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:

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.