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Shifting course, East Harlem nonprofit evicts charter school

One of the city’s oldest and highest-performing charter schools is being evicted by an unlikely landlord: the community organization that founded it.

Harbor Science and Arts Charter School, which opened in 2000, will have to find a new space in coming years after Boys & Girls Harbor, a 74-year old nonprofit that serves East Harlem youth, told the school’s board that it was ending an 11-year partnership.

The sudden news has jolted school administrators and unnerved families — and also illuminated a strange irony: While charter schools are sometimes criticized for disrupting other schools’ space, they too are at the financial and operational mercy of their landlords if they rent private space, as Harbor Charter does.

For Harbor Charter, which has paid $150,000 a year for use of two floors in the nonprofit’s building and access to its pool and gym, the shift could come at significant cost. Some charter schools in private space spend up to $1 million annually for their facilities.

The “decision to dissolve its current partnership/relationship” was Boys & Girls Harbor’s alone, according to a letter that Joanne Hunt, Harbor Charter’s principal, sent to parents last week. In the letter, Hunt assured parents that the school’s existence was not in jeopardy and that it planned to stay in the district. But she said she did not know where it would be located next year.

“We are confident that this separation will be a positive one for the charter school,” Hunt wrote in the letter. “Change is uncomfortable, but at times it is necessary.”

Hunt’s assurances weren’t enough to calm all parents, who sought additional answers at a PTA meeting Thursday night.

“We want to know why,” said Steven Greene, whose daughter is a seventh-grader at the school, before the meeting. “Why are you pushing out the charter school?”

A clue can be found in Boys & Girls Harbor’s evolving educational mission, according to the school’s board chairman, Alvin Patrick. When the school opened in 2000, the school’s board and the Boys & Girls Harbor board were basically made up of the same people, he said.

Initially the school struggled, but it stabilized after Hunt took it over in 2002, according to a trajectory of annual reports from the school’s authorizer, SUNY’s Charter School Institute. Since then, the school, which enrolls 240 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, has twice had its charter renewed, boasted a near perfect student retention rate, and has mostly outscored other schools in its district on state tests.

As the school improved, the relationship between the two boards “evolved, with the school becoming more independent,” Patrick said. Now, just one of the 25 members of Boys & Girls Harbor’s board, its executive director, also sits on the school’s board.

“The current [Boys & Girls Harbor] board said that they wanted a more inclusive role in the relationship beyond a landlord and back-office support role, and they did not foresee a more inclusive relationship in the future,” he said.

Leadership changes at Boys & Girls Harbor might well have heightened the tension.

In recent years, William Ackman, a hedge fund CEO who has recently plunged into the world of education philanthropy, has become a more prominent figure on the board. Ackman, the founder of Pershing Square Capital Management, joined the board in 2005, became real estate chair two years later, and is now the board’s president. His commitment to education issues seems to have deepened in recent years. In 2010, his firm’s foundation donated $25 million to Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s school reform efforts and in early 2011 he led fundraising efforts for an event to benefit Boys & Girls Harbor.

In 2010, Hans Hageman resigned from Boys & Girls Harbor after nine years as executive director, a period in which he oversaw the charter school’s turnaround. Hageman was replaced with Thomas Howard, a former music teacher and principal. Howard’s most recent job was chief academic officer of Victory Schools, Inc., the city’s first charter schools network, which rebranded itself in 2010 after a new law barred for-profit companies from operating or managing charter schools in New York State.

In an interview, Howard praised Harbor Charter and said the decision to part ways with the school was less about controlling its operations and more about controlling the nonprofit’s longterm strategic vision.

“It’s about strategic growth within the organization,” he said.

Howard said the organization would focus on expanding its early learning programs, from serving 85 children to “several hundred.” He also said the organization was looking into “other education partnerships to expand the number the students we serve.” He would not specify if Boys & Girls Harbor might try to host another new charter school.

Howard said that both board are working together on a transition and that Boys & Girls would continue to support the charter school until at least the end of the school year and as late as September 2013 as the school seeks new a space — which Patrick said it has already started doing.

“District 4 is where we want to be and the move will happen when we find the right space,” said Patrick, who added that a public school building could be an option. “We’ve been in contact with the DOE, but we’re also looking at private spaces. We just don’t know.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.