unchartered territory

Columbus High School tries (again) to become a charter

lisafuentes
At a meeting with parents earlier this month, Principal Lisa Fuentes asked for their votes to convert the district school into a charter school.

Teachers and administrators at a Bronx high school are making a second attempt to fight the school’s possible closure by converting it into a charter school, something that is rarely done in New York.

One of the 19 schools the city’s Department of Education tried and failed to close last year, Christopher Columbus High School is again in danger of being closed this year. Unwilling to wait and hope that the city will grant it a reprieve, the school’s staff is trying convert Columbus into a charter school.

State officials turned down Columbus principal Lisa Fuentes’ first application in September, saying that the school didn’t follow the protocol for conversion. Now Fuentes is trying again. At a meeting with parents earlier this month where city officials explained that they are considering phasing out Columbus, Fuentes told parents they could save the school by voting for its conversion.

“We have seen lots of results from the programs we have started here,” she said. “We have so many good things that are happening that we don’t want to lose any of that.”

According to New York State law, for a district school to convert to a charter school, more than half of the parents with children in the school need to vote in favor of it.

That will be a challenge for Columbus, which was over 1,200 students but had about 25 parents turn up at a meeting about the school’s future. If more than half of parents approve the plan, the school will have to get the support of the chancellor before its application goes before the Board of Regents.

That may be difficult, as Fuentes is proposing to turn Columbus into a charter school, but keep the same staff and the same students. In order to convert the school, she’ll have to convince city officials that Columbus is improving and has concrete plans to change for the better.

City officials have long been skeptical that schools can improve with the same teaching staff in place. If the city decides to phase out Columbus, it will allow the new school that opens to hire only a fraction of Columbus’s teachers. And in an editorial last summer, the Daily News called her plan a “job protection gambit.”

It’s rare for schools to make the switch. During the eleven years New York State has been opening charter schools, nine district schools have converted to charter schools. Two of them gave up their charters and reverted to being district schools and one had its charter taken away. Today, six remain: five in New York City and one in Buffalo.

“The common denominators that I’ve seen are: staff buy-in, dynamic leadership, and a great school culture,” said New York Charter Schools Association policy director Peter Murphy.

“It’s been better schools that have done this as opposed to troubled ones.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”