upcoming vote

Denver charter applicant alleges school isn’t getting a fair shot because of ‘prior controversy’

PHOTO: Greenlee
Greenlee Elementary is slated to close next year. The school board will decide what will replace it.

The leader of a Wyoming-based charter school is asking the Denver school board to reject a recommendation that his application to open a school in the city be denied, saying he suspects it’s based on “prior controversy” rather than the school’s merits.

PODER Academy founder Marcos Martinez submitted an application to take over low-performing Greenlee Elementary, which is slated to close next year. But Denver Public Schools staff found several shortcomings in PODER’s application.

Staff recommended board members deny it when they vote Thursday evening.

In an email to the board this week, Martinez wrote that he believes “the real reason that our school is not getting the chance that we deserve” has to do with his “previous experience.”

“We are extremely frustrated,” he told Chalkbeat.

Martinez was formerly head of a Westminster charter school, the Ricardo Flores Magon Academy. While students there did well on state tests, there were other problems. Martinez was sued by teachers for discrimination, involved in a lawsuit with the building landlord and criticized by state education officials for the school’s high teacher turnover rate.

Martinez resigned in 2012 after the board of directors asked him to go on paid leave while it investigated what a letter sent home to families described as “practices at the school.”

Later that same year, Martinez opened PODER Academy in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The school’s model is similar to that of Ricardo Flores Magon Academy in that it emphasizes rigorous instruction, has an extended school day and instructs students in tennis and chess.

PODER has earned the highest of Wyoming’s four performance levels, “exceeding expectations,” for the past three years. Eighty-six percent of its fifth graders scored proficient or advanced on last year’s state reading test, according to state statistics.

Given that, Martinez wrote to the Denver school board that it should be a “no brainer” choosing PODER as a replacement for Greenlee. He disparaged the other applicant, a plan put forward by the current Greenlee principal that DPS staff recommended the board approve.

Last year, just 19 percent of Greenlee fifth graders met expectations on Colorado’s English test.

District staff, Martinez wrote, “want to hand over Greenlee Elementary to the same people that have struggled with it for years, and have shown little progress in terms of academics.

“Are we missing something here?” he wrote.

DPS found PODER’s application lacking in several areas, including in explaining how the school’s model — which is described as a “high-intensity learning environment” with a “demanding” culture and strict discipline — would meet the specific needs of Greenlee students.

District staff also noted PODER “does not have letters of support from community partners or other stakeholders.” Martinez wrote in his email that PODER was told “to be extremely careful with reaching out to the community.” Other charter schools have voiced similar concerns.

At a recent meeting at which PODER presented its plan, DPS school board member Lisa Flores asked Martinez what he’d learned from his experience at Ricardo Flores Magon Academy.

“I was a young administrator, in my 20s, and sometimes success goes to your head very quickly,” Martinez told the board. He noted that he has since learned to work in a team and that all of PODER Academy’s teachers are coming back next year.

“I’ll own part of the controversy,” Martinez told Chalkbeat. “We’ve learned from that since, we’ve made the proper adjustments, we’ve gotten past that — and I feel that people are not giving (PODER) a fair shake. It’s not just hurting us. It’s hurting the children.”

Flores said she doesn’t believe PODER was treated unfairly. “I have a lot of confidence in the thoroughness and due diligence of district staff in evaluating these proposals,” she said.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg echoed Flores. “We understand that some applicants may not like or even agree with the recommendation made by” district staff, he said. “But it’s very clear from years of evidence the extraordinarily high quality and high degree of integrity of that process.”

Charter school applicants that are denied by local school boards can appeal to the State Board of Education. Martinez said he and his team haven’t decided yet whether they’ll do so if the DPS board rejects the application.

legal showdown

Lawsuit targets New York City program that strands poor students without required special ed services

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Public Advocate Letitia James announced a report earlier this month criticizing the city's special education voucher program.

A program that makes New York City parents responsible for finding their own special education services — but that often leaves them with no services at all — is under legal attack.

The class action lawsuit, filed Thursday in a federal district court, aims to reform the city’s process for ensuring that students with disabilities receive “related services” — which include physical therapy, certain medical services and counseling, among other therapies.

When the city’s education department is unable to offer those services itself, or through a contractor, parents are given a voucher that can be used to pay an outside provider. But that system puts the onus on families to find providers, and about half of the 9,164 vouchers issued during the 2015-16 school year went unused, according to a report issued earlier this month by the public advocate’s office.

The lawsuit centers on the Bronx, where the problem is particularly acute. In District 8, which includes Hunts Point, Throgs Neck and Soundview, 91 percent of the 129 vouchers issued last school year went unused — the highest rate anywhere in the city.

