Future of Schools

Board debates whether money or academics should determine charter school expansion

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Shelby County Schools board members David Pickler and David Reaves were not happy that the board voted to give a lease to a charter school group with no proven academic record.

The Shelby County Schools board leased a contested building to a new charter school with no academic track record because it was willing to pay more money than a charter school with five years of proven academic results.

The contentious decision brought into sharp relief the need for a coherent district policy that determines which charter schools get first dibs on empty school buildings, board members and the superintendent said Tuesday. With the likelihood that its charter sector will grow while the district continues to move out of school buildings in an effort to consolidate strained resources,  several board members said Tuesday they planned to hold a special meeting to develop a policy within the next month.

The board granted the year-old W.E.B. Dubois Consortium of Charter Schools, which faced several controversies last year, a $693,390.90 lease to the former Lanier Middle School building despite the objections of several board members who were angry it was chosen without any academic data to support the decision. TCAP scores won’t be publicly released until later this month, so W.E.B. DuBois didn’t have test results for board members to examine.

“Now we don’t know what the hell we are getting,” board member David Reaves was overheard saying to district administrators after Tuesday’s meeting.

Freedom Preparatory Academy had also tried to lease the space but decided that the price the district was asking would be too high for the number of students it currently serves.

This was the first time that two charter schools had been vying to lease the same space in the district.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson admitted that Freedom Preparatory Academy has five more years of data demonstrating strong academic results, but given the district’s significant financial needs, he offered the space to to W.E.B. Dubois instead.

“We started from the premise that the two charter schools were essentially offering the same thing, absent a policy,” Hopson said.

Board member David Pickler said that he thought the superintendent’s reasoning was backwards and that the board should offer preferences to charter schools with proven results, rather than those who offered the most money for a lease. “I hope I’m hearing that wrong,” he said.

“One school is offering five bucks a square foot, the other one a dollar,” said Hopson. “More importantly [W.E.B. Dubois’] plan is to purchase the building.” 

In the past the board had asked Hopson to take into consideration the impact of leaving empty buildings in already-blighted neighborhood, giving W.E.B. Dubois’ lease-purchase agreement a leg up.

Freedom Preparatory Academy is currently located in the former Lakeview School but “was busting at the seems this year,” according to board Chairman Cardell Orrin. Orrin thinks Freedom Preparatory would better be able to serve its students by moving into a single building such as Lanier, as it grows from a school that serves grades 6-9 to a school that serves grades 6-12. Freedom Preparatory was one of three middle schools in the state to be recognized by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education in 2013 for its strong academic record.

But the district was asking Freedom Preparatory to pay rent that would’ve worked out to be about 30 percent of the amount of money it brings in from the state at its current enrollment, according to Orrin. So Freedom Preparatory decided not to accept the district’s proposed lease and will instead split its school into two different sites in the coming year, one of which will be in a church.

“We’re disappointed,” Orrin said about Tuesday’s decision.

The W.E.B DuBois Consortium, led by former mayor Willie Herenton, has faced several major challenges in its first year including having to close a middle and high school it had opened in the district’s former Northside High School.

It is currently paying back around a half million dollars that it owed to Shelby County Schools after it over-projected the number of students it would enroll last year by a wide margin, according to the district CFO Alicia Lindsey.

Multiple board members said the repayment agreement with Herenton was bad business and similar agreements should be voted on by the board in the future. “If somebody owes you money you don’t do business with them,” said board member Billy Orgel.

The first time a vote was called on the proposed lease to W.E.B. Dubois, there were only two votes in favor after six votes had been tallied and it looked like it would fail. But just before the final vote was spoken, Hopson made it clear that, with less than three weeks before the start of school, 600 students from W.E.B. Dubois wouldn’t have a school building and the board would have to meet again to find another location for those students.

The motion passed with four votes in favor, the minimum needed for a motion to pass.

Chris Caldwell, Teresa Jones, Billy Orgel and Kevin Woods voted for the motion while Pickler and Reaves voted against it. Shante Avant abstained.

Four individuals who identified themselves as representatives of W.E.B Dubois left the board meeting right after the motion passed, but declined to comment, other than to say they were relieved that it passed.

“It was pretty touch and go for a minute,” one of them said in the parking lot.

Avant abstained from both votes, saying she had heard from worried parents  in her district at both charter schools. “Freedom Preparatory has a proven track record while parents at W.E.B Dubois are waiting to find out what school their child will attend,” said Avant. “It’s a hard decision. We need policies in place and not make these decisions on a case by case basis.”

Avant is facing reelection in less than a month.

In the long term Pickler said that there very may well be 40, 50, or even 60 charter schools in the district and the board needs to call a special meeting to clarify its position. “[Charter schools] are becoming the 8th district” in Shelby County, said Pickler after the meeting. “And we’ve been dealing with it on an ad hoc basis.”

Hopson rebutted the view that Memphis will become a charter school district. “I hope we don’t turn into New Orleans…When you really dig into the numbers, if charter schools were performing significantly different than our schools, then that would be a different discussion.”

In other actions, the board agreed to let Vision Preparatory Charter School move into the former Riverview Elementary.

The board also approved the opening of seven new charter schools in 2015, including Aspire, Excel Center, Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation, Leadership Prep, Libertas, MASS, Sankore Collegiate.

They denied four amended charter school applications: Emerge Collegiate Schools, Memphis Global Leadership Academy for Architecture and Urban Design, Military Academy of Culture and Technology, and Scholastic Academy of Logistics and Transportation Middle School.

who's next?

What you should know about seven people who could be the next New York City schools chancellor

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Carmen FariƱa's retirement.

Nearly a month after Carmen Fariña announced that this school year would be her last as New York City’s chancellor, New Yorkers are no closer to knowing who will succeed her.

As city emissaries reach out to possible replacements around the country and City Hall vets people inside the Department of Education, speculation has mounted quickly. Will Mayor Bill de Blasio go with a trusted insider? Or will he try to attract a celebrated outsider who could drum up some excitement about his education agenda?

What’s clear is that de Blasio has committed to picking an educator for the slot, ruling out some officials who have played a leading role in his biggest education initiatives so far. Low pay, an established education agenda, and de Blasio’s reputation for being a micromanager may make it tough to recruit a high-profile outsider. Still, the job remains among the most prestigious education posts in the country.

Everyone who pays attention to education in the city has ideas about who might be under consideration.

After talking to more than a dozen people who keep a close eye on the education department and City Hall, some of them from within, we’ve sorted through the rumors and political jockeying to handicap several contenders.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Alberto Carvalho

Alberto Carvalho

Who he is: Carvalho is the widely admired leader of Miami’s school system, where he has spent his entire career. Under his leadership, the district’s finances and academic performance improved. He has an inspiring life story, too: He became an educator after first coming to the United States from Portugal as an undocumented immigrant.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Politically savvy, skilled in engaging with the media, and prolific on Twitter, Carvalho would certainly fill the mayor’s requirement of being able to sell an education agenda. During his tenure, he helped convince county voters to approve a $1 billion bond for school infrastructure and technology upgrades.

Why you might not: Things are going well for Carvalho in Miami, where his contract runs until 2020 — and he’s balked at high-profile opportunities in the past. Like other outsiders, he’s already far outearning the city chancellor’s salary: He makes roughly $345,000 in Miami now, compared to nearly $235,000 for Fariña in New York.

What he says: “My commitment to Miami is so strong and I have demonstrated it in the face of political opportunities,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s really hard for me to imagine a set of circumstances that would lead to a different decision on my part.”

Kathleen Cashin

Kathleen Cashin

Who she is: Cashin is currently a member of New York’s Board of Regents, where she helps set education policy for the entire state. Before that, she spent more than three decades as a New York City educator — first as a teacher and principal before working her way up to be a regional superintendent.

