Adi TalwarThe physical changes to Bushwick mask a profound demographic shift: its transition from a neighborhood of families with children to one where an increasing share of households have no kids.
No school district in the city is shrinking faster than Bushwick’s District 32—a trend that parent leaders attribute to rising rents and the growing popularity of charter schools.
Over the last five school years, District 32’s total enrollment has dropped 21 percent. The School Construction Authority’s projections have District 32 shrinking by nearly half over the next decade. While demographers predict the city’s school-age population will fall in most neighborhoods, their modelling suggests Bushwick’s classroom numbers will plummet more dramatically than those in any other district.
In 2009, City Limits took a deep look at Bushwick, the neighborhood at the center of the city and the crossroads of many important trends. A decade later, the editorial team spent the month of July 2019 in the neighborhood, producing this story and others.
Perhaps the most profound shift underway in Bushwick is its transition from a neighborhood of families with children to one where an increasing share of households have no kids. In the year 2000, 54 percent of Bushwick households included someone aged 18 or younger, according to data tracked by the Furman Center. In 2017, the last year for which statistics are available, only 30 percent did.
Luis Fonseca, president of the parent-teachers association at IS 291 and leader of the council of parent organizations in district 32, doesn’t have to think long to find an explanation for the shrinking family presence in Bushwick: after all, he is living doubled-up himself.
“The increase in the rent in Bushwick is unbelievable. People are moving out. They’re working three or four different jobs. They’ve no other choice by to move out of state. They take their kids with them,” he says. “$2800 for a two bedroom? That’s impossible.”
The change is visible at the area’s charter schools. Amanda Pinto, the senior director for strategic communications and design at the Achievement First network, says staff at their Bushwick Schools told her, “The one thing they noticed has changed is that families are moving.”
“We now have more families in Queens than we’ve ever had before,” she says. “Perhaps because they are being forced out of the neighborhood.”
Father James Kelly, who was pastor of St. Brigid’s for nearly 40 years and still does immigration advocacy in the neighborhood, sees it too. “St. Martin of Tours is closed. St. Joseph’s. St. Barbara’s is gone. The Catholic schools are gone,” he says. “The charters are doing fine. But apparently there aren’t enough children to go around.”
* * * *The Need for NYC School Seats in 2027School Construction AuthorityRanked by expected decrease (increase)
Inwood, Washington Heights
Prospect Park, Wingate
Brooklyn Heights, Ft. Greene, Clinton Hill
Brownsville, Ocean Hill
Bedford Stuyvesant, Weeksville
Canarsie, East Flatbush
East Village, Lower East Side
Central Harlem, Morningside Heights
Glendale, Ridgewood, Maspeth, Jackson Heights, Sunnyside
Lincoln Square, Upper West Side
Cypress Hills, East NY, Starrett City
East Harlem, Randall’s Island
Mott Haven, Port Morris
Country Club, Edgewater Park, Soundview, Hunts Point
Morris Heights, Mount Eden
Sunset Park, Cobble Hill
Riverdale, Bedford Park, Norwood
Hunters Point, Long Island City, Astoria, Steinway
East Tremont, Claremont Village
Richmond Hill, Woodhaven, Howard Beach, South Ozone Park
Marine Park, Georgetown, Flatlands
Wakefield, Co-op City, Pelham Parkway
Rosedale, Saint Albans, Cambria Heights, Queens Village
Financial District, Tribeca, West Village, Clinton, Midtown, Gramercy, Upper East Side
Rego Park, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens
Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, Gravesend, Ocean Parkway
Floral Park, Little Neck, Bayside, Fresh Meadows,
Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton, Dyker Heights
College Point, Whitestone, Hillcrest
Charters grow as enrollment dwindles
Some public-school parents believe charters are doing fine at the expense of regular public schools.
“I can say that from my experience and the people I talk to the most, that the residents who live in District 32, a lot of them are not attending these schools,” says Stacie Johnson, the recording secretary of the local community education council. “Most of the students are getting pulled away because of the charters. There are lots more people going to charters than going to other districts.”
From 2010 to 2019, School Construction Authority data show the share of District 32 resdents attending charters more than quadrupled—from 6 percent to 27 percent
“We are losing students for different reasons,” says Martha Bayona, president of the local Community Education Council. “One reason is the rents are getting two expensive. Number two is competition from the charter schools.”
The three charter schools in the area—Achievement First’s North Brooklyn and Bushwick Schools and Bushwick Ascend—post far higher schools on state exams than most regular public schools in the district.
In 2018, 74 percent of students at Achievement First Bushwick scored a level 3 or 4 on the state English Language Arts test, meaning they performed on or above grade level. While regular public schools have their standouts, like P.S. 376 where 70 percent of kids earned threes or fours on the ELA test, most schools posted passage rates in the 20-40 percent range. At JHS 291, only 18 percent of students past. Math scores show a similar spread.
