In response to our articles about Urban Dove charter school renting school space from the East Midwood Jewish Center, and the controversy that has caused in the immediate neighborhood, we have received a letter to the editor from Laurie Mermelstein. Mermelstein has lived on the block in the midst of the Urban Dove debate for the last 18 years, and writes that legitimate concerns of neighbors are being ignored.
East Midwood Neighbors’ Concerns Ignored
The peaceful, tree-lined block of East 21St Street between Avenues K & L has come under focus in the debate of relocating Urban Dove (UD) to the former Harry Halpern Day School. Our street consists of modest single-family homes and the aforementioned elementary school building.
When the East Midwood congregation erected the Hebrew day school in 1950 and subsequently expanded the premises in the 1970s, a special permit was required to override the neighborhood’s zoning restrictions. Neighbors did not object as they understood the need for this community institution.
As in all neighborhoods, demographics shifted over the years and the day school suffered from decreased enrollment and eventually closed. For a time, the East Midwood Jewish Center (EMJC) rented the space to another Jewish school but chose not to renew its lease.
This past spring, EMJC entered into negotiations, without any community consultation, with a charter high school, UD, for the East 21st Street building.
The community disruption caused by a new charter school, especially one with behaviorally at-risk students, placed in an area and structure not equipped to handle the additional traffic, should not be ignored and dismissed. Yet our block was first informed months after the term sheet was signed and EMJC only requested community participation in a November 4th letter inviting us to the November 25th meeting.
I want to counter the one-sided story currently being disseminated by UD and speak up for my rightfully worried community.
At the November meeting UD’s founder, Jai Nanda, repeatedly and falsely stated that his students are strictly academically high-risk. However, UD’s own application for its Bronx location (May you have a copy/link) attests to gang affiliation at the Brooklyn site.
At the meeting, Mr. Nanda asserted his students love attending UD; then backtracked and admitted that truancy was a significant problem. A ProPublica study confirms that the average UD student misses 31 days of school.
Nanda initially claimed that violence was not an issue at his school until forced to explain that staff carries walkie-talkies so that they can call a “code” when students fight. Fighting seems to be quite common, as a survey conducted by the NYC Dept. of Education found that 63% of UD students say that students get into physical fights either some or most of the time.
When a concerned citizen at the meeting asked about safety outside the school building, Nanda dismissively responded that it’s the NYPD’s job to protect the public.
Parents are rightfully afraid that teenagers with a propensity for violence will interfere with their children’s commute. Neighborhood children walk down East 21st Street to and from school because this street has traffic lights at each corner. It’s been the preferred route for parents of young children because of this simple but necessary safety feature. As UD is a high school, there won’t be any crossing guards in the vicinity to look after our kids.
With its narrow corridors, the East Midwood building was clearly not designed for high school use and has only previously been occupied by an elementary school for decades.
Furthermore, it is situated approximately a half-mile from the nearest subway station. UD would be better off relocating to a non-residential block with close access to mass transit. A school already plagued by truancy should be conveniently accessible to its students; otherwise, attendance issues will only worsen. In fact, when pressed by politicians for their requirements for an alternate site, UD insisted on a location with close access to two subway lines; a requirement that disqualifies the East Midwood building.
The neighbors of East 21st Street feel betrayed by the board of East Midwood for not reaching out earlier.
Furthermore, rather than acknowledging our legitimate concerns about safety, we have been unfairly branded as racists by UD and EMJC’s newly promoted Rabbi. As we grieve during a time of heightened and terrifying attacks on the local Jewish community, we are being verbally attacked and encroached upon by a charter school that labels us as racists in the face of warranted concerns.
For years we have coexisted in peace with EMJC notwithstanding the inconvenience of having a school on our block. We have tolerated having our driveways blocked and dealt with the previous day school’s disorganized drop-off and dismissal policies.
Neighbors are supposed to look out for each other, but East Midwood has excommunicated itself from the community. We hope reason will prevail and the leadership of both East Midwood and UD will negotiate in good faith for a solution that is acceptable to all sides: a suitable, alternate location for the students and the Midwood community.
We welcome letters to the editor and opinion pieces from all our neighbors to be considered for publication – please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions are those of the writer.