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Delayed charter sector self-assessment balances praise, critique

A chart comparing district and charter schools' principal turnover rates, from today's "State of the Sector" report.

A sweeping look at who attends charter schools in New York City, and how they fare, shows that the sector excels at advancing academic achievement but struggles to enroll high-needs students and to retain staff.

For the past nine months the New York City Charter School Center and a team of charter school founders have collected and crunched data on 35 different topics, including test scores, demographics, attrition, and enrollment. Their findings are laid out in a much-anticipated — and much-delayed — 40-page “State of the Sector” report, released today.

The report represents an inaugural effort to be more transparent about how charter schools in New York City are doing. Coming from a group that more often celebrates charter schools’ achievements, the report offers a blunt self-assessment of the sector, illuminating its shortcomings in student enrollment and staff retention while at the same making a case for it to continue to expand.

For instance, the report acknowledges “striking” staff attrition trends — nearly one-third of city charter school teachers leave annually — but points out the sector’s ability to achieve high academic results anyway. And while the schools serve low rates of students with special education and English language learners, the report emphasizes that those who do enroll tend to do better than their counterparts in district schools.

The report was originally scheduled to be released nearly two months ago. But the center needed more time to verify the data, then held the report until it could be released along with “dashboards” showing individual schools’ statistics, according to CEO James Merriman. Those dashboards were published on the center’s website today, although they have withheld  some data, including staff attrition. 

The findings confirm and herald high test scores, attendance rates, and parent satisfaction at the city’s charter schools, which serve about 47,000 New York City students and are growing.

But they also confirm critiques that have been heaved at the sector, including charges that charter schools don’t always serve the neediest students. Charter schools lag behind significantly behind district schools in serving English language learners and slightly behind when it comes to students with disabilities. And while the vast majority of charter school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 80 percent of charter schools have fewer poor students than their district average.

Perhaps more startling are the figures about how many teachers and principals leave charter schools each year. According to the report, a third of charter school teachers leave their schools each year, compared to about 15 percent in district schools. And charter school principals leave six times as frequently as district principals – more than 18 percent each year, compared to less than 4 percent in district schools.

And the findings also reveal several points of tension within the charter school sector. For example, the report says that “NYC charter school leaders have mixed opinions about backfill enrollment” — whether schools should accept new students to replace those who leave over time. District schools are obligated to enroll new students to fill vacant seats, but charter schools can choose to forgo state funding and leave the seats open instead.

Some charter school advocates think that backfilling seats is essential to the sector’s mission of serving at-risk students. But others argue that charter schools cannot be expected to fulfill a mandate of moving students forward if they continually accept students who would not be on par with their classmates. The report acknowledges that charter schools’ performance probably benefits from the flexibility, especially if it is low performers who leave most often. Charter middle schools, which backfill seats least often, post the strongest performance.

Dick Riley, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, said the report fell short because it did not sufficiently contend with the backfill issue. “The report fails to quantify just what the impact is on test scores when students leave charter schools and are not replaced,” he said.

People involved in creating the report said the goal wasn’t to promote just good things happening in charter schools or to prescribe solutions, but to present data that could illuminate areas where solutions might be needed.

“The only way that the charter school community is going to get better and earn the right to serve more students is to be transparent about our results, both the strengths and the gaps, and to be relentlessly committed to continuous improvement,” said Dacia Toll, co-CEO and president of Achievement First, a network of charter schools in Brooklyn.

But more information is needed to draw some conclusions about the strength of the charter sector, the report cautions. The sector doesn’t have good information about why teachers leave or where they go, so it can’t conclude whether high teacher attrition is a problem. Similarly, data about student mobility in both charter and district schools are thin, making it impossible to understand the impact of student attrition on performance, the report warns. And the report suggests two possible reasons for lower special education enrollment — lower identification rates and poor perception from parents of children with disabilities — but says more research would be needed to conclude what impact those phenomena might be having.

Merriman said he expected that the data — and the holes in the data — would leave the sector vulnerable to criticism from its regular critics. But he said hoped the new transparency would ultimately lead to more a productive policy conversation about where charter schools fit into the New York City school system.

“Any time you try to have a rational conversation around data there will be people bent on misusing the data and there’s little that anyone can do around that,” Merriman said. “My hope is, as the report says and I believe we’re justified in hoping this, that this will lead to a more thoughtful, balanced and data-driven conversation.”

The full “State of the Sector” report is below.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.