A New Charter HS in Bushwick

By Tobias Salinger / Photo by Meryl Measlier
The director of a charter high school set to open next fall in Bushwick, Brooklyn doesn’t mind offering delivery service.

“I tell everyone, ‘I will come to your house and pick up the application myself,’” said Arthur Samuels of MESA Charter High School. “And I’ve done that.”

The 34-year-old Harvard Law School and Columbia Teachers alum, whose full-time teaching experience consists of seven years working on college enrollment in West Roxbury, Mass and New York City charter high schools, says he’s ready to offer up his school to neighborhood parents.

“We were really looking for a place where we could be something that the community really wanted and something the community felt it needed,” said Samuels.

Though Bushwick parents may need new options, Samuels is hoping to share space with two public schools at a neighborhood middle school—a typically fraught arrangement.

The independent charter will make its first impact on the two schools already located at IS 291 Roland Hayes. Placing several schools on one campus can create stark borders between students, critics say.

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“You have one school in one part of the school with these dope computers, and, 5 feet away in another classroom, you don’t have these things,” said Deshaun Mars, who mentors Bushwick remedial students at Good Shepherd Services.

But Samuels’ outreach efforts have garnered support. Cynthia Velez of the Bushwick Community Partnership Program, a neighborhood improvement group, supports MESA. She said in a phone interview that she’s trying to quell resistance to MESA from staff at the Bushwick Community High School, the other school on the campus.

“I told them that this is a great opportunity to be a part of something in the community that’s something different,” said Velez, who has raised six children in Bushwick. “It’s something that will be an outlet to college and the working field.”

Both Jacqueline Rosado, principal of IS 291, and Llermi Gonzalez, principal of Bushwick Community High School, declined requests for comment.

Charter schools can provoke controversy wherever they are located.

“I think a big part of it is that they’re touted as a solution,” said Vanessa Martir, a Bushwick native and writing teacher at the Bushwick School for Social Justice. “I don’t think there’s enough research and evidence to support that.”

Samuels employs diplomacy amidst such contentious issues. The newcomer to Bushwick acknowledged that sharing a campus is a “tough thing” which “creates an imposition on everybody.” But he emphasized that his school is not designed to discredit neighborhood teachers.

“I am not, nor would I ever, disparage anyone who is working in education and working with kids who haven’t had an opportunity for a quality education,” said Samuels, who asked that his cell phone number be printed with the article.

Velez said Samuels won her over after she “grilled him” for three hours about MESA.

“I just feel that the way Mr. Samuels has brought his school to the neighborhood and spoken to us in the community shows his school is going to be very open and welcoming to the children and families in the community,” she said.

That openness takes on special meaning in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood. MESA’s state application outlined plans to reserve space for kids learning English and hire a language specialist. The application, which gained approval from the Board of Regents in October 2012, included a supportive letter from Vanessa Leung, the secretary of the Citywide Council on English Language Learners.

She said in a phone interview that MESA’s founders had made “a sincere effort and commitment to meet the needs of the Bushwick community.” She noted the importance of setting the right tone in a district which, enrollment figures show, is 99 percent non-white.

“The key thing is that you need to go in not saying you want to do this ‘for’ the community, but saying that you want to do this ‘with’ the community,” said Leung.

MESA will now try to gain applications from parents who often choose schools outside the community.

“I really didn’t like the other high schools in Bushwick, so that’s why I put them in school in Manhattan,” said Bushwick parent Elsa Ramroop about her two eldest children.

The numbers show Bushwick parents are indeed sending their children elsewhere. Though 8,630 15 to 19-year-olds live in Bushwick, according to the Census, only 2,950 students enrolled in neighborhood high schools, according to figures from the city Department of Education.

But Ramroop said by telephone that she and her 13-year-old son, Roger, decided to apply to MESA. The school, whose name stands for “Math, Engineering and Science Academy,” spoke to Roger’s scientific curiosity. And Ramroop noted that “parents will have a lot of say” at MESA.

“You know your children, so you know which ones you have to be involved with more,” said Ramroop. “He needs a little push once in a while.”

Samuels and other MESA organizers will seek to provide that motivation with “college bound” classes for students. The required daily sessions from ninth grade up will educate students on the importance of college and focus on writing, research and the application process. Samuels designed and implemented the program at his previous post at East Harlem’s Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation.

The city’s Panel for Educational Policy voted on final approval for MESA’s plans on March 11.

“There’s no MESA in other neighborhoods,” said Samuels, who noted he’s received almost 50 applications so far. “Our only goal is to create a really good college preparatory school for the 125 students next fall, and, ultimately, the 500 who will attend. That’s our only agenda.”