Photo Essay

  • "Life Is Good" sign on the wall in the main office of PS 149 in Harlem, New York.
  • Looking north up Lenox Avenue from 117 St. onto the shared school yard for four schools: PS 149 Sojourner Truth, the Success Academy charter school, PS 811 Mickey Mantle school and the Harlem Gems pre-K program.
  • PS 149 teacher Valerie Simms-Dixon with her 6th grade class.
  • The first floor hallway in PS 149.
  • Members of PS 149's Lacrosse team line up for study hall after lunch.
  • PS 149's boys lacrosse team during study hall. Half of their time is spent watching videos about the game, studying about their opponents and watching replays. The other half is traditional study hall.
  • The chalkboard in Valerie Simms-Dixon's 6th grade class at PS 149.
  • PS 149 Assistant Principal Delouise Briggs at her desk.
  • The PS 149 girls lacrosse team lines up for practice after school.
  • PS 149's girls lacrosse team gathers on a small piece of astroturf in the school yard for a meeting before practice.
  • Brendin hugs his mom Joeleyttee Fernandez before he starts his day at PS811 in Harlem. Brendin, a first-grader, has been diagnosed with a litany of issues including ADHD and oppositional defiance disorder. His mother said that he has made progress since enrolling in PS 811, but fears if the loss of more space at the school would mean the loss of her son’s gains.
  • (L) Storage closet at PS 149's where stacks of violins go unused since the music program was cut. (R) A jobs wall in teacher Kalah Taylor's 2nd grade maths class at the Success Academy Charter School in Harlem. The disparity between services available to the children at the two schools is very apparent.
  • A first grader at the Success Academy Charter School in Harlem fields questions from his peers following show and tell in art class.
  • Faculty cards in the main office of the Success Academy Charter School.
  • Students' backpacks hang on hooks during class at the Success Academy Charter School in Harlem.
  • First grade girls line up in order to be dismissed from art class at the Success Academy Charter School in Harlem.
  • Equations are displayed in teacher Kalah Taylor's second grade math class at the Harlem Success Academy.
  • Harlem's Success Academy Charter School fourth graders play chess.
  • Students participating in Kalah Taylor's second grade math class at the Success Academy Charter School in Harlem.
  • Success Academy Charter School kindergarten kids play after school.
  • Success Academy Charter School kids line up after school before their parents are allowed to come in and claim them.
  • Faculty time cards in the main office of PS 149 in Harlem.
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A day in the life of a divided school

Updated

The dramatic rise of charter schools in urban communities over the past decade has been fraught with debate, controversy and consternation. Opponents of charters, which are publicly funded but operated by private groups, say the schools have been used as a tool to break unions and privatize public education. Those critics say that with each new charter school, desperately needed funding is being redirected from traditional public schools that have been starved for resources for decades.

While the broader debate over charter schools is whipping through communities across the nation, the epicenter remains in New York City – specifically Harlem – where a plethora of charters have emerged to challenge public schools for students and the funding that follows each of them. They’ve grown in neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty and need, where many local schools have long failed to offer students a quality education.

Indeed, New York City has bucked a national trend in which charter schools in major cities throughout the country have typically not performed any better than their traditional public school counterparts, and in many cases have performed much worse.

In Harlem, the success and aggressive expansion of charter schools has created a toxic dynamic as traditional schools languish. Over the past decade, as dozens of public schools were being shuttered in New York City, charter schools grew more than tenfold. The city’s charter schools were favored by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as wealthy Wall Street donors who have poured millions in cash and resources into them. Under Bloomberg’s administration, the number of city charters grew from just 12 when he took office, to 183 a dozen years later.

But there’s one Bloomberg-era policy in particular that has served as a lightning rod in the city’s charter school debate. It’s called co-location, and it allows charter schools to occupy rent-free space in public school buildings. The result is a complicated cohabitation in which school buildings are literally dissected by multiple schools, students and administrations.

Critics say the policy of co-location has created a two-tier system of haves and have-nots, where students at traditional public schools are losing valuable space and programming while charters enjoy the spoils of public funding in addition to wealthy private benefactors.

The most maligned – and academically successful – charter school network is the Harlem Success Academy, which operates 22 schools across the city.

Critics of Harlem Success say the schools have bullied their way into city-owned buildings and created what amounts to an apartheid system. The Success Academies typically renovate their spaces beautifully, painting the walls and gutting the bathrooms. They replace the lighting in their sections of public school buildings and carpet their classrooms. They have rooms for playing chess, dance studios, and rooms for children’s building blocks.

The traditional public schools, meanwhile, don’t have the resources to offer such amenities.

“It was like our students had their nose pressed up against a storefront window, seeing things they couldn’t afford to buy,” said Gay Zacerous, a speech therapist at the Sojourner Truth School, also known as PS 149 in Harlem. PS 149 is co-located with Harlem Success Academy 1 and three other schools. “It kind of made us feel a little devalued and demoralized.”

Supporters of traditional public schools say the forced co-habitations have drawn a line in the school yard, pitting parents, teachers and students against one another. They say a cold war is heating up as the debate has taken a decidedly polarizing and political tone, where public and charter school staff in the same building often don’t speak or even look each other in the eye.

“We don’t have the resources,” said Barbara Darrigo, principal at PS 149. “I don’t have the money and it’s in my students’ faces every day what they don’t have.”

Parents and teachers of students at the traditional public schools described what they see as an attack on the rights of their students.

“I feel like I’m fighting, but I don’t know who I’m fighting,” said Joeleyttee Fernandez, the mother of a first-grader at the PS 811. “I’m not against charters schools but it feels like there’s some sort of evil in the way they are doing their system … They’re basically segregating these kids and saying that one child deserves to have better than the others.”

Fernandez’s son, Brendin, 7, has been diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder, ADHD and depression. He suffers from nervousness, which leads to emotionally fraught outbursts.  Since enrolling at 811, she said she’s seen a difference in his behavior, crediting the work of staff specially trained to nurture and grow students with special needs.

That that mission could be jeopardized in the face of shrinking space incenses Fernandez. Because of limited space, Brendin’s gym class is held inside his classroom. With lunch schedules spread across the schools, his lunch time is 10:30 a.m., just about two hours after the start of school.

“It’s so disturbing,” she said. “Every day he comes home talking about the reason why he doesn’t get this or that is because he’s special. I’m going to hold my ground, to keep fighting until we get these things back, get the art class back, get recess back, get lunch at a decent time. But as a parent, there’s only so much you can put your child through.”

This tale of two school systems is a narrative playing out all across New York City, where students, teachers and parents at co-located schools have found themselves on opposite sides of the chalk line.

Photographer Thomas Prior recently spent some time in Harlem at the school building shared by PS 149 and Harlem Success Academy 1, and documented a day in the life of a school building divided.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography