internal review

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.

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.