Portraits from a Public School in Harlem

By Mollie Bruhn, Darren Marelli

In the spring of 2009, Darren Marelli, a public school social worker, began to photograph teachers and staff at his public school in Harlem. Months before, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) had announced plans to close Marelli’s school—P.S. 241, the Family Academy—claiming that the school and its teachers had failed. The school had seen its enrollment decline steadily and test scores were not to the DOE’s liking.

Marelli had worked side by side with the teachers at his school since 1999. What he saw was far from failure. Every day he witnessed dedicated, courageous teachers working hard to serve a high-needs student body while critical support and resources dwindled away. He began chronicling the teachers through photographs and recording some of their words because he wanted to capture them as he knew them—as heroes.

A School for Children and Their Families

When Marelli started at P.S. 241 in 1999, the school received an abundance of support from the DOE and the private sector. Millions of outside dollars poured into P.S. 241 to fund enrichment, after-school, and family support programs. At the time, the Family Academy enrolled more than 900 students from pre-kindergarten through 8th grade—nearly 90 percent of whom qualified for free or reduced lunch. Today, in 2014, the school goes by the name STEM Institute of Manhattan and serves fewer than 110 students. The reasons for this drastic decline in student enrollment are complex and troubling.

Principal David Liben founded the school in 1991, and his vision was for the Family Academy to embrace its name. He worked to provide additional programs and services to meet the needs of the diverse and economically disadvantaged community. Liben and his team, Friends of the Family Academy (FFA), were diligent fundraisers and grant writers, despite the fact that school budgets were significantly more generous than today. With the extra funding in place, the principal and staff designed their own curriculum and offered an extensive after-school program, as well as many other support services for students and families.

The school’s free after-school program included additional individualized instruction, social and emotional guidance, and African dance, football, soccer, track, art, basketball, and violin.

Students’ families were also able to seek out many services on-site. Although most schools were lucky if they had one social worker, the Family Academy had one social worker for every three grades, plus a social worker supervisor who oversaw the family services program. Since social workers worked closely with classroom teachers and families, they were able to intervene and assist when students and families encountered difficulties. A dental office and a hospital partnership program allowed many families to take care of medical issues right in their children’s school.

The community surrounding P.S. 241 desperately needed a school like the one Liben was leading. Thirty-five percent of the neighborhood population has consistently been below the poverty line, and many families receive some form of public assistance and live in public housing. The school also served numerous students who were living in homeless shelters. In communities like this one in West Harlem, a school like P.S. 241 was a blessing. Children received a quality education with free sports and enrichment programming, and families could come to the school for support and medical care, and be met with open arms.

For a few years, Liben’s vision for a school that provided a vibrant, wrap-around program met with great success. The school had a waiting list and it appeared Liben had the backing of the DOE. He was allowed to be creative and innovative, and to organize his school in the way he thought best suited his community’s needs. Families, teachers, and students were thriving. The school was cited for its successes by the New York Times:

Very little about the Family Academy resembles other public elementary schools in New York City—or anywhere else—and to visit is to feel all the possibilities of urban educational reform, as well as the size of the task.

The successes of P.S. 241 had little to do with diligent preparation for standardized tests. Rather, the school was a success because its students (and families) were adequately supported while being challenged academically, athletically, artistically, and socially.

The Bloomberg Model

Then, in 2002, Michael Bloomberg won the New York City mayoral election and made sweeping changes to the DOE—changes that would ultimately take away nearly all of P.S. 241’s ability to provide its students and families with the kind of school they truly needed. The 21st-century approach to education reform has been to focus on “accountability” based on high-stakes testing, increase competition between schools (resulting in the closure of “poor performing schools”) and substitute “school choice” (mainly in the form of privatized charter schools) for quality neighborhood public schools. Bloomberg was out front in championing these reforms.

One of Bloomberg’s early initiatives required schools to use a uniform curriculum, and the DOE stopped individual public schools like P.S. 241 from continuing with their innovative practices, despite their proven success. The city did offer Liben one chance to continue innovating and using his own curriculum, but it would have meant converting the public school into a privately managed charter school. The P.S. 241 community resoundingly rejected that proposal.

