Author Archives | Lucas_Manfield

Mott Haven Charter Schools Still Fail to Enroll a Fair Share of Students Learning English

Mott Haven and Melrose, South Bronx neighborhoods with a history of neglect, have become a laboratory of sorts for New York City’s 196 charter schools—schools that are publicly funded and privately run. Their school district has 21 of them, nearly double that of any other district in the city.

These schools face a variety of challenges. Not least of which: more than half of children living nearby don’t speak English at home, according to census data. Many of these kids, upon entering the classroom, are classified as English Language Learners, or ELLs, and eligible to receive additional assistance.

A 2010 state law set enrollment targets to prod charter schools into taking their fair share of a district’s ELL students, but a BronxInk analysis found that only 10 percent of the city’s charters met them. In Mott Haven’s District 7, only three of the district’s 21 charter schools reached their required ELL enrollment numbers.

The range of compliance is vast. South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures and the Arts, an elementary school where half of instruction is in Spanish, is 38 percent ELL. Success Academy Bronx 1, a mile to the northwest, is only 4 percent. Targets in the district vary between 16 to 22 percent, depending on the mix of grades a school offers.

As a result of low ELL enrollment in charter schools, disproportionately large numbers of children with special language needs end up in the district’s traditional schools. That strikes some parent advocates as unfair. “It really is creating two separate school systems,” said Leonie Haimson, director of Class Size Matters, a New York-based public education advocacy group.

The overrepresentation of these students in public schools has consequences. “That’s an added burden and in a tight money situation taking on added burden means doing more of somethings and less of other things,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers College.

Furthermore, by taking fewer English Language Learners, charters may be depriving kids of a better education. A 2015 study of Texas students published by Stanford University researchers found that ELL students who attended charter school received the equivalent of 50 additional days of reading education compared to kids who went to district schools.

“Potentially there is a segment of the population who is not getting access to these schools that are supposed to be an engine for innovation,” said Harold Hinds, an attorney at Advocates for Children, a New York students’ rights advocacy organization.

Regardless of consequences, if the targets were intended to create parity, they do not appear to be working.

Over the last five years, the proportion of ELL kids in charter schools has increased 10 percent. But the proportion in traditional schools has increased as well, albeit more slowly. At this rate, it will take two decades for charter schools to catch up.

Part of the problem is a lack of incentive, said Hinds. “They are targets that if met, maybe they get a golf clap,” he said.

In theory, state charter authorizers can close schools that fail to meet their targets. But this is a stick they seem reluctant to use. “When charter schools are up for reauthorization the primary thing that is assessed is their test scores,” said Hinds.

By the standard of test scores, the winner among New York City charter schools is Success Academy, a 12-year-old network of nearly 50 charter schools across the city that perform among the top 1 percent of schools on state standardized tests.

The network is also a lightning rod for critics that assert charter schools are not pulling their fair weight when it comes to enrolling students that need additional help. Success Academy Bronx 1, the network’s Mott Haven elementary school, has some of the district’s highest test scores (99 percent of its students passed the state’s most recent standardized math tests) and also the smallest proportion of ELL students.

In 2016, that school was up for renewal. In its report to regulators, administrators said 8 percent of the school’s student body were ELL, less than half that of the district. In recommending it’s renewal, the regulator, SUNY Charter Schools Institute, cited a loophole in the 2010 law. Using the school’s official name, the report reads, “Success Bronx 1 makes good faith efforts to meet its enrollment and retention targets.”

What exactly constitutes such an effort is unclear.

“There has never been an appetite to change the definition of good faith effort to make that something close to a formal, clear requirement,” said Hinds.

In a statement, Susie Miller Carello, Executive Director of the institute, confirmed that the organization followed the letter of the law when deciding whether to renew a school’s charter. She did not explain how it decides whether an effort is in good faith.

What is clear is that there is something very different about charters that meet their targets versus those merely making the effort.

Hidden inside a converted warehouse on the eastern edge of Mott Haven, Heketi Community Charter School enrolls 22 percent ELL students, just meeting its target. Half of its classrooms are dual language, where instruction alternates, generally bi-weekly, between English and Spanish.

