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News + Views

Brooklyn Prospect Finds Home

By Lisa M. Collins

After months of negative headlines that pitted local parents against each other, a new local, college preparatory school for middle and high school children announced today that it has found a temporary home at a Catholic high school in Windsor Terrace.

Brooklyn Prospect Charter School signed a lease to rent unused wings at Bishop Ford Central Catholic School, at 500 19th St., near Prospect Park southwest, while their new, permanent school is constructed at 270 Douglass Street, at Third Ave., near the Gowanus Canal.

Construction has not begun on the permanent site (a tenant has filed suit to stay in the building–see below). Still, Brooklyn Prospect says its new school is scheduled to be complete by December 2012.

In September, Brooklyn Prospect, a public, academically-rigorous school for District 15 kids, will house 300 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, mainly from Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, as well as Park Slope. Brooklyn Prospect will add a class of 100 students each year until it runs from grades 6 to 12.

Students are selected by lottery, and 40 percent of seats are reserved for kids who qualify for free and reduced lunches. For the upcoming year, the school will pay rent to share space in Bishop Ford’s large, 48-year-old Catholic school.

Brooklyn Prospect and its families faced much turmoil this year in the school’s hunt for a temporary location. For the last two years, Brooklyn Prospect shared space with Sunset Park High School, but the two schools had begun to bump elbows, and Sunset Park High, a brand new school, was anxious to have its new building to itself, according to parents and others.

This Spring, the Department of Education announced Brooklyn Prospect Charter would move into PS 32 elementary school, in Carroll Gardens, on Hoyt between President and Union. That announcement was met with loud and angry protest from PS 32. Teachers and administrators felt the addition of a middle school would harm PS 32’s pioneering and successful programs for kids with autism, and for kids with special needs. The DOE dropped the proposal within a week.

Then, the DOE announced that Brooklyn Charter would move into a daycare center on Hoyt at Warren. The city had slated the day care center for closure, along with many other city day care centers. That proposal also was met with loud and angry protest against Brooklyn Prospect, as well as picketing. The day care center services low-income children. The city restored funding for that center, and the plan was dropped. (A fact to note: Brooklyn Prospect insisted in its negotiations that it would only consider moving into the day care center’s building if the space was empty, if the city indeed closed the center first. Brooklyn Prospect had nothing to do with the city’s decision to close, or keep open, the day care center, though it was portrayed as somehow pushing out the day care.)

More bad news came when Carroll Gardens Patch, an online news affiliate from AOL, reported that the owner of the commercial loft building slated for demolition at 270 Douglass Street, the planned permanent location of Brooklyn Prospect (the school has signed a long-term lease for the property), was evicting artists and small businesses located there, some who have been in the building for 15 years or more, as well as some people who had been living illegally at the commercial building, to make way for the school. One of the illegal tenants filed suit in an effort to stay in the building, according to the story.

Jim Devor, president of District 15’s Community Education Council, says he thinks the negative press surrounding Brooklyn Prospect’s search for a location has to do with the word “charter” in its title.

Charter schools are political. The teacher’s union is completely against them, because they needn’t hire union teachers, while Mayor Mike Bloomberg has encouraged them. Devor says when you look at charters, “it’s a case by case thing.”

“The label doesn’t always matter. Some charter schools have an approach that I’m opposed to. Others are useful and provide choice to parents and shouldn’t be opposed because the word charter appears in their name,” Devor said.

***

Brooklyn Prospect Charter is a college-preparatory public school, chartered by the State University of New York, and is one of the few schools in Brooklyn to implement the International Baccalaureate program. It has small classes and a high teacher-to-student ratio. Students are offered seats through a lottery that gives preference to kids in District 15 and those who qualify for free and reduced lunches. The school recruits from PS 29, PS 58, PS 38 and PS 261, among other elementaries.

Brooklyn Prospect was launched in 2009 by two Park Slope dads with backgrounds in education. As a public charter, it gets the same per-student funding from the NYC Department of Education as any other public school, but the city doesn’t fund its administration or facilities costs.

For every student at the school, Brooklyn Prospect gets about $13,520 from the NYC Dept of Education, like other public schools, with more for kids with special needs.