Those who had donated to P.S. 241 over the years had been attracted by Liben’s creative vision and unique curriculum; they were not interested in supporting this new uniform curriculum, especially once Liben retired as principal after the 2003-04 school year. The outside donations that had financed the many additional resources and programs at P.S. 241 gradually dwindled, and FFA eventually dissolved. The FFA team went on to become Urban Education Exchange, an education consultant group that sold curriculum to charter schools.

As the community’s families saw after-school programs, social workers, and the resources that provided so much one-on-one attention for their children diminish due to lack of funding, the school’s enrollment began to drop. Rather than recognize that flawed policy was hurting the school, the DOE decided instead, in 2006, to move Opportunity Charter School into the now under-enrolled building as part of the new co-location policy.

Bloomberg’s agenda was to increase charter school seats in New York City. To do so, the DOE began allowing charter schools to open and operate inside existing public schools. The DOE used a mathematical formula to determine if existing public schools were “underutilized” and had space available for charter school seats. These equations took into consideration only student enrollment and classroom space—they did not consider important factors such as class size or space needed for enrichment and support services, or special education students. Because class size was relatively low and support service staff, including speech therapists, social workers, and occupational therapists, had offices and space for working with students, the DOE looked at the modest decline in enrollment, determined that the building was underutilized, and handed over substantial classroom space to the charter school.

Meanwhile, education funding all around the country began to decline steadily due to the economic recession, and the city’s schools were not immune. Across the city, class sizes began to rise and many schools began to lose necessary supports for students and teachers. After-school programs, physical education, art and music classes, and social and emotional supports were drastically reduced or eliminated.

The DOE began investing substantial resources in systems and programs focused on evaluation and judgment rather than programs to support the hundreds and hundreds of underfunded schools. They hired consultants, at great cost, to devise complex mathematical equations to be used in a school grading system in which all schools would be given an A, B, C, D, or F. Schools receiving an A, B, or C could survive another school year, but those that received a D or F faced closure. This grading system relied heavily on student scores on standardized tests.

Under this new system, P.S. 241 first received a B at the end of the 2006-07 school year. But the very next year, it got a D and was informed in December 2008 by the DOE that it would be closed and replaced by a charter school.

As with all school closures and co-locations, the DOE was required to hold a hearing to receive feedback on its plans. But, in the case of P.S. 241, no advance notice of the hearing was given. The school’s literacy coach, Ellen Darensbourg, who had already started a petition to keep P.S. 241 open, got wind of the hearing and quickly attempted to organize parents, teachers, and students to attend.

Daniel O’Donnell, a New York State Assembly member who represents the school’s district, wrote a letter to Chancellor Joel Klein the day after the hearing:

Yesterday’s treatment of the parents and leaders of District 3 completely refutes any assertion by the DOE that it wishes to meaningfully involve the community in decision-making at any level. Late yesterday morning, my office received notice from DOE of a public hearing to be held at 5 p.m. that evening. I have since learned that no advance notice was given to the public, parent leaders, or District 3 staff. Parents of P.S. 241, the families most impacted by the closed-door decision to phase out the school and replace it wholesale with a charter school, were never notified of the hearing. I have also learned that the proposed charter school had ample time to arrange for two busloads of advocates to attend and testify, and to outfit their speakers with the school’s apparel.

Weeks later, one of the school’s 5th-grade classes went with Ms. Darensbourg to testify before District 3’s Community Education Council (CEC), an elected group of parent representatives. One 5th grader put it this way: “I am not failing and neither are my classmates. So why are they calling me a failure and planning to close my school?”

The District 3 CEC, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the United Federation of Teachers, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the P.S. 241 community against the DOE. Closing P.S. 241 would have meant eliminating the only public school in its zone—meaning that local parents would no longer have had a guaranteed place to enroll their children. Charter schools admit by lottery and are open to children living throughout the five boroughs of the city. They are not required to serve the communities in which they operate and often counsel out or exclude children with special needs and English language learners.

Legally, the DOE needed the approval of the local CEC to close the school.

It decided not to contest the lawsuit and eventually withdrew its closure plan. It could not legally replace P.S. 241, a zoned school, with an unzoned charter school. Although the elementary program at the school remained open, the DOE was able to phase out P.S. 241’s middle school grades to create additional free space.