On a Wednesday morning in mid-September, Heketi’s principal David Rosas sat in the school’s combined gym-cafeteria and translated back and forth during his weekly Q-and-A session with parents. Around half of the dozen parents that showed up did not speak English. One parent questioned the value of teachers speaking in Spanish during class time (her child was not in the dual language track). Rosas explained that teachers are free, if they can and think it necessary, to use a student’s preferred language.

The school’s ELL specialist, Cristy Cuellar-Lezcano, attributes the school’s large proportion of ELL students to its mission: “We look at the things that are here – linguistically, culturally and racially – and we take all that into our mission to serve the kids in the neighborhood,” she said.

In contrast, Success Academy promotes a one-size-fits-all curriculum that it promotes with free materials online and implements across all of its schools.

Proponents of charter schools are quick to point out that there’s limited evidence that charter schools are pushing ELL students out the door. Instead, it’s because parents aren’t applying, said Marcus Winters, author of a report on the issue for the Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank.

At Success Academy, at least, parents may have good reason not to. A video, covertly filmed by a teaching assistant and published by the New York Times in 2016, shows a teacher raising her voice and then angrily ripping a sheet of paper in front of a first grader’s face after the child hesitated while counting to three.

Further, many parents are unable to complete Success Academy’s intricate enrollment process, which involves a series of introductory meetings that can’t be missed, said Nelson Mar, an education lawyer at Bronx Legal Services. This could be due to a lack of translation services, he said. He has attended parent meetings at Success Academy where no translator was present. 

Of the applicants selected into Success Academy schools by random lottery, 82 percent attend the first welcome meeting but only 50 percent actually elect to enroll their child according to a recent study released by MDRC, a nonprofit that conducts social policy research.

For the Success Academy school in Mott Haven, ELL enrollment numbers are only getting worse. In the last four years the proportion of students that are ELL has been cut in half. 

We make a tremendous effort to reach out to English language learners, as well as all students, to let the community know about this excellent educational opportunity in their neighborhood,” a Success Academy spokesperson said in a statement, citing their various outreach methods including multilingual fliers and mailings.

At the end of the day, the simple explanation for why parents of ELL students aren’t enrolling their kids in charter schools could be the best one. Madeline Mavrogordato, a researcher at Michigan State University, explained, “If they think their kids are not going to be in a warm and welcoming environment, they’re not going to go to that school.”

Parents wait to pick up their children outside the Success Academy elementary and middle school in Mott Haven. Credit: Lucas Manfield

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, Featured, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Hurricane Maria Survivor to Paint Climate Change Mural with Local Students

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Patricia Lewis couldn’t sleep. She was used to being surrounded by the lushness of Puerto Rico’s wooded landscape and the absence of trees was disconcerting. In its decimation, the storm had torn them up by their roots. It was as though the wind and rain had waxed the island’s landscape like a leg, she said.

The storm had destroyed much of the island’s infrastructure and her house no longer had running water. A 92 year-old woman who lived with Lewis pointed out where to dig and they survived with their makeshift well. Three weeks after the hurricane, she, her boyfriend – now fiancee – and her family fled the island.

Now, Lewis is in New York City and taking the lessons she learned from Maria to the Bronx. She is leading a workshop at Mott Haven’s International Community High School October 3rd, to educate teenagers about the impacts of climate change. Afterword, Lewis will solicit ideas and design a mural to be painted by students in the school’s backyard.

Lewis’ winding journey to New York is one of tragedy, but it’s also one of extraordinary will and compassion.  After growing up in Puerto Rico and making a name for herself in San Juan as a muralist, violinist and singer, Lewis earned a scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts. She later returned to the island, learned to play the guitar and began writing songs. Before the storm hit in September 2016, she enjoyed a steady stream of gigs which, like the island after the storm, dried up.

