A sparsely attended public hearing for a proposed charter school in Williamsburg on Wednesday, April 15th, turned into a referendum on school choice in District 14.
A vocal anti-charter presence, led by Assemblyman Joe Lentol, made their opinions known at the hearing, which was held to solicit public on the proposed charter school application of Williamsburg Ascend Charter School, an elementary-level program. The hearing was curiously scheduled at a time when many parents are enjoying their summer vacations, and, as a result, attendance was very low, with only a small handful of parents showing up in the auditorium at the Juan Morel Campos Secondary School. The public hearing was organized by the Department of Education in conjunction with the State University of New York (SUNY).
Steven Wilson, the executive director of Ascend Learning, which also manages charter schools in Brownsville, Bushwick and Canarsie, said his company’s primary goal is to give every student that walks through their halls the opportunity to go to college.
“Our program is geared from the very beginning to gradually accumulate the skills and knowledge, the critical thinking skills, the creativity, character, grit, [and] perseverance to succeed in college,” said Wilson. “We want to set the bar as high as we can have it and then watch the students beat the expectations, which they do.”
When asked by one parent why Ascend has chosen District 14 for its next school, Wilson said that it was a natural extension of the reach that Ascend has established in other low-income neighborhoods where students are frequently unable to attend college. That answer received a sharp rebuke from Lentol wondering about the need for an elementary school charter in a district that has thirty elementary schools already.
“It’s not elementary school where they fail to go to college,” said Lentol. “If you want to do a service to this district you can talk about middle school charter schools as opposed to elementary school charter schools, because that’s where the problem is, that’s where you lose kids.”
Later, in a brief speech, the Assemblyman decried the application process for Williamsburg Ascend as less than transparent. Lentol noted a meeting he had held earlier this month, with high–ranking education officials and neighborhood parents, to discuss why two Citizens of the World Charter Schools were approved without any advanced notification by the Board of Regents, given the overwhelming community sentiment against them. “Evidently, the public outcry in opposition to these schools never reached the decision makers,” he said. “That’s the only credible explanation. We knew there was widespread objection at the grassroots level and we have to believe that the only reason these charter schools were approved was because the Board of Regents did not receive accurate reports of the community’s strenuous disapproval.”
Tesa Wilson, President of District 14’s Community Education Council was also critical of the Ascend charter. In addition to peppering Ascend’s Wilson with questions during the hearing, she handed out paper stop signs pasted to Popsicle sticks that read “No to Charter Schools” to the audience. After the hearing, she characterized Ascend as a “business” that profits off of educating low-income students.
“When you read the proposal for Ascend, these people are into businesses, so why all of a sudden are you interested in running a charter? Because there’s money to be made,” said Wilson.
In the face of criticism, Steven Wilson remained steadfast in his belief that Ascend can provide a “healthy” competition for district. He also rejected the notion that the charter school’s intentions were anything but pure.
“We are offering a service of educating students to a higher degree,” he said. “We are offering the service of a life that they might not otherwise have access to. We see no dilemma in helping these kids whatsoever. In fact, we see it as purely good.”