Devor said that District 15 has a need for middle schools, and Brooklyn Prospect fills a need. Some 1,000 students a year leave District 15 between elementary and middle school, he said.

“Parents clearly are not happy with the options here,” he said.

The popular middle schools, including Mark Twain, Arts and Letters, NEST and MS 51, are not easy to get into. Parents compare the application process to college applications, and say it’s incredibly stressful, with interviews and lengthy application requirements. A mom at PS 29 with a rising seventh grader told me she had friends who did not get accepted into any of their top choices for middle school.

The co-founder and director of Brooklyn Prospect Charter, Daniel Rubenstein, talked to South Brooklyn Post about the school.

Rubenstein, who taught math in middle and high schools for 19 years, said he and cofounder Luyen Chou saw the need for a quality middle school in District 15. Chou previously founded an independent K-8 lab school on the campus of Columbia University.

District 15 is one of the few districts in NYC with a growth in the student-age population, Rubenstein said.

“We did the research. People in the community felt there needed to be a middle school and high school. We weren’t saying the middle school options were terrible. We felt there needed to be additional options. One of the things that is special about Brooklyn Prospect, it’s selected by lottery. Others in the district are selected on academic work in middle school.  We felt all students needed a high caliber option.”

“I think every student is academically inclined,” Rubenstein said. “It’s up to us to provide the structure, motivation and inspiration. They have to meet us half way, and families enforce what we teach. We believe every student can achieve.”

He said when kids are struggling with academics, “we move mountains” to get them where they need to be, with turorials and extra reading classes.

He said that PS 58 in Carroll Gardens and PS 29 in Cobble Hill “have become hot feeder schools” for Brooklyn Prospect. PS 261 in Boerum Hill sent about 30 applicants to Brooklyn Prospect this year, and the school has kids from PS 38 in Boerum Hill.

Currently between 30 and 40 percent of the student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch. Some 20 percent have special educational needs, and almost all are from District 15.

“We wanted it to be a public school but have some of the characteristics of an independent school, with a diverse student population,” Rubenstein said. “We are a small school with small classes, every adult knows every student. We are very focused on college prep academics.”

As for whether Brooklyn Prospect is definitely moving into the new, as of yet un-built building at 270 Douglass, Rubenstein says,“I think I would be foolish to 100 percent guarantee anything,” though permits are applied for, plans are getting drawn, money and time has gone into planning, and “we are very excited,” he said.

Why SUNY, for the charter? “They run the finest public universities in New York State. We felt like it was an organization we can work with.”

He said that there is an “enormous” amount of oversight from SUNY, but the university doesn’t “dictate how we teach, how long the school day is, or what needs to be where.

“They hold us to rigorous standards. The trade-off is the increased autonomy and flexibility.”

Why not just start a regular public middle school, instead of a charter?

“I have a lot of respect for many people in the Department of Education. I am often inspired and awed by the work they do,” but, “I’m not interested in being part of an organization that, if it were its own city, would be the tenth largest in the United States. I don’t want to be a part of that massive machinery. I’m more of a social entrepreneur, I’m not interested in being an employee of the largest school district in the country.”

**

Meanwhile, another proposed charter middle school, Brooklyn Urban Garden School (BUGS), is currently raising money and has applied to the state for a charter to launch in District 15 with an emphasis on outdoor activities.

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Readers' Comments


Jessica Tolliver
August 10, 2011
2:10 PM

I am happy to finally see a balanced article on Brooklyn Prospect. I am a parent in District 15 and think more choices for middle and high school are much needed. And the fact that Brooklyn Prospect selects students by lottery–rather than by grades, tests and interviews–means it’s truly an option for every kid in the district. Not too many schools can say that.

Magda Cruz
July 27, 2011
9:44 AM

Nice observations by a Carroll Gardens father and education advocate. Jim, thanks for noting how politics can sometimes harm good and necessary options for our children. I look forward to the groundbreaking on Douglas Street of this great school soon!

Jessica Delaney
July 26, 2011
11:45 AM

Brooklyn Prospect is a very good middle school, with really dedicated and talented teachers, and committed administrators and staff. I think I speak for everyone when I say the Brooklyn Prospect community looks forward to putting the last year, with all the misrepresentations and negative press, behind us! Thanks for a thoughtful article on a very good place.