She was fortunate. Relatives in Philadelphia collected money and took Patricia and her family in after they fled to the United States. Some people she knew resorted to living out of cars. Meanwhile, Lewis travelled north to New York City whenever she could, crashing on friend’s couches while working to restart her career as an artist.

There, she met William Acevedo, the director of YucaArts, a Bronx nonprofit that organizes art education programs for local teenagers. When the Climate Museum, a newly-opened New York institution that is the first in the United States dedicated to climate change, approached Acevedo to run community programming in the South Bronx around a new exhibition, he went to Lewis.

This is only one of many community partnerships the museum is pursuing, but it is of particular significance. “The South Bronx is just such an important constituency for us because they’re some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers to climate change,” says Claudia Villar, the Research and Communication Coordinator at the Climate Museum.

A study designed by Columbia University and the NYC Department of Health rates the South Bronx as one of the neighborhoods in New York that is most vulnerable to extreme heat. By the 2050s, the number of days that record temperatures above 90 degrees will have doubled, according to projections The New York City Panel on Climate Change.

Statistics like that are easy to gloss over. “If you focus too much on the data then people are going to shut down and not care about the issue,” said Villar. “The most important thing in the South Bronx – and more broadly – is talking about climate change in a very human perspective.” This is Lewis’ role.

Lewis is designing a curriculum involving a video, games and dialogue to engage the kids. “I just want them to think about it: Hurricane Sandy, extreme heat, possible flooding of New York in the next 80 years and social injustice as a consequence,” said Lewis.

Despite her experience as an artist, Lewis was initially uncertain that she was the right person to lead the workshop. “I didn’t even realize I was a victim of climate change,” she said laughing. “They had to sit me down and be like, Patricia you are perfect for this job because you’ve been through it. I’d just never thought of it that way. But it’s true.” Now, she’s going to help kids in the South Bronx make the same connection. “The same awakening I had, I want New Yorkers to have too,” she said.

Academics agree there’s a significant benefit to programs like Lewis’. “There is an extremely important component of getting to the neighborhood level and educating about climate risk,” said David Bader, a program manager at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems.

“There is extreme power in terms of what the neighborhood can do to respond to climate risk, your local community group will know where the elderly are and tell where the emergency responders where to go first, they have a tremendous amount of knowledge to help,” he added.

For Lewis, the effort to raise awareness about climate change is personal. “I don’t want them to feel it as fast as I did,” said Lewis. “I don’t want them to experience what I experienced and what my country is experiencing: the realization that we’re too late. That sucks, and I see that happening in New York.”

The empty wall on which the mural Patricia Lewis is designing will be painted, overlooked by International Community High School. Credit: Lucas Manfield

Posted in Education, Featured, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Mott Haven Dog Boutique Challenges Traditional Gentrification Narrative

Sandwiched between an auto body shop and a commercial plumber, Little L’s Pet Boutique, with its bags of “savory salmon” dog food and locally-sourced treats, may look out of place.

But on Bruckner Boulevard along the Mott Haven waterfront, an area that has long struggled with crime and neglect, upscale businesses like Little L’s are becoming more common. 

Some, like the controversial Double Dutch coffee shop around the corner, are financed and run by development interests. Two Manhattan-based real-estate agents opened the shop in 2016 with help from Keith Rubenstein, the developer who gained notoriety for trying to rebrand the neighborhood “The Piano District” in a billboard advertising luxury apartment rentals. Rubenstein is also an investor in at least three other new business in the neighborhood, The New York Times reported last year.

Others like Lenny Forde’s pet shop are the creation of individual entrepreneurs taking advantage of cheap rent to bring something new to the neighborhood. Forde originally leased the space after hunting unsuccessfully in Brooklyn for an affordable space to house his growing business baking dog treats. But, after hearing Mott Haven residents complain about the lack of convenient pet stores in the neighborhood, the 43-year-old Trinidadian immigrant put up a wall in the front of his commercial kitchen to create a storefront selling healthy pet food and other essentials for local dog owners.

