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Clara Hemphill Headshot

Do Charter Schools Help or Hurt?

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When officials at P.S. 123, an ordinary neighborhood school in Harlem, were forced to call the police this month to keep a charter school from taking over its classrooms, I was reminded how charter schools make it harder for neighborhood schools to succeed.

Some time ago, I visited P.S. 42 in the Bronx, just a block away from a charter school, the Carl C. Icahn Charter School. Both schools serve poor children, and neither school has an entrance exam. However, the charter school gets children whose parents know enough to sign up for a lottery in April - and who know in the spring where they will be living in the fall. The neighborhood school gets lots of children from nearby homeless shelters, who come and go during the year. The charter school has a majority of African-American children, most of whom speak English at home. P.S. 42 has a majority of Latino children, many of whom speak only Spanish. Teachers say children who can't meet the academic or behavioral requirements of the charter school are encouraged to leave and wind up at P.S. 42, which has a large number of children receiving special education services. Despite these challenges, P.S. 42 received an "A" on its latest school report card. Still, teachers say their job would be a lot easier if all the schools in the neighborhood took their fair share of the most needy and vulnerable kids.

P.S. 123 in Harlem - where the skirmish over space broke out -- is a fairly successful school that benefits from strong leadership, an active parent body, and support from a number of elected officials. When the Harlem Success Academy II, a charter school that shares the P.S. 123 building, hired movers to remove furniture from several P.S. 123 classrooms so the charter school could expand, teachers occupied the classrooms and halted the takeover, as reported in the New York Daily News. A Department of Education spokeswoman says there was a misunderstanding and the charter school was ordered to stop.

In poor neighborhoods with terrible local schools, charters may serve as an escape for some children whose parents can navigate the admissions process, much as "gifted and talented" programs serve middle class parents who want to escape what they consider inadequate local schools. But what we need is a strategy to improve schools for all children - not an escape for a few.