The city’s public advocate found that families face a number of barriers to using the vouchers: They often struggle to find providers in their neighborhoods, have difficulty arranging for transportation and getting reimbursed to send their children elsewhere, or simply can’t find providers who are responsive.

In part because of those challenges, an attorney who helped bring the lawsuit said the city can’t simply offer a voucher to fulfil its obligation to provide special education services.

“The DOE has to ensure that students actually get [services]” said Seth Packrone, a lawyer at Disability Rights Advocates, which contributed to the public advocate’s report. “They can’t just issue a voucher and then step away.”

The goal of the litigation is to force the education department to come up with a plan to ensure that students in the Bronx receive the services they have been guaranteed, Packrone said. It is not yet clear what that plan could entail or how it could affect other neighborhoods, which also have large numbers of unused vouchers.

The complaint says the city’s voucher program violates multiple federal laws that guarantee students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education. The plaintiffs in the case are two Bronx students and Bronx Independent Living Services, a nonprofit that works with students who have disabilities.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement: “We are dedicated to meeting the needs of students with disabilities and in the small percentage of cases when we issue a related service authorization, we work with families to connect them with an appropriate provider in their area.”

She referred questions about the lawsuit to a law department spokesman, who said the city is reviewing the complaint.

First Person

Yes, an A at one school may be a C at another. It’s time we address the inequity that got us there

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Yacine Fall, a student who shared her experience realizing that an A in her school wasn't the same as an A elsewhere.

I was struck by a recent Chalkbeat piece by a young woman who had earned a high GPA at a middle school in Harlem. Believing herself well prepared, she arrived at an elite high school only to find herself having to work hard to stay afloat in her classes.

Her A’s, it seemed, didn’t mean the same thing as the A’s from other, more affluent, schools.

As a teacher, I know that she’s right. Grades are different from school to school, district to district, and I suspect, state to state. And it presents a problem that cannot easily be solved — especially in English, the subject I teach.

The students who sit before us vary greatly. Some schools have students who are mired in poverty and who are also not fluent in English. (Some entire districts are this demographic. I taught in one for many years.) Other schools are quite affluent and have no English language learners. Guess which population demonstrates stronger academic skills?

We teachers cannot help but get normed to our population. We get used to seeing what we always see. Since an A is “excellent,” we tend to give A’s — really, all grades — in relation to the population with which we work. To get an A in any school means that the student is doing an excellent job relative to their peers.

When I taught in my old middle school, most kids arrived below grade level in math and English, and some were several years below. We became so used to seeing below-grade-level work that it became our “normal.” When an eighth-grader who came to us at a third-grade level turned in four or five pretty good paragraphs on a topic, we were elated.

That kid has come so far! We would bring that assignment out at the next department meeting and crow about her success. And we would award an A, because she did an excellent job in relation to her peers.

The trouble is, you take the same assignment down the highway 10 miles to an affluent school, and that same paper would earn a C-minus. Their eighth-graders came to them using strong theses, well developed points, and embedded quotations. To get an A in that school, the student has to do an excellent job relative to much more accomplished peers.

Kids who are just learning English, who are homeless or move frequently, who could be food-insecure, don’t have those skills. They’re not incapable of developing those skills. But they are unlikely to have them yet because of the challenges they face.

I now teach students in a highly competitive magnet program in another state (600 applicants for 150 seats, to give you an idea). Now I am normed so far the other way, it makes me dizzy. These students have skills that I never dreamed any eighth-grader could possess. The eighth-graders I taught this year wrote at a nearly professional level. Many of them score in the 99th percentile nationwide for both math and English.

Now I realize that, in my old district, we almost never saw a truly advanced student. In fact, not only had most of us never seen an advanced paper, we rarely saw any paper that was above partially proficient, even from students we thought were working above grade level.

The reality is that if we truly tried to hold everyone to the same bar, we would see even more troubling patterns emerge.

We would see the good grades going to rich white kids, those who get museums and vacations and Starbucks in the summer, and we would see the failing grades go to the poor kids — entire schools, even districts, full of poor kids who aren’t good with English and who spend their summers in front of the TV while mom and dad work.

So we have these very different sets of standards, even with the Common Core. There is a faction who would say this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush talked about. I say this shows that socioeconomic status and students’ home lives are the major predictors of success in school, and that the bigotry that causes that is real.

What does all this mean for the student who wrote the original piece about her transition to high school? What it means for her, immediately, is she sees firsthand the vast differences in preparation and opportunity between the socioeconomic classes. In the long term, it could mean a lot as far as college choices go. I don’t think we know yet how to really solve this problem.

We as a society need to address the factors that limit access and equity for poor and minority children. Leveling that particular playing field may be the most important charge with which educators are tasked.

Mary Nanninga is a middle school English teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She previously taught in Westminster Public Schools in Westminster, Colorado.