Mychal Johnson, a community organizer who leads South Bronx Unite, a neighborhood advocacy group, fears that businesses like Forde’s may attract wealthier tenants resulting in the displacement of local residents. The real estate speculation and the new businesses, some opened by developers, are leading to the potential for heavy gentrification,” said Johnson. “It’s really knocking hard on the door.”

But, Johnson does not object to giving new businesses like Little L’s a chance. South Bronx Unite has published a list of demands for entrepreneurs and developers seeking to do business in the neighborhood. “We’re looking at local job creation, local economic development, and paving the way for true growth and economic opportunities for existing residents. If businesses are willing to do those types of things, bless ’em. If they’re only here to service the needs the wave of new occupants coming in to pay higher prices for services, we’re not with it,” said Johnson.

Forde is currently the only full-time employee of the business, but he employees shift workers from around the city to run the kitchen and hired a saleswoman part-time last month. She lives in one of the many affordable housing complexes nearby.

Forde is also trying to reach out to Mott Haven residents who live outside the new Bruckner Boulevard developments. He has identified dog owners with local zip codes using an online service and mailed out advertisements.

But, he is aware it could be a hard sell. A 5-ounce bag of Krak’ems dog treats, his best-selling product, sells for $18 online. To help make his treats affordable for local residents, Forde has begun selling smaller bags for $10 and offers a discount for customers of the boutique.

On a Monday in early-September, Kim Holmes, who was out walking her dog Chica in the courtyard of the Mill Brook Houses just across the highway, said she hadn’t heard of Little L’s, but was willing to give it a try if prices were reasonable. She didn’t think $10 was too steep.

The reception among locals, Forde said, has been positive. “Everyone basically wants the same thing,” he said, “the wellbeing of their dog.”

Business to the storefront is not exactly booming. Forde said he gets five to 10 customers per day, mostly to purchase his flagship treats. Little L’s is still largely a wholesale business, distributing to local New York pet shops and shipping around the United States from its online store. 

Still, it’s too early to gauge the boutique’s success. Developers have told Forde that the area will become the next Williamsburg, referring to the rapid transformation of the once working-class Brooklyn neighborhood to an upscale destination. “Over the next three to five years, we will have a big jump in the residential density in that area which will support the small businesses,” predicted Michael Brady, executive director of the local Business Improvement District.

Money is already flowing into the neighborhood. A new 12-floor luxury apartment building, co-developed by JCAL and the Altmark Group, just opened this summer. Brookfield Properties, the development company behind Greenpoint Landing which encompasses seven towers on the Brooklyn waterfront, recently paid $165 million for the rights to a 1.3 million square-foot site two blocks west of Little L’s. It recently told TheRealDeal, a real estate news site, that it has plans to build 1,300, mostly market-rate, apartments.

Meanwhile, the city is soliciting proposals for development on top of a 12.8-acre railyard directly behind the shop. One $700 million submission includes apartments, retail space and a 25,000-seat soccer stadium, reported YIMBY, an online publication covering new development in New York.

Development advocates dispute the notion that these projects are at the expense of current residents. “These are vacant, underutilized brownfields that are being turned into housing,” said Brady.

Around half of new units being built in the neighborhood in the next five years will be rented at below-market rates, according to statistics compiled by Brady.

The South Bronx badly needs these new apartments. The city’s Department of Health reported three years ago that 79 percent of rented homes in Mott Haven and surrounding neighborhoods have maintenance violations, the second highest rate in the city.

In the meantime, a new pet store may be a welcome addition to the neighborhood. According to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, there’s only one pet shop for every 369 registered dogs in the Bronx, the lowest rate of any borough outside Staten Island.

In St. Mary’s Park to the north, James Mack said he appreciated the idea of a local store within walking distance. He currently pays for a cab to take him to Target where he buys 50-pound bags of dog food for his pair of Rottweilers.

Purchasing premium dog food simply isn’t an option for many residents of Mott Haven, which lies in the poorest congressional district in America. According to census data, 45 percent of people in Little L’s zip code live under the federal poverty line.

