Bushwick Beyond the Brand

Fed-up parents abandon failing schools

By Jordan Davidson

Juana Zapata asked to help her daughter’s kindergarten teacher at P.S. 274 on Bushwick Avenue, but her overture went unanswered.

“She had all these kids to teach by herself and nobody to help her,” Zapata said. “It’s two blocks from my house. Why not take the help?”

People in the office ignored her when she stopped in to check on her daughter’s progress. The teacher didn’t return her phone calls. The principal was too busy to talk with her. Handouts about afterschool and weekend programs were sent home after the deadlines had passed. When her daughter was in first grade, the teacher started paperwork to classify her daughter as in need of special education services. Zapata was taken aback.

Achievement First Bushwick

Students have a longer school day at Achievement First Bushwick than students at neighborhood public schools. Achievement First Bushwick shares a building with JHS 383, a middle school facing dwindling enrollment. Photo courtesy of Achievement First.

“I heard nothing from them,” she said. “Nobody talked to me about how to work with my daughter and all of a sudden I’m in a meeting to sign some papers so she can be in a special education class.”

P.S. 274, like most Bushwick public schools, fails every year to meet its mandated progress goals for Hispanic students, students with limited English proficiency, special education students and economically disadvantaged students. The superfecta applies to Zapata’s daughter.

Her experience with P.S. 274 and the state of the Bushwick public schools mirrors, in some ways, that of the entire city. Twelve years after Mayor Bloomberg seized control of the schools and staked his reputation on educational gains, many parents feel disenfranchised, and many public schools continue to report low test scores. Only 26 percent of Bushwick public school fourth graders were proficient in English Language Arts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In math, 31 percent of fourth graders were proficient. Middle schools also underperformed. In eighth grade, 31 percent met proficiency standards in ELA and 23 percent met the math standards.

Despite the low test scores, 78 percent of Bushwick’s high school seniors graduate with a diploma. Yet, only 8 percent graduate with honors and only 29 percent of graduates move on to a four-year college.

Parents say they feel frustrated by what they perceive as a decision makers’  tin-ear decision to community input, according to Joseph Viteritti, who chaired the public advocate’s commission on school governance and edited the book When Mayors Take Charge, a collection of studies about schools under mayoral control.

The Bloomberg administration touted improvement in the schools, but test scores show no gains in student progress. Viteritti argues that the Bloomberg administration has lowered standards rather than raising expectations and failed to deliver effective professional development for teachers.

The Department of Education did not respond to a request for an interview.

But some aspects of the school system have changed for the better, parents and advocates say. Viteritti points out that the schools have changed more than they ever have before, and parents, including low-income parents, have additional options if they are dissatisfied with low-performing schools. He believes implementing changes is the first step to finding ways to improve the schools. Through her daughter, Zapata experienced both the deficiencies of the local public school and the benefits of the new choices.

Zapata learned of an Achievement First charter school opening on Covert Street, a mile and a half away in her neighborhood, and enrolled in the lottery when her daughter was in second grade. Before the lottery, an Achievement First staff member met with Zapata to explain the culture of the school, the expectations of the parents and the demands of parent involvement. The staff member listened to Zapata explain her daughter’s ADHD diagnosis and countered with the behavioral and academic tutoring available for students like her daughter.

“That one conversation was more than I ever got in three years at our neighborhood school,” she said.

Achievement First Brooklyn,  where Zapata’s daughter is now in sixth grade and her son is in kindergarten, meets its progress goals and, like many city charter schools, outperforms its neighboring public schools, yet its population does not reflect that of the wider neighborhood. The Bushwick population is 20 percent African-American and 65 percent Hispanic, according to the 2010 census, yet Achievement First is 54 percent African-American and 45 percent Hispanic. The local public schools’ demographics, on the other hand, accurately reflect the neighborhood as a whole. Seventy-three percent of Bushwick’s public school children are Hispanic.

A gifted-and-talented middle school, JHS 383, shares the space with Achievement First. Its population is 62 percent African-American and only 26 percent Hispanic. Additionally, it has faced declining enrollment as fewer local students qualify under new centralized requirements and more students from the city’s most affluent areas qualify for gifted and talented but decline to travel to Bushwick for school.

The number of fifth graders entering JHS 383 has dropped 36 percent over the last three years.

While JHS 383’s enrollment dwindles, Achievement First’s continues to grow. Yet, JHS 383 controls the building and takes the most favorable breakfast, lunch and gym periods. Achievement First’s students eat breakfast at 7 a.m. and lunch at 10 a.m.

Achievement First has a longer school day than JHS 383 and the neighborhood public schools. Critics of charter schools, often teachers’ unions and their political allies, say school like Achievement First rely on young teachers who work 60-hour weeks but burn out quickly. In addition, the United Federation of Teachers reported in 2010 that charters in New York City enroll a smaller share of special education students and those still learning English.

Zakiyah Ansari, a spokeswoman for New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, criticized charter schools for failing to communicate to the population they claim to serve. “They don’t reach out to large English Language Learner populations,” she said. “Their outreach and postings are in English and target active and engaged parents. A single mom working two or three jobs doesn’t know how to go after a charter school.”

Zapata, a stay-at-home mom, personifies the active and engaged parent Ansari described.

The Bloomberg administration’s insistence on placing charter schools within existing public schools has added to the tension between schools.

“They’ve set up a contest for space,” said Viteritti. “Another school comes in with their own way of doing things. It’s belligerent and results in conflict and resentment in communities.”

Viteritti hopes the next mayor will learn from schools like Achievement First Bushwick, where the arts thrive, the teachers receive meaningful feedback and the school’s management empowers its teachers to innovate. He believes the next mayor should appoint a chancellor with a background in education and a sensitivity to community concerns, unlike Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s school chancellor for eight years.

“An educator in charge would understand that you get great teaching and you test based on that,” he said. “The Klein game plan was test, test, test. Fail kids, and build tension in communities and between schools.”

Zapata’s daughter thrives in math and expects to graduate college – in a neighborhood where only 8 percent of the adult population had a college degree in 2006. She manages her ADHD, takes her schoolwork seriously and recites soliloquies from Hamlet.