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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.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.