Residents are already feeling the impact of changes brought on by gentrification. Delkys Baez, 25, said he now pays $10 for the same sandwich that used to be $5 not long ago. Baez, who grew up in Mott Haven, earns $13.50 an hour working at a nearby Chipotle.

Luis Rodriguez used to visit Bruckner Boulevard, once known as Antique Row, to purchase cheap furniture. “I haven’t been down there lately but I hear it’s more higher end,” said Rodriguez, a longtime resident who manages the 138th Street Community Garden. “Basically, they’re catering to a different demographic.”

Even though many locals never go down to the waterfront, the influence of its development ripples outward in the form of higher rents. Rents have already risen 15 percent in the last year alone according to the real estate website Zumper. Local affordable housing advocates worry that the spike in rents pose a dire threat to many families. According to census data, 49 percent of households in the South Bronx are “rent burdened,” meaning they spend more than 35 percent of their income on housing.

For the developers, however, higher rents mean higher profits and they’ve been eager to work with small businesses like Little L’s that cater to wealthier tenants. Rubenstein’s development company, Somerset Partners, has consulted Forde in the creation of a new dog park tucked behind Somerset’s headquarters, a recently renovated commercial building on the western end of Bruckner Boulevard. It’s spotless, with shade trees overhanging benches and water bowls. A maintenance man comes by every day to fill the doggy pool and clean up trash.

But, a local activist warned that partnerships with developers come with a cost. “Ultimately, they displace first the community that these entrepreneurs purport to serve,” said Elliot Liu, a member of Take Back the Bronx, a community advocacy group dedicated to fighting gentrification.  “And then the entrepreneurs themselves.”

Forde, however, believes he’s helping to revitalize the community. “We’re not here to push you out, we’re here to help you up,” he said.

Forde has seen quite a few changes in his own life. He grew up in the countryside of Trinidad and Tobago. There weren’t other kids around, but his grandmother kept dogs. “We did not have house dogs, they were literally in the backyard,” he said.

Ever since, Forde and dogs have shared a special affinity. When a friend with two Maltese-Shih Tzu sisters moved in to a smaller apartment, Lenny stepped in to adopt them. Little L’s is a reference to their names, Lily and Lulu, and Krak’ems the result of months in the kitchen experimenting to find a food they’d eat.  

That experimenting has paid off. Little L’s has been profitable since Krak’ems’ first year on the market, and Forde now has big plans for the business. He hopes to expand Little L’s into a lifestyle brand covering the breadth of dog owners’ needs like bowls, leashes and even parks.

The decision to set up shop in the South Bronx might have initially been a practical one, but Forde admits the neighborhood has grown on him. He used to tell friends he’d rather meet up in Manhattan. “Now,” he said, “I’m telling my friends, come, let’s hang out around here.”

Lenny Forde holds up his company’s flagship product, Krak’ems dog treats, inside his new storefront.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Community Resources, Featured, Housing, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Incumbent Staves Off Leftist Insurgent in 84th Assembly District

Longtime incumbent Carmen Arroyo, 82, beat back a leftist insurgent challenger, Amanda Septimo, 27, in the race for assemblywoman in New York’s 84th district. Arroyo won 63 percent of the vote in a decisive victory for the South Bronx political establishment.

Arroyo was first elected in a 1994 special election and has sailed to successive re-elections since, despite numerous charges of election misconduct and fraud. Septimo, part of the wave of progressive newcomers sweeping elections, gave Arroyo her most significant challenge to date, winning 38 percent of the district’s voters.

Prior to this year, Arroyo’s most successful primary challenger won 32 percent of the vote. According to Vote Smart, a nonpartisan site that tracks American politicians’ voting records, she tends to vote along party lines and has spent years working on the alcohol and drug abuse, children and families, and aging committees.

Septimo’s political career began as the community liaison for U.S. Rep. José Serrano’s office, where she was quickly promoted to district director. She viewed affordable housing and universal after-school care among her top priorities.

Septimo received endorsements from a number of progressive groups such as the Working Families Party and Run for Something, and media endorsements from the Bronx Chronicle, El Diario, and Welcome2TheBronx. Her endorsers focused on Septimo’s progressive policy ideas and status as a young newcomer, compared to her 82 year-old rival whose financial scandals have plagued the last few years of her tenure.

