Despite community backlash, school for at-risk youth puts down roots in Midwood
Urban Dove, a charter school relocated to a building owned by a historic synagogue, has won over wary neighbors. But a fatal shooting of a student last year reignited persistent opposition.
Nia Holloway enjoys her morning commute to Midwood, a tree-lined neighborhood full of big houses in south Brooklyn.
Stepping off the train, the 19-year-old high school senior said she is unburdened, no longer feeling like she has to watch her back the way she does in Brownsville, her neighborhood just a few miles north.
“This is quiet,” said Holloway, an avid volleyball player who wears her dark hair in a tight, single braid. “I feel like everybody stays in their place.”
The neighborhood’s atmosphere, she says, gives her a kind of “tunnel vision” to focus on her goals at Urban Dove, a transfer charter school that takes in high school students at risk of dropping out using a sports-based curriculum aimed at building up their interest and confidence in school.
But the Midwood campus she travels to each morning was very nearly blocked from opening its doors three years ago — and some white residents in the neighborhood are still trying to shut it down.
In late 2019, Urban Dove decided to leave a church property it was operating out of in Bedford-Stuyvesant and relocate to a larger school building owned by the East Midwood Jewish Center, a historic synagogue in south Brooklyn.
The plans sparked immediate backlash.
At packed public meetings and in the media, some locals argued the move violated the synagogue’s historic commitment to Hebrew education, pointing out that the building’s previous tenants had been Jewish day schools. Others railed against the mere presence of the school’s overwhelmingly Black and Latino students, labeling them “dangerous” and “urban.”
The fracas prompted some elected officials to float the possibility of a different location but the school felt it had no suitable alternatives on offer.
Ultimately, Urban Dove forged ahead, opening in late 2020.
Two years in, students, staff, and the school’s supporters in the neighborhood say they’ve made inroads with the surrounding community — hosting school tours, events with elected officials, and on-campus gardening sessions with locals.
“Obviously, the negative stuff is always the headline, but it’s been far more positive than negative, even from the get go,” said Jai Nanda, the school’s executive director and founder. “It’s just that the negative stuff, you know, got the loudest. And so it gets more of the attention.”
But some residents, elected officials, and local media outlets have continued to voice concerns, particularly after the fatal shooting of an Urban Dove student outside the school last year.
And while the school is now up and running, a 2020 lawsuit, seeking to invalidate the school’s lease, is still winding its way through the Second Division of New York’s Appellate Division. Several residents with family ties to the synagogue filed the suit three months before the school opened, but faced an initial rejection by a lower court judge in Brooklyn.
In an email, Jeremy Honig, partner at Rivkin Radler, the firm opposing the school on behalf of the residents, claimed that the dispute had “nothing to do with race,” and alleged that the suit was brought because the East Midwood Jewish Center had violated the congregation’s charter by agreeing to a lease with the school below market-rate.
In an email, Urban Dove’s attorney Sarah Phillips said that a lower court had already rejected the plaintiffs’ claims and found that the terms of the lease were “fair.”
LeShawn White, or “Ms. L,” as everybody calls her at Urban Dove, was excited when she heard that the school had found a new facility in Midwood in late 2019.
At their old site in a church building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, White, a family and community engagement coordinator, didn’t have enough room to do her job the way she wanted to.
She couldn’t host food and clothing drives for parents because they didn’t have enough pantry space to store donations. And when White tried to organize Mother’s Day brunches for the school’s families, she ran into restrictions about the music she could play and had to navigate around the church’s schedule.
“I just was really glad that we have our own place,” she said.
But the transition to the new building did not go according to plan.
After word got out about the new school, rumors started to spread that Urban Dove was going to flood the neighborhood with dangerous kids into drugs and gangs, recalls Sally Hipscher, a East Midwood Jewish Center board member who lives on the same street as the school site.
“I think there were people who just drummed up fear and misinformation,” she said.
The concerns reached a fever pitch one November evening when the synagogue hosted an informational meeting about Urban Dove. Hundreds of residents, including some members of the synagogue, packed into a large ballroom with many interrupting and jeering Nanda as he tried to explain the transfer school’s model.
Some were furious with the leaders of the synagogue for their choice to lease the school to Urban Dove, rather than a Jewish day school in keeping with the site’s history. Others focused on the incoming students. (Alyssa Katz, a deputy editor with The City, is a trustee of the East Midwood Jewish Center. She recused herself from editing this article.)
“My main concern is the security of my children, of my block,” one woman at the forum declared. “The minute your children walk out of the building, what security do I have?”
“They’re urban kids who know how to fight,” another attendee shouted.
The uproar, which was reported on extensively in the local media, made some Urban Dove parents concerned about the planned move. Some had memories of growing up and feeling unsure about whether they could venture into white ethnic neighborhoods in South Brooklyn, White said.
“Would someone just see a student and call the cops on them?” she recalled, describing one of the parents’ concerns.
Holloway, the student, says she was nervous about the move to Midwood too, but decided to stick with Urban Dove.
At her previous public school in Park Slope, constant fights and police interventions had prompted the young woman to cut class. At Urban Dove, she felt like the small community — less than three hundred students in all — was safer and more welcoming. Whatever attitudes their new neighbors may have, she thought, this was her best shot.
“I felt like, ‘Well, I’m not here for them. I’m here for myself to graduate,’” she said.
A softening, then tragedy
When Holloway first started coming to the new campus in Midwood, she noticed that some white residents were suspicious, acting hesitant around her in stores or crossing to the other side of the street when they saw her, even when they were in groups.
“It will make me feel a way,” she said, her voice getting softer. “Because I’m just walking.”
But after a few months, students and staff say residents started to get more used to them. The school launched a community garden for students and neighbors to weed and plant together, and organized coat and food drives for families and residents. At the same time, the neighborhood was still in the midst of one of the worst stretches of the pandemic.
“It was life and death for folks,” said Nanda. “And no one had the time to worry about, you know, the Urban Dove kids going to school.”
But that fledgling rapport was tested the following year.
On an April afternoon as classes were letting out, Devonte Lewis, a new student at Urban Dove, was shot outside just as he was exiting the school building. Prosecutors allege that two teenagers, neither from Urban Dove, came to the school and fired at Lewis, who had just gotten a maintenance job with the New York City Housing Authority and was trying to turn his life around. The New York Times reported the shooting stemmed from a rivalry between two neighborhood crews in Sheepshead Bay and Flatbush.
Lewis fled back into the school building, but the wounds to his torso and hand proved to be too much for the 17-year-old, who died after being rushed to Kings County Hospital.
On social media and in the press, some of the school’s detractors pounced.
Hours after the shooting, Kalman Yeger, a city councilmember who represents part of Midwood, tweeted, “In 70 years since East Midwood Jewish Center built its school building, no student was ever shot there. Until today.”
Less than a week later, The Jewish Press, a Brooklyn-based weekly, published an editorial declaring that the tragedy proved that “the opposition to the school” was “not racist, but was rather a practical assessment of the probability of what was in store for the neighborhood.”
Hipscher, the synagogue board member who lives right by the school, remembers her neighbors standing outside chatting as the police cordoned off the scene.
“‘You see, we told you, you know, gang violence is right here in our neighborhood,’” she recalls some saying.
“Roses can just keep going”
After the shooting, White was shaken. She had tried to help Lewis as he stumbled back into the school. She had recruited the young man to Urban Dove, and now, all of a sudden, he was gone.
The family coordinator took a few days off, but came back quickly, knowing that she had to reassure everybody else.
In the days that followed, classes were held online, but White came to the school in person and started planting flowers out front, tons of them, dandelions, marigolds, whatever she could get her hands on, for several days in a row. Each day, a few of the school’s supporters, some from the synagogue or progressive groups in the neighborhood, would come by to help her with the beds.
Their presence, so soon after the shooting, encouraged students and staff who happened to stop by the school. Some joined in. People from the area saw what they were doing too, and stopped to chat, asking about what was being grown and prompting tours of the blossoming garden.
Hipscher bought another addition for the garden, a rose bush already in bloom.
“I didn’t want to bring a bouquet of flowers,” she recalled. “I wanted to bring something that was living and that would offer beauty and that would live because roses can just keep going on and on and on.”
The next week, Hipscher and White, carrying a cup of coffee in hand, went door to door to the houses on the street by the school. The two women, one White and one Black, talked to the neighbors about how they were feeling and what they could do to make everyone feel safe.
Some residents were standoffish, but most appreciated the visit, and a few even invited them in, the two recall.
White made clear that this was the first time that she had ever experienced something like this, and that, Hipscher said, made some of the neighbors realize that a tragedy like this was not something they could just brush off for the students and families at the school.
“Maybe my neighbors hadn’t thought about, like, ‘Well, you know, yeah, these are people too. And yes, they want to be in a safe place too. And yeah, they’re being affected. They have to live with the loss, and they have to pick up the pieces and deal with it,’” she said.
Those efforts may have made a small difference.
Today, Holloway, the Urban Dove senior, says residents are a little bit kinder to her.
“When I’m in the store, like, they won’t move any type of away,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Thank you,’ if I’m holding the door for them.”
Still, the residents who sued Urban Dove back in 2020 have not given up. To this day, they are hoping that a court will invalidate the school’s lease.
But Hipscher bets they’re too late. Some things, like a rose bush, live on.
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