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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.

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. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.