Op-ed | A second life for ‘zombie charters,’ and what that means for city kids

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Make no mistake, this year’s New York state budget is good for families. Not only will there be unprecedented levels of funding for public schools, but Governor Kathy Hochul and state legislative leaders also took an important step towards providing more high quality schools to families across New York City.

They smartly agreed to revive the 14 open public charter school licenses known as “zombie charter schools,” But make no mistake, there’s nothing to fear from these zombies. In fact these schools will provide new and important opportunities to families living in New York City’s underserved communities. If we learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that parents want better education options and opportunities. These schools in particular are innovative, serve the community and have been long awaiting their turn to support the futures of our students.

At MESA Charter High School, Pagee and her team are leading the way to meet the needs of families and her community. For 10 years, our school has enrolled students from Central Brooklyn looking for a better education option for their children. Families like the Cahuana family or the Lema family, who chose MESA because we focus on every individual child from when they enter our doors to providing them with the most equitable opportunities for their futures. With a 95 percent graduation rate, all of our students are presented with support to advance in their future endeavors.

More importantly, our curriculum focuses on areas where students from historically disadvantaged communities have not been equitably represented in like STEM. Our commitment to pillaring purpose, pride, empathy and courage within our resources and students has led to amazing opportunities like paid internships tied to various careers, travel abroad and science field research programs, and scholarship programs with prestigious colleges, such as Skidmore, Tufts, and Columbia. Moreover, through MESA’s rigorous Advanced Placement and College Level Examination Programs, as well as a partnership with St. Francis College, our graduates leave our school equipped with college credits and a rigorous preparation for postsecondary success.

Because of our successful graduation rates and alumni programming we hoped to expand and replicate our success at MESA with another high school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Our model so impressed the SUNY Charter Committee that they approved us to open another school, but there had been one very big obstacle that had been in our way, until now. There’s an arbitrary cap on public charter schools for New York City, so even though we run a school with 95 percent graduation rate and 85% average college readiness rate in the past two years, we are blocked from opening more schools.

We want to provide programs like our Alumni Labs, college course programming & career connected learning opportunities and internships and apprenticeships to more families in the community we are located, because we have proven that our methods and curriculum works for students. We are not alone. There are many more leaders of color that want to open more high quality public charter schools to meet the needs of parents.

Recycling these charter licenses is an important first step, but there’s still work to be done. We must raise the arbitrary cap on charter schools to meet the needs of New York City families. Earlier this year, Jacquelyn’s organization DFER NY released a poll showing 64% of parents in the city support raising the cap. In March, hundreds upon hundreds of parents rallied outside City Hall Park calling for more public charter school to open, including MESA graduate Cynthia Estevez who told the crowd: “I might not have discovered this career without my charter school and I want to make sure that other students have the same opportunities I had.”

We are also advocating and supporting legislation that creates an Education Equity Fund. Too many public charter leaders struggle with capital construction costs, in part because charters don’t receive equal funding as traditional public schools. This is especially a problem for leaders of color who faced outsized challenges to raise money to cover capital costs. This fund would create a public-private partnership, and help high-performing charters with construction and improvements to their schools, prioritizing schools led and run by BIPOC leaders. For us — this means principals and administrators can focus on what matters most: the students.

It is the students that must continue to be the priority in this education fight. For too long, education has been a political football in New York, and it’s been students and families that have suffered. Reviving the zombie charters will not serve as a cure-all, but it will allow more high quality schools to open is certainly a lot less scary than depriving families access to great schools and students to a brighter academic future.

Pagee Cheung is Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director at MESA Charter High School. Jacquelyn Martell is the Executive Director of Democrats for Education Reform New York.