eighty nine percent of the school’s student body receives free or reduced priced lunch, and 93 percent are black. Nearly one in five have a learning disability. Although some students come from other parts of the city, the vast majority are neighborhood kids.

 
Five weeks ago, the phone call arrived that a new Uncommon Elementary Charter School wanted to move into Meyer Levin, which the New York City Department of Education claims is an underutilized building. The Uncommon Charter would take over the third floor where the school’s dance study, two band rooms, theater production room, choral room, lighting room, sound room, computer labs and community offices for special programs are located. In other words, they would take the floor that is the heart of this performing arts school.

 

Shortly after the call, the charter school came to the building for a walk -through. When she heard about the visit, community activist, Zakiyah Ansari, was outraged. Four of her daughters had graduated from the school and she understood its deep ties to the community. “It is like someone coming to your home to figure out what piece of furniture they want. And this happened even before approval. “

 

Ansari remembers Meyer Levin with great fondness. “My daughters had so much when they were there. They had a science lab, a steel pan orchestra, one of my daughters got into poetry. They had access to amazing things that I thought all schools had, until I learned that what they were experiencing was rare.”

 

Ansari’s praise for the school was echoed by other parents—as was her outrage that a charter school would come in to claim space. Kianne Guadeloupe, the mother of a seventh grader speaks with pride about her older daughter who graduated and went on to Brooklyn College Academy. She credits the school’s arts program for giving her confidence and helping her to succeed. Her belief in the transformative power of the arts was shared by parent and PTA member, Donna Rose, who is the mother of an eighth grader with special needs. “If they take that floor they will take away what the school is all about—the performing arts. My daughter learned her dance skills here. Getting into dance brought her out of her shell, and now she is on the honor roll. She always wants to be in school now.”

 

Make no mistake: Meyer Levin is not a failing school. Its scores are above the district average, and above the state average for students who are black and economically disadvantaged. The school’s focus on the arts has helped support academics in the school. And the performing arts program anchors the community, and is a source of great pride.