“We deserve better. That doesn’t just mean better than Carmen Arroyo, though that’s true. It also means better than our elected officials.” said Septimo the day prior to the election. In contrast to Arroyo’s many endorsements from within her party, only two politicians have endorsed Septimo.

Arroyo received endorsements from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., the Bronx Democrats, and Speaker of the New York State Assembly Carl Heastie, in addition to various state senators and assemblymen. She encouraged Bronxites to “vote results not rhetoric,” and touted her voting record for progressive causes including increased minimum wage, paid family leave, and tuition-free college.

Between 2006 and 2013, the Board of Elections sued Arroyo 21 times for failing to disclose her campaign finances. In 2012, Arroyo’s primary challenger Maximino Rivera sued her and the New York City Board of Elections for election fraud. Rivera accused Arroyo of voter intimidation, claiming that she colluded with poll workers to steer voters in her favor. Arroyo’s daughter, a former city councilwoman who resigned in 2015, also led a scandal-ridden tenure ending in three charges of forgery against campaign officials.

Despite known misconduct, Bronx politics are difficult to crack. “She’s seen as a real defender of Latinos and she’s been there an awfully long time. It’s hard to beat incumbents, especially in the Bronx,” said Hank Sheinkopf, political expert and president of Sheinkopf Communications. “There has to be an extraordinary event that would cause her to lose. Especially in a low voting area, where people don’t have a history of voting on a Thursday in September. When you move dates around like that, it tends to protect incumbents.”

Septimo predicated much of her campaign on transparency.  She challenged Arroyo to a debate three times, but Arroyo neglected to respond.

Arroyo and Septimo shared similar views on many hot-button issues. Both candidates ran on platforms of gun control and holding the New York City Housing Authority accountable to their tenants. The crux of voters decisions laid in each candidate’s campaigning styles: while Arroyo has built up trust with South Bronx voters after decades of service, many voters were persuaded by Septimo’s grassroots style campaign. “She called me personally. I got a lot of calls from her office, and they convinced me. What she’s for, the reason she’s running, is what I’m for,” said Marian Langley, 83, a Hunts Point resident and voter.

Even those who stayed loyal to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also beat back his progressive challenger last night to win the Democratic nomination for a third term, found Septimo’s status as a newcomer appealing. “I do appreciate the things Cuomo has done. There’s always sneaky stuff, but the stuff we know about I appreciate,” said Nick Rosado, a Mott Haven voter. 

This formula, however, did not hold for Arroyo. “I voted for Septimo,” said Rosado. “I’m not the most educated voter, but I read a lot of literature about her. She just seemed like a smart up-and-comer and I just wanted to give her a try.”

Voter turnout more than tripled compared to 2016, from 3,162 voters to 10,427 voters, surprising some residents. “I feel like a lot of people gave up because they are not seeing any difference at all,” said Biatou Camara, citing the failure of politicians to address the recent crises at NYCHA and ongoing gun violence in the neighborhood.

Septimo, who set her campaign office in a coworking space in the Hub, a bustling shopping district and transit center in the South Bronx, gained name recognition around the community by knocking on doors and making phone calls. By contrast, Arroyo spent much of her summer campaigning with Councilman Salamanca and attending events for residents of public housing and the elderly, where she had already built a rapport with fellow attendees.

Abetted by the wave of leftist candidates, some experts saw Septimo as a viable contender. “The race wasn’t on my radar at all as competitive, like many races are, and then about a week or two ago, somebody from a union said Arroyo might be in some trouble,” said Jerry Skurnik, founder of political consulting firm Prime New York. In the end, however, conventional wisdom won out.

Arroyo could not be reached for comment for this article.

PS 48 Joseph R. Drake, the Hunts Point polling station.
Credit: Savannah Jacobson


Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Arroyo’s most significant challenger won 25 percent of the vote. It has since been updated.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Featured, Politics, Southern Bronx0 Comments