Why you might see her at Tweed: De Blasio has signaled he’s looking for someone like Fariña, and Cashin fits that mold. She believes, as Fariña does, that principals must be veteran educators who earn their autonomy (she resisted Bloomberg’s efforts to hire principals who were not experienced educators). Crucially, she has shown results boosting student achievement in high-poverty areas of the city, a problem de Blasio has struggled to solve.

Why you might not: Cashin recently turned 70, she is not a person of color, and is not likely to bring lots of new ideas to the table.

What she says: Did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

What a supporter says: “She had the toughest district in the entire city and she handled her district not only with focus,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, but also “elegance and professionalism beyond belief. I have so much respect for Dr. Cashin.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Rudy Crew

Rudy Crew

Who he is: Crew is the president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, part of the city’s public university system. He previously served as New York City’s schools chief for four years in the late 1990s under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, spent another four running the Miami-Dade county school district, and did a brief (and controversial) stint as an education official in Oregon.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Crew is a black man, which makes him a standout among the education department’s top ranks. He knows the political landscape and has continued to take an interest in the city’s schools through his work at Medgar Evers, where he created a program that provides training to local public-school teachers and early-college classes for students. Crew also seems to share de Blasio’s belief that high-quality instruction should take priority over school integration, and as chancellor, he set up a turnaround program for struggling schools that has clear parallels with the mayor’s Renewal initiative.

Why you might not: While Crew has had some success boosting student achievement, he also has a record of political clashes. He left Miami after the school board’s chair said they had developed “irreconcilable differences” and Oregon amid controversy about his commitment to the job.

What he says: Crew declined to be interviewed, but a spokeswoman said he “has not been contacted about the job.”

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
MaryEllen Elia

MaryEllen Elia

Who she is: Currently the head of New York’s state education department, Elia previously led one of the nation’s 10 largest school districts, Hillsborough County in Florida. There, she gained a reputation for working closely with the local teachers union on policy issues that unions often oppose. She was named Florida’s 2015 superintendent of the year before being ousted by the school board shortly afterward, in a move that garnered some local and national criticism.

Why you might see her at Tweed: While Elia is considered a long shot, it could make sense for de Blasio to give her a look. She’s a good match for de Blasio’s overall orientation: She’s progressive-minded — see the state’s new initiative to help districts integrate their schools — but also believes that schools should be held accountable for helping students learn. Elia has spent nearly three years running the state education department without making enemies. She also hasn’t set out to make a big splash in her leadership, which could be appealing for a mayor whose agenda is already in place.

Why you might not: She appears comfortable in her role in Albany, where she’s helping the state adapt to the new federal education law, and reconsider its approach to teacher evaluations, graduation requirements, and more. Also, she has no experience working in New York City.

What she says: “Commissioner Elia has had no discussions about this,” said State Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “She loves her job as State Education Commissioner and remains committed to fostering equity in education for all children across New York State.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dorita Gibson

Dorita Gibson

Who she is: Gibson is the education department’s second in command as Fariña’s senior deputy chancellor. She has served at virtually every level of leadership within the New York City school system, rising from teacher to assistant principal, principal, and high-level superintendent. She’s helped lead big changes in the way the education department supports schools, and is partly responsible for overseeing the mayor’s signature “Renewal” program for struggling schools.

Why you might see her at Tweed: She’s already there, an advantage at a moment when some outsiders seem unenthusiastic about taking over the school system. Gibson is one of Fariña’s top deputies who leads initiatives that are core to the city’s education agenda. She’s also a longtime educator, which de Blasio has said is a requirement, and the department’s top-ranking deputy of color.

Why you might not: Despite being Fariña’s number two, Gibson has kept a low profile, and rarely appears in the press. Her absence raises questions about her interest or likelihood of assuming the top position.

What she says: Declined to comment.

