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BUGS infestation! New charter school gets ready to sting Park Slope

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A new charter school run by a team of former corporate honchos wants to take public school space from the city in order to serve Park Slope middle schoolers — prompting mixed emotions from parents who are happy to see more school options, but hate the idea of privatized public education.

Founders of Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School — which goes by the acronym “BUGS” — says the public, 300-student, science-focused school will serve sixth to eighth graders in District 15 as early as next fall, although it has not yet secured a location.

“[BUGS] will be a vibrant learning community dedicated to stewardship of the environment,” notes the school’s brochure. “We aim to provide [the district] with a high-quality, innovative middle school option to reduce overcrowding.”

It also notes the school is “a community-based project” instead of a controversial “charter management group” — where charter leaders are accused of making six-figure salaries while taking up rent-free space at city public schools.

The Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School may claim to be neighborhood friendly, but the resumes of its founding team members tell a different story: the majority of them have held positions as corporate executives at companies including Ford Financial, Deutsche Bank and Barclays Capital. Many have more experience in the corporate world than with public education.

It’s one indication they are more than simple, community do-gooders: They are business-savvy executives with much to gain from rent-free public school space, some parents charge.

“We want good, community based-public schools — not privatized new ones,” said Park Slope mom and activist Gloria Mattera. “Buy your own building.”

Public charter schools pick students via lottery and offer a more flexible curriculum than district schools. Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School students, for example, will spend more time outside planting, designing gardens and studying nature.

But creative curriculum and high test scores have not stopped charter schools from igniting fiery fights in the district, like in the case of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network, which hundreds of Cobble Hill parents and teachers rallied against at a recent Department of Education hearing.

Many parents are against putting charter schools into operating school buildings, claiming that it takes away classrooms from public school children and forces everyone to compete for shared gym, library and cafeteria space.

Yet Mark Kolman — a member of the of the District 15 Community Education Council who has opposed inappropriate charter co-locations in the past — said the Brooklyn Urban Charter School would likely be good for the area.

“I don’t see it hurting anything at this point; the neighborhood needs more middle schools,” he said. “But it is certainly a business.”

A fast-paced business, it seems: Brooklyn Urban Charter School co-founder Susan Tenner — a former executive at Intel — did not have time to talk about the school when we reached her, noting via e-mail, “I have back-to-back meetings right now.”

Co-founder Miriam Nunberg, a lawyer — and one of the few founders who has worked as a teacher — did not respond to calls and e-mails.

Department of Education officials noted the school’s co-location is, by no means, a done deal.

“We are in discussion with the school to identify what their needs are and whether we would be able to find them an appropriate space,” said spokesman Frank Thomas.

Reach reporter Natalie O'Neill at noneill@cnglocal.com or by calling her at (718) 260-4505.

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Miriam Nunberg from South Slope says:
I am the co-founder and Board Chair of the Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School (BUGS), and I must comment on several erroneous and frankly biased assertions made in this article. BUGS was founded as a community-based effort to create another much-needed public middle school option. The article states that we really intend to reach only “Park Slope middle schoolers.” In reality, BUGS intends to serve students from a far wider swath of Brooklyn, including Sunset Park, Kensington and Red Hook. Our curriculum is specifically designed to serve English Language Learners, as well as special needs students via our partnership with the Cooke Center for Learning and Development.

The article also includes the inaccurate statement that although BUGS “claim[s] to be neighborhood-friendly,” my team is really a bunch of “corporate honchos” with little experience in public education. The BUGS board is actually an all-volunteer group of talented community members with broad-ranging educational and other relevant expertise. Our nonprofit board is made up of nine members, four of whom are former teachers. One board member is now a national expert on middle school design. Another directs research and assessment at a highly respected school for students with special needs. A third is currently working on the reform of the Newark Public Schools, and my legal practice has focused on civil rights in public education. Another inaccuracy is the statement that my co-founder Susan Tenner is a former executive at Intel, whereas in reality she is another former teacher who developed early childhood educational programs for the staffs of her clients, including Intel and Ford Financial. We are also quite lucky to have three team members from the worlds of finance and real estate, which is absolutely crucial to the success of any charter school; a charter that attempted to open without this expertise on its board would be irresponsible at best, and unsuccessful at worst.

Our team remains happy to speak to anyone interested in learning about our school. None of the members of our planning team were interviewed for this article, which might explain some of the incorrect content. We have yet to secure a space, and are committed to finding one that creates more seats for all students, without adding to the overcrowding problem in District 15 or anywhere else. Once we do secure a space and know that we will be able to open in the fall, we will be holding public information sessions where parents can learn for themselves about our school. In the meantime, I strongly urge interested readers who would like to learn the real facts about this exciting, new, and yes, public, needed middle school option by visiting our website at bugsbrooklyn.org.
Jan. 4, 2012, 12:26 pm

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