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.”

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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.