Public School Apartheid in Harlem

In the heart of Harlem is a windowless brick cube building that looks like a prison. It is, in fact, a public school. In the polite language of politicians and bureaucrats, this school, The Choir Academy of Harlem, is a hub of public school co-location. An efficient use of public space for some, in this case, co-location is a form of public education apartheid. Far worse than separate but equal, it is together and unequal.

According to the Manhattan Institute, 63 percent of the city's 1,818 schools share space with another school, including 115 charter schools. The Choir Academy houses a public middle school, a charter school run by Harlem's Children's Zone, a technical training school run by the Urban Assembly, a middle school and high school of the Democracy Prep Harlem Charter Schools, and a detention center for suspended students gently called the Alternate Learning Center.

Here is how just two of those schools co-exist.

On one floor is the Promise Academy, one of the charter schools of Geoffrey Canada's Harlem's Children Zone. The brightly lit hallway is decorated with the student's artwork. Every class has three teachers, 20 students and an abundance of computers, lab equipment and books. More grown-ups monitor the hallways.

One floor up is public middle school 469. It is Depression-era Kansas to the Promise Academy's Oz. The hallway is grim, undecorated, and poorly lit. A group of older boys shove one another against lockers, which are mainly unused because they are too easy to break into, and a gaggle of eighth grade girls are huddled together whispering, plotting, gossiping. There are several hundred children bursting with energy and one security guard at one end of the hallway leaning against the wall.

The classrooms are largely devoid of books and equipment. One room has square black tables pushed together into groups suggesting a scientific purpose. It is easy to imagine beakers bubbling over Bunsen burners, but that was a long time ago, before the kids threw the scalding beakers at one another and a teacher.

I ask a seventh grade boy how it feels to walk past the Promise Academy every day. His answer, "I don't know, we're just used to going past the place where kids have more stuff."

In one of the barren classrooms the social studies teacher asks, "what rights do you have in your community?" DeSean, a quiet boy with black curly hair and glasses, thinks about the question. After listening to a few answers from other students about their "right" to have basketball sneakers and iPods, he raises his hand."I don't know if this is what you mean, but my food in the cafeteria really sucks. I mean, it's already got the sauce on it, and it's been sitting there for a long time. Sometimes I don't even know what it is. Why can't I have the right to the same food as the Promise Academy kids? Their food looks really good."

The cafeteria is a wide-open institutional space split into two separate eating areas. On one side of the cafeteria sits DeSean and his classmates. They each have a palm-size Styrofoam tray with a small square of fried fish on a hamburger bun, a scoop of canned mixed vegetables, and three neon-green pickle slices. It is a tiny, tasteless, unsatisfying meal for a hungry child.

Across the cafeteria are several security guards defending covered foil trays. This is the catered lunch for the Promise Academy students. The pans contain freshly roasted fish and vegetables. The aroma floats across the cafeteria. Nearby are crates of fresh fruit. Harlem Children's Zone raises millions of dollars every year from corporations and foundations to underwrite this lunch. It will be served, as all meals for the charter school kids are, on restaurant quality plates with silverware.

At some point, we tacitly consented to the notion that providing only 20 percent of the children in Harlem, those that win the lottery and go to charter schools, with adequate teachers, equipment and food, is a morally acceptable public policy.

DeSean and his friends watch other children from their neighborhood get more stuff simply because they won a lottery. Co-location doesn't even pretend to have the decency of a rationale or an "ism," it is just a lot of left out kids watching other kids get more stuff every day.