parent voice

How Crown Heights parents derailed a potential charter school co-location in one week

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Rhonda Morman, coordinator of the gifted and talented program at M.S. 61, was among several members of the school community to attend a recent Panel for Educational Policy meeting to oppose the potential plans for a charter school co-location.

A group of M.S. 61 parents and alumni stormed into a Panel for Educational Policy meeting last week with a message for Chancellor Carmen Fariña: Don’t send another school into our building.

The parents knew M.S. 61’s building in Crown Heights was getting a close look as the city hunted for space for Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School, one of four charter schools the city has committed to finding space for under a new state law. In matching M.S. 61 T-shirts, they told Fariña they wanted nothing to do it.

One week later, Fariña told them she had heard their concerns.

“We’re not going to put a charter school in this building,” Fariña announced to an auditorium full of parents Wednesday night before being drowned out by applause.

The decision underscores how seriously the new administration is taking the concerns of school communities, and signifies that the Department of Education is less willing than in years past to pick fights with district schools to accommodate charter schools. It also illustrates how tricky it will be for officials to come up with space-sharing arrangements for new charter schools that are now guaranteed access to city facilities (or city funding), since few schools are eager for the complications that come with sharing space.

While Fariña didn’t explain the city’s decision making process, she indicated that she had listened to the parents and teachers of M.S. 61, who called their lobbying effort a success. That culminated last week at Murry Bergtraum High School, where Fariña was meeting with the Panel for Educational Policy. At the meeting, the parents held signs, spoke of their school’s desire to expand, and declared their opposition to sharing space with Launch Expeditionary, which will add high-school grades in the 2015-16 year.

“We need to remain one school in one building in order to see our vision completed,” said Karone Playfair, M.S. 61’s parent association president.

M.S. 61 currently uses up just over 50 percent of its building, and last year’s enrollment of 777 students is the lowest it’s been in the last two decades, according to city data. But Playfair said that its enrollment is low because it has been capped by the Department of Education. (There were 810 applications for 203 spots open in M.S. 61’s three programs last year, according to data obtained by DNAinfo.)

The middle school, which includes a gifted and talented program, is made up entirely of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch and 98 percent of students are black or Hispanic. Sixteen percent of students were proficient on last year’s math tests and 19 percent were proficient on the English tests, both below district averages.

Shannon Burton, who is in his second year as principal, said he’s added courses and that he’s already seeing more demand for the school. On Wednesday, he said he had urged city officials to give the school time to add students and improve.

“Give us one more year,” Burton said. “I’ll be at the right numbers.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña huddles with District 17 Superintendent Clarence Ellis at a town hall meeting at M.S. 61.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Chancellor Carmen Fariña huddles with District 17 Superintendent Clarence Ellis at a town hall meeting at M.S. 61.

Last week, a working group appointed by the mayor released a list of recommendations for the city to consider as it revamps its policies for co-locating schools, a practice that has often left schools fighting over access to common facilities like gyms and cafeterias. One of the group’s top recommendations was for the city to be more transparent with existing schools about possible co-location plans.

Playfair said that an education department official first informed the school that a co-location was possible on Oct. 7 as he toured the building with parents and the school leadership team. But the parents grew increasingly worried when they learned that the same official had visited the school unannounced on three subsequent occasions to view space in the basement.

“You can come in, but what are you doing sneaking around?” Burton said.

On Wednesday, district superintendent Clarence Ellis said he wasn’t sure why the city backed off its pursuit of the space, and Fariña did not stick around after the town hall to discuss the issue. School officials are now discussing how to use the extra building space for other purposes, he said.

“If the principal here can up his numbers, if he goes out and parents want to bring their kids here because neighbors are saying good things are happening here, I’m encouraging that,” Ellis said.

Fariña still faces the complicated task of accommodating the space needs of district and now some charter schools. At the meeting, she also offered perhaps her most ardent public defense of charter schools yet, along with a challenge to traditional public schools.

“As long as parents choose to send their kids to charter schools, because it is parent choice, there is always going to be a need for them,” Fariña said. “And I am not going to say what parents should choose to do. However, I will say that public schools need to be a little bit more competitive. I’m urging principals not to focus on what other people are doing, but what can I do to make this school the best school possible and how do I get the word out there.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”