Disenrolled

‘Kicked out’: Newark charter school purges students in possible violation of state rules

PHOTO: Getty Images

On the second day of the school year, Malika Berry got an alarming call from her son, a 10th-grader at Marion P. Thomas Charter School.

“Ma, they told me I don’t go here anymore,” Berry recalled her son saying.

After she rushed to the school on Aug. 28, a staffer informed Berry that her son, Sahir Minatee, had been dropped from the roster over the summer. The school said Berry had failed to provide a document proving the family still lived at the same address down the street from the Central Ward school, which her son had attended since ninth grade. (Berry says she sent the school a bank statement with her address in May or June, and offered another one in August, which the school refused to accept.)

“He was basically kicked out,” Berry said.

Sahir wasn’t alone. Marion P. Thomas, a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade network of schools, removed 30 students from its roster over the summer for failing to submit proof of their address, school officials said.

The purge came over two months before Sept. 28 — the deadline Newark Public Schools gave families in charter and district schools to submit residency forms. It appeared to violate state regulations, which require districts to notify families and hold public hearings before removing enrolled children.

“The school can’t just throw a kid out,” said Elizabeth Athos, senior attorney at the Newark-based Education Law Center, adding that state regulations typically apply to all public schools — district and charter alike.

Marion P. Thomas officials, who originally sent Sahir to the district enrollment office, which reassigned him to a district high school, now say they erred in forcing out families who failed to provide the residency paperwork. But more than two weeks into the school year, only five of the 30 students have re-enrolled at the charter school, according to the school’s chief administrator, Misha Simmonds.

“We should not have disenrolled them,” Simmonds said Wednesday. “And that’s why we’re accepting them back.”

The purge adds to the recent controversy surrounding the 19-year-old charter school, which turned away dozens of high-school students on the first day of class for minor uniform infractions. Videos of the students hanging out in a nearby park after being blocked from school quickly went viral, prompting an online backlash and an apology from the school.

Last week, the Education Law Center filed a complaint with the state education department asking it to investigate the uniform crackdown, which it said led to “blatantly illegal exclusions of students from school.” It also asked the department to investigate Berry’s claim that the school disenrolled her son in retaliation for his speaking out about the uniform incident, not because of missing paperwork. (The school denies that claim.)

Marion P. Thomas, like all New Jersey charter schools, gets its funding from the districts where its students live. (Most of the school’s students live in Newark, but a small number live in surrounding districts such as East Orange and Irvington.) The districts, including Newark Public Schools, require charters to prove their students are district residents before they hand over the per-pupil allowance for charter students.

New enrollees at any Newark district or charter school must submit three residency documents — which can include copies of utility bills, bank statements, or a driver’s license — while current students must provide one each year showing their address hasn’t changed. The deadline is Sept. 28.

Marion P. Thomas began sending home letters in February reminding families of this requirement, according to Simmonds. In May, it hired extra workers to call families. The school originally set a June deadline to turn in the documents, but extended it to July.

In mid-July — two months before the district’s deadline — the school disenrolled any students who had not yet provided residency documents, Simmonds said, adding that the charter informed the district of its purge. (A district spokeswoman did not respond to a request to confirm that.)

Simmonds said families received letters notifying them that they would be removed from the rolls if they failed to verify their addresses by the deadline. But he was not sure whether they were notified again after they missed the deadline and before they were removed.

According to state regulations, districts must provide notice in writing to families if their child is deemed ineligible to attend school in that district because of where they live or because of missing paperwork. Families can appeal that decision, and students have a right to remain enrolled in their school during the appeals process. The district’s board of education must then hold a hearing before removing any student.

In New Jersey, the state education department is the sole authorizer responsible for overseeing charter schools. Michael Yaple, a department spokesman, said “it wouldn’t be appropriate” for him to comment on a specific school, but noted that “there is a process for un-enrolling students that is set forth in the state regulations.”

In recent years, Marion P. Thomas and other Newark charter schools have faced growing pressure to prove their students live in the city — and are thus entitled to Newark’s education dollars.

In 2016, Newark Public Schools conducted an enrollment audit of all the city’s district and charter schools. The goal, as former Superintendent Christopher Cerf wrote in a letter to families that year, was to “ensure that the funding designated for Newark’s public schools is serving Newark residents.”

All students, whether current or new, had to submit three proofs of address that year. Some 1,300 charter students who could not prove Newark residency were told to “find another district to fund their seat at the charter or register in their home district,” according to minutes from a Dec. 2016 school board meeting.

After the audit, the district had to pay for 1,295 fewer charter students than it had originally projected, according to the board minutes. Cerf later said the audit saved the district $2 million.

Since then, Newark Public Schools, like other districts, has required families to re-submit residency documents each year. Simmonds, of Marion P. Thomas, said the requirement leaves charter schools “in a pickle” if families fail to provide the paperwork.

“If districts don’t get that, they don’t pay,” he said. “Every charter has had experiences with districts that have not paid.”

Gabriella DiFilippo, chief operating officer of KIPP New Jersey, which operates eight Newark charter schools, agreed that it can be an “enormous amount of work” to ensure families submit residency documents. For instance, families who share apartments may not have utility bills registered in their names. (The state regulations include special provisions for homeless and immigrant students.)

For that reason, she added, the network goes out of its way to help families round up the necessary paperwork.

“We would never tell a student that they couldn’t come to our school because they didn’t get their residency verification in,” she said.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.