Despite all this turmoil, the teachers and students at P.S. 241 stayed incredibly dedicated and focused. At the end of the very year that the DOE attempted to close the school, P.S. 241 received an A grade on the school progress report. Furthermore, the school was ranked 132nd out of the more than 1,600 schools in New York City—a ranking calculated by using the same student test score data that had been employed months earlier by the DOE to brand P.S. 241 a failure. Most ironically, P.S. 241 was one of the top 10 city schools in test score improvement for the 2008-09 school year. Did the quality of teaching change enough to garner first a B, then a D, and then an A in just three years? Were the P.S. 241 teachers “failing” or was the DOE’s “value added measure” grading system the real failure?

Public School or Charter?

By June 2009 the P.S. 241 community had been through a lot. Sadly, this maltreatment did not end after the closure was overturned. Klein not only unilaterally phased out P.S. 241’s middle school, he also eliminated the pre-kindergarten program—essential for maintaining enrollment in the elementary school. All of this was done to make room for another incoming charter school: Harlem Success Academy 4.

Months after the proposed closure, emails between the chancellor and Harlem Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz were discovered through the Freedom of Information Act. The emails clearly show Moskowitz had Klein’s ear. She even complained to him about his aides. “I’ve talked to John White [the official in charge of allocating school space] who will call you,” Klein wrote back.

A few days later, Moskowitz told Klein that White was not giving her the space she wanted. “Really could use your intervention,” she wrote. Not long afterward, the problem was apparently solved. “Help on space much appreciated,” Moskowitz responded.

In fall 2009, Harlem Success Academy 4 moved into the P.S. 241 building. To make space for this new school, the DOE moved the P.S. 241 kindergarten and 1st- and 2nd-grade classrooms into the basement, adjacent to the boiler room. Between 2009 and 2012, P.S. 241 continued to lose classrooms, support service space, and students to Harlem Success Academy 4.

Schools like P.S. 241, which are forced to give up their space, typically struggle to maintain their enrollments (which are now the sole determinants of school budgets) and stay afloat. Competition for students and the dollars that follow them became key policy drivers under Bloomberg. To lure students away from the local schools, charter school operators flood the neighborhood with glossy advertisements and send mailings addressed to the children and their families. Not only did the DOE allow two charter schools to move into P.S. 241’s space while doing nothing to help maintain enrollment, but Klein actually wrote a letter to P.S. 241 families urging them to consider enrolling their children elsewhere rather than remain at P.S. 241.

The Big Picture

Sadly, the story of P.S. 241 is not unique. Many public schools and teachers in New York and around the country have dealt with the same struggles. From 2002 to 2013, the years Bloomberg was in office, 140 public schools were closed due to “poor performance,” thousands of teachers were displaced, and the education of thousands of children was disrupted. As a result of the Bloomberg administration’s political favoring of charter schools, more than 60 percent of the city’s charter schools are occupying public school space at no cost even though, in many cases, the performance of their students is no better on the same tests used to document public schools’ failures.

The public schools that once offered free education to all as a critical component of our democracy are being systematically underfunded by our local, state, and federal governments, and are undermined by a business-based philosophy that believes that the competition of a free marketplace will create the schools needed to educate our children. This free market philosophy has resulted in the greatest income disparity our nation has seen in more than a century. More than 50 years after the Supreme Court ruled that separate was inherently not equal, corporate “education reformers” use millions of dollars to promote a separate system of education while still receiving public funds.

Although Marelli’s portraits are of teachers and staff in just one school, the story of his public school and the questions it raises are powerful symbols of the fate of far too many of our nation’s public schools. The heroes revealed in his images struggle daily to provide an environment where children can learn, families can grow, and citizens can be raised to build a better future for America. The inherent challenges of teaching and learning amidst poverty, violence, joblessness, underemployment, and an unhealthy physical environment are daunting enough. The fact that educators continue to work with the additional demands for “accountability,” capricious policy changes, and seemingly constant criticism makes them all the more remarkable.

Who will want to take on this heavy load in the future? How are we as a society going to ensure that the free public education that has been so vital to our nation’s progress will endure to secure our future?

“Portraits from a Public School in Harlem” is adapted from the introduction to American Classroom: Portraits from a Public School in Harlem, by Darren Marelli and Mollie Bruhn (Blurb, 2014). It is available at blurb.com/b/5311427-american-classroom.

Darren Marelli is a public school social worker in Harlem, New York City. Mollie Bruhn is a public school kindergarten teacher in Brooklyn. They both worked as producers and editors on the video The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman.