unchartered territory

City moves to close two charter schools, citing mismanagement

Department of Education announced today that it is moving to close two low-performing charter schools, including one whose network head earned nearly half a million dollars last year and is under investigation by the Attorney General.

The city announced today it would close Williamsburg Charter High School.

One of the schools, Peninsula Preparatory Academy, will close at the end of the year when its charter expires. The 346 students at the school, which has gotten four straight C’s on its city progress reports, will be dispersed among other Far Rockaway elementary schools.

“We have had some struggles but I think the school was definitely on a positive trajectory,” said Ericka Wala, Peninsula Prep’s principal.

The department is taking an even more drastic step with the second school, Williamsburg Charter High School, and revoking its charter midway through the five-year term. Unless the school completely cleans up its management within 30 days, it will close at the end of the year and its students will have to apply to other high schools.

In a letter sent to the chair of WCHS’s board today, the head of the city’s charter schools office, Recy Dunn, paints a picture of massive mismanagement and corruption.

Most of the charges center on founder Eddie Calderon-Melendez, who earned $478,000 last year as the CEO of the Believe Charter Network, which has run Williamsburg and two other high schools.

Citing financial and board improprieties, the city placed the school on probation in September. Chief among the terms of the probation was that the school’s board would sever its relationship with Believe. It did so in November, begrudgingly, but then hired Calderon-Melendez to join the school’s staff earlier this month, according to the letter, which said the school had met just one of 10 probation requirements.

Now, state auditors and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman are investigating the school’s relationship with Believe under Calderon-Melendez’s leadership.

“Despite these ongoing investigations, Mr. Calderon-Melendez continues to have a relationship with the school and the board,” reads the letter. “The board‟s failure to sever this relationship is a serious violation of its obligations under the Charter and state law.”

Two other schools in the network, Southside and Northside charter schools, were authorized by the State Education Department, not the city, so the city cannot shut them down. SED placed both of those schools on probation in October.

At the building that houses Southside and Northside, teachers and staff said this afternoon that they had been instructed by email not to speak to reporters. Asked if he was worried that WCHS’s closure would affect the other Believe schools, Southside’s director of operations, Antonio Serrano said, “No. We are three separate entities.”

Serrano is also the vice-chair of WCHS’s board of trustees, a conflict of interest listed in the city’s letter.

The school’s precarious financial state became clear in 2010 when the owner of the building that it had been renting put the space back on the market, saying that WCHS had not been paying its bills. Previously, we reported that Believe was illicitly sending students to a building that was not permitted for school use.

Revoking a charter is among the most extreme forms of accountability for charter schools and it is a step that the city has taken only once. In 2010, the city closed East New York Prep after documenting failures that the city’s charter schools czar called “the worst in New York that I’ve seen.” In May, state officials revoked the charter of Kingsbridge Innovative Design School after only one year, citing massive mismanagement. The path experienced by Peninsula Prep, where a struggling school is not allowed to stay open when its charter expires, is more common.

“If a charter isn’t coming close to meeting the goals it promised to reach, or is operating in an irresponsible manner, it’s hard to make a case that it should continue to have the privilege of educating students with public money,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, in a statement.

A third school whose future had been in doubt, Opportunity Charter School, got a reprieve today when the department announced it would seek a short-term charter extension — two years, instead of the standard five.

“In our last renewal, we agreed to an accountability plan that would measure our success, and we met those requirements,” CEO Leonard Goldberg said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to serve as an example of how to meet the needs of this underserved population of students.”

Here’s the letter the city sent to Williamsburg Charter High School’s board chair today:

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.”