Columbia Spectator on reathor. of Opportunity Ch. School
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Harlem charter school fights closure, gains DOE renewalAfter a public hearing, Opportunity Charter School—at which over 50 percent of the students are diagnosed with disabilities—was granted a two-year renewal of its charter in December 2011.
MoreA West Harlem secondary school once slated for possible closure by the Department of Education has gotten a second chance.Opportunity Charter School, located on 113th Street between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. boulevards, was added in November to a list of schools at risk of being closed by the DOE, along with two other West Harlem schools on the same block.But after a public hearing, Opportunity was granted a two-year renewal of its charter in December 2011. According to Dean of Students Anthony Jones, losing the school—which was founded in 2004 to serve academically struggling students and students with special needs—would have been “a tremendous loss for our community.”“The community as a whole deserves this school,” Jones said.Leo Goldberg, Opportunity CEO, said that he was grateful for the renewal.Inclusion on the list of schools to be closed “was obviously a mistake and we’re very happy to have received a two-year renewal,” Goldberg said. “We had 100 percent commitment from staff, students, parents, community, union leaders, and elected officials.”The Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts—on the same block as Opportunity—is also slated for closure, drawing the ire of local residents and politicians. The vote determining Wadleigh’s future is scheduled for Thursday.Over 50 percent of students at Opportunity receive Individual Education Plans for diagnosed disabilities. According to Goldberg, the remaining students “come to us with many struggles, and having, for the most part, failed to pass state math and state reading tests in their prior elementary schools.”Goldberg said that the school’s special-needs students graduated at double the rate of special-needs students citywide and, given this success, he was “shocked” at the DOE’s initial decision. He said that the DOE had not provided special support to the school, and in a recent DOE report Opportunity had met most school standards.“All schools should be held to high standards, including the Opportunity Charter School,” Goldberg said. “But we believe that the measures that are used to judge student progress … show that we make tremendous progress with the most struggling students.”According to parent coordinator Elise Williams, community support was instrumental in getting the renewal.“A lot of parents realize and they recognize that Opportunity Charter School is not like other charter schools,” Williams said.Williams explained that, if a parent couldn’t show up for a rally, he or she wrote a letter or sent another family member instead. This May, 11 Opportunity parents and nine students are planning to attend Advocacy Day, a chance for charter school families to meet lawmakers in Albany.“We need to get the Opportunity Charter School story out there,” Williams said. “I think they [parents] recognize that they must fight in order for us to continue on.”The day of the hearing, the school had a rally with student cheerleader and band performances and speeches from parents, students, and officials, including the founder of the Children’s Aid Society and the vice president of the United Federation of Teachers.“It was completely evident that the Opportunity Charter School is a sound and important institution serving the needs of the Harlem community and the greater New York City school district,” Goldberg said.But Goldberg acknowledged that Opportunity shares its building with both Harlem Success Academy and P.S. 241, and, as Harlem Success Academy has expanded, Opportunity has lost space for student services.According to Goldberg, some classes, including speech therapy, had to be moved into the hallways because of space reallocation.“We currently have to provide some of our special needs services in the hallways and out by the elevator,” Goldberg said. “It’s distracting and it’s noisy.”The colocation may speak to a larger issue. Jones, the dean of students, believes that Harlem Success Academy has infringed on Opportunity’s space and that the closure may be part of a “political agenda.”All three West Harlem schools recently placed on the closure list are co-located with Harlem Success Academy branches.Although Opportunity has the largest number of students out of the three schools sharing the building, it has the smallest amount of space available, Jones said.Williams agreed that space was a problem and that the school would have to continue fighting to maintain itself.“I think that our students fully see the restraint,” Williams said. But she added that the teachers and support staff “ensure that students get the amount of time and the services … in the allotted amount of space.”“We do our best, truthfully,” Williams said.Jones acknowledged that the school is still struggling but said he remains hopeful about its future.“We have a lot of work to do, but I’m pretty optimistic that we could get the work done,” Jones said.