By Lester Long
Accountability is one of the core values we instill in every scholar who walks through the doors of a South Bronx Classical Charter School. We teach our students that they should hold themselves, and those around them, accountable for contributing to the success of our community.
As the Founder and Executive Director of SBCCS, I make it a priority to model this principle every day. That’s why I feel compelled to hold Mayor Bill de Blasio, accountable for denying public charter schools access to public space, and limiting the education options available to South Bronx families.
After spending years working in business, I felt a calling to serve my community and began a second career as a public school teacher. For four years I taught math and literacy to elementary school students in the South Bronx, one of the highest need communities in the city. My experience convinced me that, despite the best efforts of so many of my fellow teachers, the City’s traditional public schools were not delivering the type of education our community deserved.
So, in 2005, I founded SBCCS. We began our first year with just 140 students across 2 grades. By 2014, the Obama Administration had awarded us the National Blue Ribbon Award for Excellence — an acknowledgement that our schools, serving primarily low income students children of color, were among the top 300 schools in the nation out of over 130,000.
Two years ago, with thousands of families on waiting lists to enroll their children in our schools, we decided to open a third location. We applied for public space in school districts 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12, hoping to get space anywhere in the community. But our request was denied with no explanation, forcing us to appeal the City’s decision and begin looking for private space.
After months of searching, the only space we could find was a building designed to be a culinary school, located just 25 feet from a slaughterhouse. We’ve done what we can to make it work – converted industrial kitchens into classrooms, sinks into tables, refrigerators into closets, and walk in freezers into storage space, but there’s still not sufficient room for all of the students we want to teach. What’s more, the rental assistance provided by the City doesn’t cover the costs of this space, forcing our school to divert $750,000 a year from instruction just to pay our rent.
I’ve since come to learn that other schools have experienced a similar struggle. Since New York State passed a 2014 law guaranteeing public charters access to public space, charter schools have submitted 105 applications for public facilities. Of these requests, only 22 have been approved. When charter schools have appealed these decisions to NYSED, the state has ruled in favor of them and against the City over 90 percent of the time. What’s more, in the districts where charters have applied for space, 171 buildings have more than 300 empty seats, the City defined threshold for siting a charter school.
The de Blasio administration’s refusal to provide us with space has had a real impact on thousands of families. Because of space constraints in our temporary location, we have had to scale back the number of students we can accommodate, accepting only 30 students to our most recent kindergarten class – despite having over 1,200 kids on the SBCCS waitlist.
Like any educator in our City, I want to work with Mayor de Blasio to better serve the students in our community. But in order to do that, SBCCS needs a willing partner in City Hall. If Mayor de Blasio truly is a mayor for all kids, he should start working with the city’s charter schools to ensure that every child has access to a quality education. That starts by giving charters equal access to public space.
Lester Long is the Founder & Executive Director of Classical Charter School Network