“Amazing things happen when potential meets opportunity,” Achievement First’s Pinto says. “The purpose of our school is to connect students in historically under-served communities to the same quality of education you find in more affluent communities.”
But Bayoma believes charter school’s appeal is as much about quantity as it is quantity. “The charter schools offering more programs for after school, giving more hours,” she says. “We have families that are having two and three jobs because of the cost of living.” That makes extra childcare a precious commodity.
The flip-side of crowding
Schools in District 32 have a 61 percent utilization rate, second-lowest in the city to neighboring Brownsville, with a 43 percent rate.
While underenrollment might sound like a blessing compared with overcrowding, it can create serious problems for schools, because funding is typically provided to schools on a per pupil basis. The lower funding is especially harmful when the students who remain in the school display deeper needs.
Desines Rodriguez, the treasurer of the community education council, said many parents of students with special-education Individual Education Programs, or IEPs, find that Bushwick schools simply don’t have the resources their kids need. “Like the ACES [Academic, Career and Essential Skills] program. That’s an excellent program for students with IEPs, but we don’t have the resources for it,” she says.
On the other end of the spectrum, the district Gifted and Talented Program is also underenrolled. Johnson thinks that reflects resource disparities as well. “It’s hard for parents to get a tour,” she says. “In district 32, I think probably because of the lack of funding, that they don’t have the extra staff to offer a tour or answer the phone or call people back.”
Fonseca became a parent advocate because his now 12-year-old daughter has a disability and, he noticed several years ago that in school, “No one was paying attention to her.” That situation has improved, he says. “We still need a lot. We need after school programs. Math and science programs.”
Underenrollment is just one of many challenges facing Bushwick’s public schools. The district has the fifth highest poverty rate in the city and has a higher share of students with disabilities and English language learners than most districts. Some Bushwick schools face extraordinary levels of need. Thirty-five percent of the students at P.S. 123 are classified as English Language Learners. At P.S. 106, 28 percent of kids have a disability.
Charter schools tend to face lighter burdens. Only 13 percent of students at Achievement First Bushwick Charter School were classified as English Language Learners last school year. Only 16.3 percent of Bushwick Ascend’s kids had disabilities.
Pinto contends that those statistics can be misleading – that special education students sent outside their schools to get services are still counted as part of the IEP population, and that some charter school students might be kids who were English Language Learners but have tested out of that status. But she says Achievement First is working to serve more of those hard-to-teach populations, including with a program that pulls students with special needs from their school to a centralized program.
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“I think the goal is to serve more students with significant special needs and also to serve them well,” Pinto says. “We consider ourselves a charter-public school. We try to focus less on competition between ourselves and the district schools and more on our comparison to the best schools.”
But the competition is not just over test scores but also students. CEC members are troubled by charters’ aggressive mailing campaigns, against which regular public schools cannot compete. Fonseca is troubled by what he says are visible disparities in resources. “They should be equal. We need better programs in public schools,” he says. Students notice small differences between what their school has and what charters provide. “It’s not fair. [The charters] have better chairs. Better screens.”
Something to offer
Bayoma and her colleagues on the CEC believe Chancellor Carranza’s stated opposition to closing schools will buy time for P.S. 377, the school they believe faces the most imminent threat of a shutdown. The school is only 59 percent utilized, but the charter school located there—Achievement First North Brooklyn Prep—is at 120 percent capacity, according to SCA data.
“The chancellor has two or three more years,” Bayoma says. “So we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Parents on the CEC have a nuanced message about Bushwick’s schools. Yes, they are being squeezed between residential displacement and the allure of charters. Sure, they face resource deficits and very needy student populations. But they also have a lot to offer. “It’s a delicate balance for us to criticize and demand better but to also be proud of what is here,” Johnson says.
Programs at District 32 SchoolsPer the Community Education Council
•9 dual language programs: 32K086/106/116/123/145/151/376/384/562•STEAM Initiative – 6 programs: 32K123/145/162/291/349/376•Project Based Learning/Focus Literacy: 32K123/106/145/376•Universal Literacy (Reading Coach Program): all elementary schools•Showcase Schools/Learning Partners: 32K376/562•Learning Partners Program: 32K086/383•Computer Science For All: 32K045/145/299/376/274/562/349/383•Algebra For All: 32K045/145/347/383/106/145/162/291/349/562•Specialized High School Application Test – Capacity Building Initiative (CBI) in an after-school course (SHSAT-CBI): •32K045/162/291/347/349/383/562•Specially Designed Instruction (lab site): 32K376•PBIS Classroom, Greenhouse, and hydroponics lab at 32K377•Family Leadership Suite at 32K123•District-Wide Family Learning Suite at 32K123 – among other things, offers My Brother’s Keeper Learning Series to parents •and other family workshops