What people are saying: Gibson “seems to be a natural successor,” writes David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The only problem is that, like other central Department of Education officials, she doesn’t seem to have the support of the mayor or chancellor.”

PHOTO: Via LinkedIn
Cheryl Watson-Harris

Cheryl Watson-Harris

Who she is: Watson-Harris is the education department’s senior executive director of field support, who is responsible for helping manage centers that support schools on instructional and operational issues. She started her career as a New York City teacher before working as a principal and superintendent in Boston for nearly two decades. She assumed her current role in 2015.

Why you might see her at Tweed: Watson-Harris rose quickly from running just one of the large school-support centers to overseeing all seven. Multiple sources said she was perceived as being groomed for a higher-ranking position at the education education department. And on her Twitter feed, where she acts as a public booster for the school system, she notes that she’s the parent of a student in the city’s public schools.

Why you might not: She would have to leapfrog a number of more senior officials who have years of experience at higher rungs of education department leadership, including Gibson. Insiders question whether she’s ready to make that jump.

What she says: Declined to comment.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Phil Weinberg

Phil Weinberg

Who he is: Weinberg is one of Fariña’s six deputy chancellors. He began his career teaching at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology — and wound up staying for 27 years before rising to principal in 2001. In 2014, Fariña plucked him from that post to head up a resurrected “teaching and learning” division that had been dormant for years.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Weinberg is widely respected among educators and has avoided major blowback during his four years leading teaching and learning at the department. The things he’s passionate about — including strong teaching, coherent curriculum, and collaboration among educators — are close to Fariña’s heart, which would matter if she plays a strong role in choosing her successor.

Why you might not: His efforts have been peripheral to the initiatives the de Blasio administration cares about most, such as prekindergarten and community schools. He seems to prefer an internal role to a public-facing one. And he’s a white man — hardly the top demographic choice for the leader of a district where more than 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

What he says: Did not respond to a message seeking comment.

That’s the short list, but many other names have also surfaced.

Josh Starr, a former New York City official who now works at PDK International, and Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA, would make good fits for de Blasio’s progressive platform, but both have said they are not in the running.

Other names that have been floated as potential contenders include Lillian Lowery, a former district superintendent and top education official in Maryland and Delaware (now a vice president at Ed Trust); Angelica Infante-Green, a fast-rising deputy commissioner in New York’s state education department who is reportedly in the running for Mass. state education commissioner; and Betty Rosa, a former superintendent in the Bronx and chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents.

There’s also a cadre of educators who have left New York City for other school systems and might be interested in returning, including Andres Alonso, currently an education professor at Harvard, and Jaime Aquino, who helps lead New Leaders for New Schools, a non-profit organization that focuses on training principals.

Philissa Cramer and Christina Veiga contributed reporting.

Story booth

With no art teacher, students at this Detroit school say their talents go unnurtured


When the eighth-grade students at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side talk about things their school needs, they point to a classmate named Casey.

“He’s a great artist,” one student said. “He can look at a picture and draw it in like five minutes and it will look exactly the same.”

If Casey attended school in the suburbs, his friends believe, he and other talented students would have an art class where they could nurture their skills.

“They don’t have the time to put in the work with their talent because we don’t have those extra-curricular activities,” another classmate said.

The students at the K-8 school have no art, music or gym teachers — a common problem in a district where resources are thin and where a teacher shortage has made it difficult for schools like this one to find teachers for many subjects, including the arts.

While the Detroit district has committed to expanding arts programs next year, it would need to find enough teachers to fill those positions.

“People out there think we’re not smart and they always criticize us about what we do,” Casey said. “We can always show them how smart we are,” he said, but that requires “getting the type of programming that we’re supposed to.”

Chalkbeat spoke with students at the school as part of a “story booth” series that invites students, teachers and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools.

Watch the full video of the Paul Robeson/Malcolm X students below and please tell us if you know someone who would like their story featured in a future story booth.