Future of Schools

Charters cry foul on impending SCS closures

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

At least three of four charter schools Shelby County Schools will shutter for low performance next spring say they will fight to keep their schools open, even though they don’t have a right to a formal appeal under state law.

Shelby County is the first and so far only school district in the state to use a new law that makes such closures possible.

The district sent letters earlier this month to Southern Avenue Middle, Omni Lower and Middle schools, and City University Boys Prep informing them they must close at the end of the current 2014-15 school year. District officials met with charter administrators last week to map out a transition plan.

This is the first time that any of the charters have been on the state’s priority list of lowest-performing schools. That’s one of several reasons that two of the three operators said they believe they should be allowed to keep operating.

One operator of a charter targeted for closure pointed out that the fate of her school may well rest on test results of fewer than 20 students.

Southern Avenue Middle founder Elise Evans said if the state reviews her school’s eighth grade math data, the school could be removed from the state list. Evans said 18 advanced students took a ninth-grade Algebra I end-of-course test instead of the easier grade-level assessment, which caused the school’s math scores to drop.

Evans said her school’s attorney requested a state review of the schools test data.

“We feel the state will be honest, just and fair,” she said.

Omni Schools founder Cary Booker said he will lobby lawmakers in January to consider the impact the law has on schools that have so little time to turn things around. Booker said charters operated by the state’s Achievement School District are allowed to be on the priority twice before being subject to closure.

“We acknowledge our (academic) challenges, we know our third grade data is not good,” Booker said last week.  “We disagree with the process, the way the law is being applied.  We want the same degree of equal treatment and accountability.”

City University Boys Prep did not respond to Chalkbeat’s request for comment.

Despite the charters’ efforts to fight the closure,  the district is moving forward with the transition. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the charter closures will affect 650 students.

“We’ll work with parents to reassign students to a Shelby County School to ensure a smooth transition,” Hopson said during a recent board meeting.

The law  in question passed the legislature in March. It went into effect in July and requires automatic shut-down of district-approved charters if the schools land on the state’s priority list after 2015.

There is more leniency for charter operators that fall under ASD control, and charters brought in to turn around low-performing schools. They will have to land on the priority list twice to before facing automatic closure.

The state produces the priority list every three years. It’s based on three years of student test scores. The next list will be published in 2017. Schools on the state’s priority list are the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state. Shelby County has 59 schools on the priority list.

Schools on the list can fall under the control of the ASD, or  be placed in Shelby County’s own Innovation Zones. Both efforts involve planning and adopting turnaround models to improve the schools.

The charters facing automatic closure do not have a right to appeal to the State Board of Education, since they are designated priority schools, according to Shelby County Schools office of charter schools.

At the four closing charters, student improvement has been stagnant in some areas; fewer than 35 percent of the student body at all of the schools can demonstrate proficiency in math and reading.

For example, at  Southern Avenue Middle, which opened in 2010, only 24.7 percent of its students are reading on grade level, a 3.1 percent increase from the previous year.  The scores are even lower in math with 18.6 percent of students showing proficiency. Math scores increased by only 1 percentage point on state tests taken earlier this year.

At Omni Lower, just 13.6 percent of students are proficient in math and reading. Student performance decrease by 4.4 percent in reading and 1.1 percent in math this year. Omni Middle had the highest amount of growth of all of the closing charters, with 28.6 percent of students reading on grade level, a 9 percentage point increase, and 31.1 percent proficiency in math, a 17.6 percentage point improvement from the previous year.

The Omni schools were founded by Cary Booker and Marc Willis in the fall of 2010. Booker is the older brother of U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Willis is the son of Memphis civil rights leader A.W. Willis.

City University Boy Prep, which opened in 2004, had the lowest math proficiency, 6.4 percent, which was a 12.2 percentage point decrease from the previous year.  Reading was only slightly better with 16.3 percent of students proficient, an increase of 3.6 percentage points.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”

college knowledge

‘This levels the playing field’: How New York City is trying to get more high school students to apply to college

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke with Bryant Ramirez about his college plans at Pace High School on Monday.

Bryant Ramirez hunched over a worksheet Monday listing the private colleges where he plans to apply and, next to each one, whether he thinks he has a good shot of getting in.

It wasn’t long before the senior had written out his top choice — the Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn — and fired up a school laptop to begin filling out an electronic application.

“I feel confident,” Ramirez said of his chances of landing a spot at one of his preferred schools. “But you never know.”

On Monday, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña visited Ramirez and more than 20 of his peers at Manhattan’s Pace High School to showcase a growing citywide program designed to give schools more time and resources to help students through the college application process.

The program, called “College Access for All,” is meant to address the gap between students whose families already understand the application process and can help give them a leg up, and those who might be first-generation college students or who might not apply at all. This year, the education department expanded the program to include roughly 274 of the city’s high schools, or more than half of the total.

Participating schools help students craft post-graduation plans for specific careers or colleges, and ease the application process through school-sponsored college visits and additional counseling.

“More students are saying ‘I want to go to college,’” Fariña said. “This levels the playing field.”

At Pace, which is part of the program, students begin conversations about college in their advisory groups junior year, and later take college counseling classes where they are given time to fill out applications, financial aid forms, and learn about the college application process. The school also offers the SAT during a school day (instead of the weekend, when some students might not make it), and takes juniors and seniors on college visits — trips that school leaders are planning to extend to ninth and tenth graders.

Lancia Burke, the school’s college counselor, said some of those initiatives didn’t exist when she started at Pace 11 years ago and tried to cram as much information as possible into a single workshop with the entire senior class. (She also met with students individually.)

At one point, she felt overwhelmed as she tried helping students craft their college essays, so she approached the English department.

“‘Hey, I can’t handle going through all these personal essays,’” Burke recalled saying. After that, the department added college essay writing into their curriculum, she said.

The College Access for All program is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which aims to get 80 percent of students to graduate high school on time and two-thirds of graduates college-ready by the year 2026.

About 51 percent of New York City’s graduates were considered college ready in 2016, meaning they could enroll at a CUNY school without having to take remedial classes, a 4 percentage point increase since 2014. The proportion of students who enroll in college or a work-training program within six months of graduating has also ticked up to 55 percent, also 4 percentage point increase since 2014.

Fariña said she hopes the program boosts the number of students who apply to college. But simply applying to college isn’t enough, she added.

“We always want to see the numbers going up in terms of applying,” Fariña said. “But once you get there, do you stay there?”