The audience at last night's hearing in Harlem.
The large auditorium at P.S. 194 in Harlem was filled to the brim for last night's meeting. <em>Photo by Kyla Calvert. </em>

Despite repeated cries for a calmer debate, including one from a City Council representative who said he was dismayed by the “divided house,” it was wagging fists, name-calling, and raucous shouting matches that ruled the day at a hearing last night in Harlem.

The crowd had gathered to discuss the city’s proposal to replace P.S. 194, an elementary school the city announced in December it plans to phase out, with a charter school founded by Eva Moskowitz. But they left late last night with no consensus on what to do next, aside from the resounding certainty that the move to add more charter schools to Harlem — which now has 24 charter schools, making it second only to New Orleans in market saturation — will not happen without a bitter fight.

Among those who spoke out against the charter school coming into P.S. 194 were Annie B. Martin, president of the New York chapter of the NAACP; City Council member Robert Jackson; City Council member Inez Dickens; a staff member of state Sen. Bill Perkins; and a representative of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. Jackson not only condemned the decision but said he is considering holding a hearing at City Hall to pursue the matter.

The dissenting voices often collided with equally passionate parents and teachers at the charter school, Harlem Success Academy 2, and the two camps found themselves in several shouting matches.

At one point, a P.S. 194 mother screamed so loudly into the microphone about her despair that 194 is shutting down that a Harlem Success mother stood up with her finger to her mouth. “Shh!” she said. When the woman did not calm down, the charter school mother took her twin son and daughter by the hand and pulled them out of the auditorium. “I don’t need my kids to see this,” another Harlem Success mother had said moments earlier, tugging her children out of the assembly hall. At other moments, emotional testimony led pockets of the audience to rise to their feet in anger. The shouting drowned out any words.

Many of those opposed to housing the charter school at 194 said they are concerned that charter schools — public schools that operate outside the regular district bureaucracy — are part of a larger gentrification of the neighborhood. “Tarzan and Jane are back again, swinging through Harlem: Not with vines, but with charter schools,” said a community activist who offered her name as Dr. K. Samuels. Samuels explained that by Tarzan she meant John White, the thin, long-faced DOE official who ran the hearing, and that by Jane she meant Moskowitz, the politician-turned-school operator who sat a few feet away from her and held her Blackberry in her lap. Samuels added, “Like Tarzan and Jane, coming right through the black community, and they were making everything better because the natives couldn’t do it.”

The colonial metaphor caused some Harlem Success staffers to shake their heads. In fact, though the school’s principal is white, 53% of the full-time teaching staff are not. The principal of P.S. 194, meanwhile, is black. Her staff includes a mix of races.

Opponents of the proposal said they worry that some students at 194 will end up displaced. While the city has promised to give students zoned for 194 priority in the lottery that determines who gets into Harlem Success, they cannot promise every student in the neighborhood a spot. Others accused charter schools of excluding some students. “I can’t tell you how many of our students come right back to us because they are kicked out of the charter schools,” P.S. 194’s chapter leader, Dana White, said.

That accusation inspired a wave of anger among Harlem Success teachers. One Harlem Success teacher, Amy Althoff, stood up to invite any family in the audience into her classroom. “Every child who started the year in my classroom is still at Harlem Success,” Althoff, a kindergarten teacher, said. “I don’t care if you’re special ed; I have special ed children in my classroom. I don’t care if you’re ELL; I am certified to teach English language learners.”

Another fight erupted after a P.S. 194 teacher testified saying, “Please, Board of Education, save our jobs!” Several minutes later, a Harlem Success parent, Sharawn Vinson, stormed to the stage and pointed her finger at a section of the audience crowned in matching white UFT snow caps. Her words were drowned out by an immediate screaming response from the teachers, but she described what she said afterward. “They are out here, they arguing, they got hats, they got buttons,” she said, and then asked why they hadn’t fought before. “You wait till the last minute, when they want to give you the boot, to come out here and fight.”

While the chorus of opposition could lead the DOE to back off its plan to move Harlem Success inside the P.S. 194 building, it is unlikely that community members will get another wish they’re after: To keep P.S. 194 open. Though the decision on where to house the charter school is not final — the DOE calls it a proposal — the decision to close P.S. 194 is. That news came in December, when school officials used a history of pitifully poor performance to argue that the school should phase out. Last year, only 38% of students at the school could read at grade level, and fewer than 48% of students could do math at grade level. The phase-out means that kindergartners and first-graders at 194 will have to find a new school next year, while second, third, fourth, and fifth-graders will finish out their time at P.S. 194.

P.S. 194 parents and teachers pleaded with the city to keep their school open, pointing to their new principal, Charyn Cleary, who they say has reshaped their school. After Cleary came last July on a turnaround mission, they said they began calling it “the new P.S. 194.” Cleary ordered the janitor to re-paint all the walls, ordered new furniture, brought in as many staff she trusted as possible, taught the teachers how to use new DOE technology to track data points on students, and won the trust of parents, who had despised a line of previous principals.

Cleary testified herself at the hearing. “I didn’t come here to close a school,” she said. “I came here to rebuild a school.” She said she runs her school “like a charter school,” adding, “Eva Moskowitz and I are no different in this regard: We believe in academic excellence, and we believe in choice.” But she pleaded that she get a shot at continuing the work she started. “We should not be at each other’s throats,” she said. “We just need to help you find a home. Becuase I’ve found a home, and it’s here.”

Several speakers echoed her call for cooperation. “I am sick and tired of parents being pushed against another set,” Dickens, the City Council member, said. “This is not about fighting one another. This is about our schools and what we need.”

CORRECTION, CLARIFICATION: The original post incorrectly identified the NAACP’s New York president. I also updated this post to include more specific figures on the racial makeup of the teachers at Harlem Success Academy 2.