charter schools

Charter schools raise questions but draw no sanctions from state policymakers

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Second-graders work on computers at Tindley Renaissance charter school, which is within Indianapolis Public Schools' boundaries. Under a new proposal, districts would have to share some referendum dollars with local charter schools.

The state’s new chancellor’s “serious concerns” about whether one charter school should be allowed to operate didn’t stop her from supporting its second chance.

Chancellor Betty Rosa’s response to two charter schools, one with low student achievement and another that enrolls a few English Language Learners compared to the surrounding district, shows the fine line the chancellor must walk as she promotes high standards while also trying to give struggling schools the support they need. This time her convictions helped result in another chance for both schools, but her words left the door open for sanctions in the future.

“Montessori is a school that I have serious concerns about and that we will need to continue to monitor,” Rosa said.

Rosa discussed two schools: Harriet Tubman Charter School in the Bronx, which enrolls almost 18 percent fewer English Language Learners than its surrounding community school district, and New York City Montessori Charter School, which saw only 5 percent of student pass state English exams last year.

The chancellor only has one vote, but she is influential as the board’s leader. The board renewed both schools, though Harriet Tubman secured a full five-year renewal, while Montessori got the right to remain open only for another three years before its next review.

Rosa acknowledged and addressed each issue head-on. Harriet Tubman still needs to enroll more English language learners, she said, but she also complimented the school’s efforts to enroll more poor students. The school has increased its percentage of poor students by 15 percent in just one year, bringing it within seven points of the district average.

“Overall you see a charter school that has made a commitment,” Rosa said.

The chancellor’s tone towards the Montessori school was more cautionary. Rosa said she had “serious concerns” about the school, which unlike many charter schools prioritizes independent learning over sharp academic gains, and promised to continue to monitor its progress.

Her reaction to each issue is telling. Traditionally, charter schools have been judged primarily based on their test score performance, but increasingly schools have been under pressure to enroll more high-needs students, too.

With each school renewal on Monday there was also a practical concern: Are there other options for families? Regent Lester Young asked whether closing schools with only a few months’ notice is unfair to families. But he also argued the board should ensure that charters honor the bargain they made when they were authorized and keep their academic bar high.

“What I worry about is that here we are saying let’s give them a chance, let’s do this, when they got a chance, right?” Young said. “Their chance was they received a charter.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.