New Midwood charter school sparks racial and religious tensions
A charter high school that serves as a last resort for struggling students is facing outcry from its potential new neighbors in Midwood, who say they’re so concerned that they’re willing to buy out the school’s lease.
Chants of “membership now,” a reference to paying more money rather than accept the school’s presence at the East Midwood Jewish Center, rang out at the end of the contentious meeting on Monday night. The meeting was meant to be a welcoming, and to debunk rumors about the new charter school, rumors that began circulating after neighbors learned it was bidding to rent out the space attached to EMJC’s synagogue.
Urban Dove is a transfer school that provides additional support and specialized teaching methods for kids who have failed the ninth grade.
Audience members cited concerns about safety and a lack of community input, and voiced a strong opposition to a non-Jewish entity taking the day school’s place.
“Why did the center not commit itself to having a Jewish school?” asked one woman, who identified herself as a longtime member of the center named Freddi. “I want to know why, when it came down to dollars, you opted for a school that does sound wonderful but is not committed to what we want.”
The building at 1256 East 21st St. had long housed the East Midwood Hebrew Day School, and later the Midwood Day School — both Jewish institutions.
The center’s “long and happy history” with the Jewish schools was punctuated by fiscal failures, EMJC President Michael Schwartz said Monday. Both failed to make rent, and the more recent of the two, the Midwood Day School, took the center to court for not renewing its lease when it couldn’t pay the bills.
“We were left holding the bag,” Schwartz said, stressing that the center was left with no other option than to consider other offers — no matter their affiliation. “Our synagogue is a diverse place. At all times in this process, our only motivation was to find the best possible tenant for our space.”
Urban Dove was the only school to submit a proposal and provide fiscal transparency, including a downpayment, the president said. The transfer school — which exclusively admits 15- and 16-year-olds who have failed the ninth grade — plans to leave its Bedford-Stuyvesant campus and open in the Midwood space in September 2020.
The Bed-Stuy school currently enrolls about 300 students.
“My main concern is the security of my children, of my block. The minute your children walk out of that building, what security do I have?” one audience member said to applause.
“How is that any different than the children in Murrow or Midwood?” Schwartz contended. Boos rang out in response. Answers from the audience varied from, “They don’t come over here” to, “They don’t fail out.”
The school’s mission, Schwartz said, is in line with the center’s.
“Urban Dove was created to try and help these children who did not make the grade in their first year of high school,” he said.
“If you fail ninth grade in the New York City public school system, the only option is to redo it and, as you can guess, that doesn’t always work out,” Urban Dove Founder and Executive Director Jai Nanda told the room. Statistically, students who fail their first year of high school are more likely to drop out than push through, he said.
A former educator and basketball coach, Nanda started Urban Dove in 2012 to give struggling students a second chance. He addressed the standing-room-only crowd Monday night eager to dispel misinformation within the community.
“To get into Urban Dove, you have to have failed the ninth grade. That’s it,” he said. “You don’t have to be expelled for violence or formally incarcerated. None of those things apply to our students.”
“In the end, their offer — which included renovations to our ancient school building — was the best,” Schwartz said, noting also that members of EMJC have already done a site visit at Urban Dove, have spoken with its local police precinct and found its students to be “good citizens and neighbors.”
At one point in the meeting, an exchange between Nanda and a mother in the crowd laid bare simmering racial and ethnic fears — not to mention a dose of gigantasophobia.
“I’m a little unclear why your son would be afraid,” Nanda, of Urban Dove, replied to one mother. The woman maintained that her issue “isn’t about race,” but more about the heights of the prospective students, who might “intimidate” local children. Audience members further noted that neighborhood kids in Jewish garb might be bullied by students who don’t understand the religion or the area.
“We would never put a tenant in possession of our school who we thought would be disruptive to our community,” Schwartz said. He asked audience members for their peace, understanding and a “harmonious transition.”
The meeting, however, ended on a far from harmonious note.
“It’s all well and good to say we should ignore our financial reality but who’s going to pay for our rabbi? Who’s going to pay for our facility?” Schwartz asked.
“What’s the number?” one EMJC member asked. “Tell us, and maybe we can help.”
Hoping to outbid the school, one audience member asked the crowd, “How many of you are willing to pay for membership today?” (According to the center’s website, membership fees range from $1,200 to $50,000 a year.)
A sea of hands went up as chants of “membership now” echoed through the room and Schwartz walked out. Nanda followed, ending the meeting 15 minutes early.
Leave a Comment
Leave a Comment