damned if you do

A school has a year to prove it can do the (almost) impossible

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PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Opportunity Charter School's flags line 113th street in Harlem, where the school shares a building with P.S. 241.

Opportunity Charter School in Harlem is a rare species in the charter school movement.

Its student body is roughly half general education students and half students with learning disabilities. The two groups learn in classes side by side, following the “inclusion” model. And year after year, students entering the school have some of the lowest test scores in the city — a distinction that’s become a point of pride.

“Lowest achieving kids in New York City. Bottom 10 percent,” Opportunity’s assistant principal, Brett Fazio, said in an interview, with the same delight other school administrators reserve for science fair champions.

But the point of Opportunity, as CEO Leonard Goldberg dreamed it up when he was an administrator at a residential school five years ago, is to take the least and make them champions.

That hasn’t been an easy task and as a result, Goldberg’s school is in trouble. In part, this is because it’s a charter school, subject to the demands of the charter school ultimatum: set your standards high and meet them, or else.

At the same time that the combined middle and high school is preparing its first twelfth grade class for graduation, the city has put the school on probation. Opportunity has one year to improve its test scores or it will lose its charter, something that’s rarely happened among the city’s charter schools.

A School on Trial

Walking through Opportunity’s hallways, there’s no sense that the school is on trial. During the first week of class, students were busy learning the school’s rules, teachers were trying to capitalize on the first-week honeymoon, and a crew of affable bouncers patrolled the hallway. Linger too long between classes? Someone will nudge you on your way. Arrive at school irritable and with an empty stomach? Someone who knows what’s going on at home will pull you aside. There is someone watching Opportunity students at every turn, waiting to see whether they might need managing.

“I think we continue doing what we have been doing,” said Yoly Parra, a Spanish teacher. “For me every day is probation because every day I make sure I’m doing what I have to do for these kids.”

When Goldberg left a residential school in Westchester to found Opportunity in 2004, he convinced Fazio and several other staff members to come with him. Goldberg, who graduated from the Bank Street College of Education and taught students with IEPs for years, was fed up with the traditional special education model.

“I felt marginalized as a teacher,” he said. “The schools’ attitude was: ‘Why bother with your kids?'”

According to Goldberg, Opportunity is on its way to meeting its charter goals, which include having the majority of students score Levels 3 or 4 on the state tests by the time they enter high school, seeing that all eighth graders are promoted to high school, and ensuring that all high school seniors have the ability to go to college.

How well the school has been able to meet that first goal has been the subject of intense scrutiny. State testing data shows that when it comes to moving general and special education students from Level 1 to Level 2 in math and reading, Opportunity has been successful. More of its special education students have made one year of progress than students with learning disabilities throughout the city.

picture-5However, Opportunity has a difficult time getting its Level 2 students past that ceiling. This year, 19 percent of its students tested proficient in English, while 40 percent were proficient in math and though those numbers may seem low, they’re massive improvements over the 2008 scores.

More alarming to state and city officials is the comparatively little progress high scoring students and general education students have made.

Testing data from 2007 and 2008, the two years the school’s charter renewal report studies in depth, shows that most students who regularly score in the top two thirds of the school did not make one year’s worth of progress and, in some cases, slid backward.

“I think it’s great to say that your model is inclusive, but you can’t do that at the expense of the students in general education,” Michael Duffy, director of the Office of Charter Schools for the Department of Education. “You can’t spend a year and make less than a year of progress.”

Many Opportunity teachers and administrators believe the strides they’re making with their nearly 400 students, some of whom enter unable to sound out letters of the alphabet, can’t be picked up in an annual test.

“They don’t have those tools yet to truly, accurately measure us and the achievements that we create,” said Opportunity Charter’s principal, Marya Baker. “Sometimes they’re little steps.”

“I don’t think they [the city and state] understand that you can’t measure students who are four or five years behind on one state standardized test and expect the school to be accountable for a system that has failed them for six or seven years,” Fazio said. “I think that’s a very unfair judgment, but it is a judgment we have to work with.”

Goldberg sees the school as being caught between two masters — the state and the city — who view OCS differently. The state, he said, is focused on whether the school is meeting the goals laid out in its charter, while the city is more interested in signs of progress.

“We’re obviously a school that benefits from a progress lens and not an absolute goal lens,” he said. “Because, if you take the absolute goal of a student who’s coming in at sixth grade and doesn’t know that A sounds like “ah”, then yeah, you’re not going to be successful, but if you see that that student goes from not being able to say A is “ah” to passing the Regents in high school, then that’s huge. And how do you measure that?” he asked.

When it came to the school’s own renewal process, the difference in approach may have been more concrete. In the first report the city submitted to the state and Board of Regents for approval, the Department of Education called for a more lenient, two year probation period, but in its second report, it had downgraded it to one year. A spokesman for the State Education Department would not comment on whether SED had pushed for a shorter time frame.

Duffy, who visited the school last August, said he’s seeing encouraging signs. “I think they’re taking all the right steps,” he said, noting the introduction of an AP English class and several honors English and math classes.

“They had a come-in-everybody mentality, which is a good thing, but they weren’t prepared to handle it,” said one advocate who works with parents of students with disabilities. “Opportunity is trying to do the right thing. They didn’t just run and hide and not take kids like other charter schools did.”

By Goldberg’s calculation, the school is about to send its twelfth grade class into the world with a higher graduation rate than the city average. Asked if he expects the city to give Opportunity Charter a five year renewal, Goldberg said, “Absolutely.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or FACE@schools.nyc.gov.

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”