The scoop

Space-strapped charter school sent students to factory space

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Security camera footage captures students walking into a building that is not certified for educational use but houses the offices for the Believe Charter School Network.

Strapped for space, a Brooklyn charter school network sent its students to classes at a facility that was only approved for factory and office use — not educational purposes, according to security camera footage and interviews with people who witnessed students’ use.

The footage and accounts document students’ regular trips to the space this summer and during the last school year. A student at the school told me that the space, a former factory at 33 Nassau Ave. in Williamsburg, is known to students as “the art building.”

View the full footage in a slideshow below.

The charter operator, Believe High Schools Network, appears to have begun to send students to the office space after its plan to open two new schools in a private facility hit a snag in 2009. Forced to improvise, the network arranged to house both of the two new schools in the same district school building used by its original school, Williamsburg Charter High School, a former employee said.

That was despite the fact that the second floor office space at 33 Nassau Ave. is certified by the city Department of Buildings only for use as a factory, shipping, storage, or office space.

State education law requires that charter schools use buildings approved for educational use. For that reason, Believe officials originally used the 33 Nassau space only for offices, said Joshua Morales, a former consultant to Believe.

In the last month, both the city and state departments of education have launched investigations into Believe’s use of the 33 Nassau space. The city department oversees Williamsburg Charter High School, and the state department oversees the two new schools, Northside and Southside charter high schools.

Officials at Believe did not return several phone call and e-mail requests for comment today.

The arrangement highlights the risks of the city’s current charter school space situation. New charter schools open each year, but they are promised no space in city buildings, leaving school leaders to make arrangements on their own — either by haggling and politicking with city officials to get a few floors inside a district school or by finding some other space and signing a lease.

The city investigation launched when a city school official visited 33 Nassau Ave. for a meeting. Believe’s official fliers advertise that 33 Nassau is used only for administrative reasons, but the official found students there taking class, said a source with knowledge of the situation.

Photographs from security cameras inside the school, obtained by GothamSchools, show students walking up the industrial building’s concrete stairway, through Believe’s heavy second-floor door, and into rooms where they sat at tables together. The photographs hold a time stamp from May 2010.

On a visit that I took to the office space earlier this month on the last day of summer school, most desks in the mainly open-plan office space were filled with adults sitting at computers. But a sign taped to a door said “Algebra.” I didn’t see any students, but people who work near the building said they saw children discussing their algebra class outside just before I arrived. A student I found outside the building on his way to the subway said the building was used for art classes during the year and summer classes during July and August.

During the school year, photographs taken by a former employee show that a privately chartered bus with the company Orzan Tours shepherded students between the office site on Nassau Ave. and their official school building, P.S. 126 on the other side of the McCarren Park.

Jackie Rivera, Orzan’s office manager, confirmed that the company held a contract with Believe. She said Orzan was hoping to renew the contract.

In a statement, State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said, “We are aware of the situation at the Believe Charter Schools and will investigate the matter thoroughly. Until that investigation is complete, we cannot provide further comment.”

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.