turf wars

SUNY trustees approve Success Academy for Upper West Side

A still from Upper West Success' website.
A screenshot from Upper West Success Academy's website.

The State University of New York’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved Eva Moskowitz’s application to open a charter school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side this morning.

But the approval is unlikely to dampen any of the controversy surrounding the Upper West Success Academy, which Moskowitz’s charter network plans to open in the fall of 2011.

The fight over the school has centered on two questions: Is a new charter school the answer to the district’s overcrowding? And, if so, should that charter share another school’s building?

This is the first time Moskowitz’s charter chain plans to open a school in a neighborhood that is not predominantly low-income. Moskowitz has said she intends the school to provide an alternative to parents who have been crowded out of the neighborhood’s most popular schools or who cannot send their students to one of the city’s gifted programs.

Moskowitz has said she would like the charter to open in P.S. 145, which the city currently lists as underutilized. City officials have told the school they are likely to site the charter there, according to P.S. 145 parent leaders, though the city says no decision has been made.

Over the past few weeks, as Moskowitz has begun to advertise the school’s arrival to the neighborhood, opposition to the school has begun to grow, especially among P.S. 145 parents, neighborhood activists and politicians. Critics fear that, even in cases where the city considers a building underutilized, district schools will be squeezed if an expanding charter moves in.

“The community is behind improving our existing schools, not evicting them,” said Noah Gotbaum, the president of District 3’s parent council.

Gotbaum and others, including the neighborhood’s Councilwoman Gale Brewer, worry that if Upper West Success moves in, it could compromise an $11 million grant P.S. 145 and seven other neighborhood schools recently won to expand. The school is supposed to use the grant money to attract more students by improving its technology programs.

Brewer also said that neighborhood activists had wanted the city to move a small middle school, West Prep Academy, into the building to help relieve overcrowding in the district’s southern section, a plan that would also be jeopardized by the entrance of Upper West Success.

Under the revisions to state charter school law passed this year, charter applicants must demonstrate demand for the school in the neighborhoods where they want to open. Parents and activists who attended the SUNY trustee vote this morning said their voices were largely ignored in the approval process.

“There’s one fatal flaw in this overall process: nobody asked what the community wanted,” said Donna Nevel, a West Side parent and community activist.

But Moskowitz has insisted — and SUNY officials agreed — that demand exists for her school in the crowded neighborhood.

“We’ve spent a lot of time this summer talking to Upper West Side parents,” Moskowitz wrote in the New York Post this week. “Regardless of their politics or ideology, they almost all agree on one thing: If they can have the option of applying to a new, tuition-free school in their community with proven results, they want that option.”

Just before the trustees voted to approve the application, Pedro Noguera, the chair of SUNY’s charter school committee, expressed concern that because the Charter School Institute does not select sites for its schools, parent objections might be overlooked.

But when institute staff noted that the city would need to go through its own public approval process before siting Upper West Success in a district building, and that the institute also can veto a proposed charter school location, Noguera seemed satisfied.

“I think that hopefully should give those members of the community who are objecting to the location ample opportunity to be heard,” Noguera said.

The fight will likely now shift to the city’s public approval process for siting the school. If the city decides to give the charter school space at P.S. 145, it will hold a hearing at the school and the citywide school board will vote on the move.

Tina Crockett, president of the P.S. 145’s parent association, argued today that the co-location is not a foregone conclusion.

“We just think [Moskowitz is] unfairly jumping the gun to influence parents to attract them to her school,” Crockett said.

“Let us go through the process,” she said. “Don’t insinuate that it’s a done deal.”

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.