over-the-counter prescription

Law keeping mid-year arrivals out of charters could have a fix

Brooklyn Prospect Charter School students listen to a sports writer speak during February's Career Day.

The phone calls are bad, but the visitors are the toughest to reject.

That’s how Daniel Rubenstein feels about the admission requests that his charter school, Brooklyn Prospect, gets each summer from families who moved to the neighborhood after the school’s April lottery.

“This is a population that needs to be in a good school,” Rubenstein said. “Our school — which is a small, relationship-driven, intimate environment — would be better for someone that needs a community.”

But by law, Rubenstein must turn the families away. The state’s charter school law does not make provisions for schools to reserve seats for students who arrive to the city from far-flung locales after their April admissions lotteries. That means that charter schools, which are charged with serving the city’s neediest students, must exclude some of the students with the greatest need.

But after lobbying by Rubenstein and other charter operators, as well as by officials at the city Department of Education, one of the state’s charter authorizers is working on an option that would allow charter schools to open their doors in the middle of the year.

The mobile students — known as “over the counters” in Department of Education parlance — number more than 55,000 a year. They make up a student population larger than the total enrollment in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, or Boston.

Some of those students are transferring from one city school to another, according to city officials. Some are returning to the system after relocating temporarily, dropping out, or being incarcerated. And a large portion have never attended school in New York City before, city officials said.

The new students often have significant needs. “Many are students with disabilities, many are English language learners, and all of them are disadvantaged just by starting the school year later,” said Paymon Rouhanifard, the department’s executive director of school portfolio management.

About 30,000 of the new students are elementary- or middle-school aged, the grades served by most of the city’s 136 charter schools. But the responsibility of enrolling them has fallen entirely to district schools — exacerbating longstanding tensions over whether charter schools are fulfilling their mandate to serve the neediest students.

“One thing that is a breach between public schools and charter schools is that public schools have to take kids from their catchment area all year round,” said Morty Ballen, the CEO of the Explore Schools network of charter schools in Brooklyn.

Now, for the first time, a small group of charter school leaders and city officials are working to close that gap.

For about a year, Department of Education officials have been exploring ways to let charter schools enroll “over the counter” students. So have some charter operators, such as Rubenstein and Ballen. Last summer, Rubenstein sent a formal letter to the state requesting that officials examine how he could reserve a few seats for off-schedule applicants.

At first, the response that Rubenstein and city officials got was that only a revision to the state’s charter school law would allow them to take students over the counter. Under the current statute, “there’s really no way to hold seats that would allow kids to leapfrog” over families who applied through the regular lottery, Sally Bachofer, a State Education Department assistant commissioner, said earlier this month. SED authorizes some of the city’s charter schools.

Months passed without an update, Rubenstein said. Then, early last week, days after a reporter sent questions to his school’s authorizer, SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, he got a call from the institute’s chief lawyer. The lawyer, Ralph Rossi, reported that he thought the law could be interpreted in a different way.

The new possibility would take advantage of the long waiting lists that 97 percent of city charter schools maintain.

All charter schools turn to the waiting lists between the lottery and the first day of school as some families opt for other schools. Some charter schools also use the lists to fill spots that open up when students leave over time, a process known as “backfilling.” But students who apply to a charter school after the lottery deadline are added to the end of the waiting lists, practically ensuring that they’ll never get in.

But what if the schools could shoot late arrivals to the top of the list? Already, charter schools can ask their authorizer for permission to give admissions preferences to groups of “at-risk” students, such as English language learners or students who require special education services. A school with those preferences in place would either reserve seats for those students in its lottery or give the students extra chances to have their names drawn.

SUNY lawyers think it could be possible to construct a new category just for students who come to the city after the regular admissions cycle, according to Cynthia Proctor, a SUNY CSI spokeswoman. When spaces open up in schools that have adopted the new category, those students would have the first crack at the seats.

Details about who the new at-risk category would include are “fluid at the moment,” according to Rouhanifard, who has been discussing the issue with the state for over a year. The category might privilege students who are new to New York State only, or just English language learners who are new to the city, or just families that arrive after Oct. 31, according to people involved in the discussions. All are agreed that any policy would have to safeguard against families who relocate temporarily for the sole purpose of gaming a charter school waiting list.

The fix would have to be refined and signed off on by SUNY and city lawyers before becoming an option for schools, which wouldn’t be until next year out of fairness to the families that applied in April under the current rules, according to Proctor. But if it passes legal muster, the change could go into effect for families that move to New York City from all corners of the globe in 2013.

It’s not clear what would happen if SUNY’s lawyers decide the change actually does not fit with state law. Rouhanifard said the city would consider pursuing legislation, which Rubenstein said he would be eager to support. But charter advocates say that with city charter schools’ future hinging on the next mayor, encouraging legislators to reassess a law that took a brawl to pass in 2010 isn’t high on the agenda.

“It’s important, but given all that’s going on it isn’t the most important thing,” said James Merriman, director of the New York City Charter School Center, about the issue of over-the-counter students. “It’s an interesting issue and one that my guess is we will see more discussion about over time.”

The discussion is likely to be hastened by growing scrutiny on charter schools’ mixed record of serving high-need students, such as students with special needs and English language learners. The state is in the process of setting enrollment “targets,” as required under state law, giving charter schools an added incentive to enroll more English language learners, whom they have so far failed to serve in large numbers.

While precise numbers are not available, officials say mid-year arrivals include a larger proportion of English language learners than in the city’s overall student population.

Even if the preference does become an option, there’s no guarantee that all charter schools would adopt it. The city would not require charter schools to admit mid-year students or fill spaces that open as students leave over time, as Denver and New Orleans have begun doing amid criticism that their charter schools were not serving the neediest students.

“That’s not a direction that we are moving in right now,” Rouhanifard said. “We respect the autonomy of charter schools.”

Without being required to accept mid-year arrivals, charter schools that do not “backfill” would continue not to accept students over the course of the year. (They might still set a preference that would allow them to take summer arrivals in a school’s entry grade.) A recent self-evaluation of the city’s charter school sector identified whether to “backfill” vacated spots as a major point of dissent among schools.

Rouhanifard said he had spoken to at least a dozen charter school operators interested in being able to accept off-schedule arrivals. But they represent a fraction of the city’s charter schools.

“Not every charter school wants to do it because it is a disruption,” Ballen said about figuring out how to accept the needy students who arrive mid-year. “I don’t know how many charters have the appetite to do it.”

But those that do won’t just be helping needy students, Ballen said. “If we can solve this, it [will] remove a wedge in the charter-public school community,” he said.

Leo Casey, a teachers union vice president, said the policy shift would have the most impact if prominent charter networks that do not currently “backfill” begin using over-the-counter students to fill seats that open up through attrition.

Still, Casey said, allowing charter schools to choose to accept the students “would be a step in the right direction.”

defensor escolar

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.