Parent involvement

Charter parents' inclusion call yields a bill but not city support

Charter Parent Action Network Director Valerie Babb addresses charter school parents and students in Albany. (Photo courtesy of the New York City Charter School Center)

An annual caravan of charter school parents to Albany took place today with a specific mission: convince legislators to approve a bill allowing charter parents to run for the city’s local parent councils.

It’s a battle that charter advocates will have to fight without the Department of Education’s help. The city has never supported allowing charter parents to run for parent councils, even as it has encouraged the proliferation of charter schools and allowed them to operate in district space.

State law requires that each school district in the city field an elected parent council, known as a Community Education Council, to provide an avenue for parents to weigh in on schools policy. Some of the council’s duties, such as presiding over public hearings about co-locations, involve charter school issues. But the Bloomberg administration has constrained the councils’ authority and their only statutory function is to redraw school zone lines, which do not affect charter schools. They do not actually approve or reject co-locations.

Still, the CECs are seen as one of the few formal venues for parents to voice opinions about department policies, and charter school parents see the exclusion as an equity issue. They have convinced two legislators — Assemblyman Peter Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, and State Sen. Marty Golden, a Republican from Brooklyn — to introduce a bill that would reserve one of the 11 seats on each council for a charter parent.

“In order to protect our children and their continued access to a great public education, charter parents need and deserve a seat at the table to help inform the decisions about the schools in their neighborhoods,” said Valerie Babb, director of the Charter Parents Action Network, in a statement. “By supporting this legislation, our lawmakers will send a strong signal to families that their voices carry just as much weight as other public school parents in their districts.”

The city’s position is that the same signal would also undermine the very foundation of what makes charter schools unique. In 2009, District 1’s council invited charter parents to join and said they would lobby for a change to let the parents participate. At the time, a department spokeswoman pointed out that there is a reason the state law and city regulations do not have a mechanism for including charter parents in district committees.

“What makes a charter school a charter school is that they operate outside the jurisdiction of the district,” the spokeswoman said.

Today, department officials said the city’s position remains the same: Seating charter parents on CECs would represent an inappropriate conflation of charter and district school management. Charter schools and district schools are governed by different state laws.

It is true that charter school parents typically cannot enter the regular CEC election process — a process that has always attracted few candidates and last year was spectacularly botched. But they are in fact eligible to serve on CECs if they have children in both district and charter schools, had a child in a district school in the last two years, or are appointed by the borough president.

Lisa Donlan, president of CEC 1, said today that few charter parents avail themselves of those options.

“Why would they make that their main ask when they could do it now through a variety of mechanisms and they aren’t doing it?” she asked. “They don’t necessarily need to go up and change the legislation.”

The request was the centerpiece of this year’s Charter Lobby Day, which drew more than 1,200 charter parents to Albany today to push the CEC issue and other equity concerns. Last year, more than 2,000 people made the trek and focused on funding, particularly for facilities. The year before that, parents sat in on a budget hearing and took aim at a state law that capped the number of charter schools; later that spring, legislators raised the cap.

But while the size of the caravan was smaller this year, the number of schools represented increased. Of the city’s 136 charter schools, 114 sent parents to Albany today, where they were joined by parents from 22 additional schools across the state. Last year, parents from 80 of the city’s then-125 schools participated.

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.