internal conflict

Charter school rally brings out deep tensions within the sector

At last year's rally, students and families protested in Harlem against a lawsuit that sought to prevent charter school co-locations.

A large public rally to support the city’s charter school sector this afternoon is expected to draw thousands of people, but the event is also notable for who won’t be there.

Organizers say the rally is meant as a show of political might to mayoral candidates, whose support for the sector is unlikely to rival Mayor Bloomberg’s.

But in a sign of what sources say is a widening rift within the sector, two major groups that support charter schools have declined to participate, and large numbers of independent charter school operators are sitting the rally out. Many say they believe the event’s leadership and timing reflect a larger truth about the future of the sector: that it is promising for schools that are part of large networks and less so for independent charter schools.

“The charter world is kind of breaking up into the haves and the have-nots. There’s a schism,” said a source with a long history in city charter schools.On one side of the schism are operators, many of them independent, who have focused their energies and resources on school-based operations while quietly steering clear of front-line battles over ideology. On the other side are operators who also see charter schools as a weapon in a political fight against teachers unions to reform the larger school system and believe that the fight requires robust, hands-on organizing and lobbying efforts.

In recent years, operators who hold that view have seen their networks grow and win support from well-funded advocacy groups, particularly as many of their schools have outperformed their local districts and the city on state tests.

Several of the advocacy groups spearheaded today’s rally, set for City Hall Park at 3 p.m. Education Reform Now, which former Chancellor Joel Klein chaired until April, secured a permit for a crowd of 3,000 and is supplying the event with volunteers. Families for Excellent Schools, a parent organizing group, arranged busing and coordinated a steering committee. The five-member committee included representatives of four high-profile networks — Success Academy, KIPP, Uncommon Schools and Public Prep — and one independent school, Coney Island Preparatory Academy.

Last year, the charter sector held a 2,500-person-strong rally against the UFT and NAACP, which had filed suit to stop 18 charter schools from opening or expanding in city school buildings. Without the common foe, and with the prospect of competition for scarcer resources on the horizon, that unity has frayed this year.

“We have … chosen not to participate in this or any other event that perpetuates the exclusion of independent charter schools from leadership in directing and planning these events,” said Rafiq Kalad Id-Din, founder and principal of Teaching Firms of America Charter School, who helped organize last year’s rally.

Critics of today’s event said its leadership had created a major wedge.

Harvey Newman, who heads the Center for Educational Innovation’s charter support network, said the school leaders in his coalition felt the event was too closely aligned to the political agenda of Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of the Success network. A former City Council education committee chair, Moskowitz has long represented the more radical wing of the charter movement, bringing busloads of parents to defend her network’s schools at public hearings and meetings where criticism is likely.

Newman said a representative of Moskowitz’s network approached him about signing on to the rally just days after Moskowitz indicated that she was considering a run for mayor.

“There was a sense that there is a political element to this, and people thought that demonstrations that looked like Eva’s demonstrations did more to divide than bridge,” said Newman.

Organizers for today’s event downplayed the tension and said the dissent did not represent a majority view.

“This is NOT about Eva in any way and it’s unfortunate that a tiny number of people feel that way,” Barbara Martinez, a spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools, wrote in an email. Eighty of the city’s 136 charter schools are expected to be represented at the rally, she said.

“It’s to show folks who might be running for mayor that there is a large number of us who support charter schools,” said Martinez. “We want to show them that we believe that some of the policies in place, such as co-location, works.”

But co-location — the city’s practice of handing space in public school buildings to charter schools at no cost — is precisely one of the issues where independent charter school operators say they have been pushed to the side.

A larger proportion of independent charter schools are housed in private space, and an operator who runs a school that did not get public space said high-profile charter networks were unfairly given “the first pick of the litter” when the city allocates space. Last fall that dynamic played out in District 15, where a long-planned independent charter school seeking public space was denied to make way for a Success Academy school.

Preserving co-location, which allowed charter schools to thrive under the Bloomberg administration, is the sector’s preeminent concern for the next mayoral administration.

“That’s definitely a key element that I think the group is going to want to convey,” said Coney Island Prep founder Jacob Mnookin about today’s rally, which he helped organize.

But even the leading charter school advocacy group in the city, the New York City Charter School Center, is staying away from the rally, sources close to the group confirmed.

CEO James Merriman said he was “supportive of schools and parents coming together to publicly support charter schools” but declined to comment on today’s event. Multiple sources said the center, which has lent resources and support to rallies in the past, had decided against participating in today’s event because of the leadership and timing tensions.

Several prominent charter network operators who serve on the center’s board are absent from the rally’s list of participants as well, including Jeff Litt of Icahn Charter Schools, Geoffrey Canada of Promise Academy Charter Schools, and Joseph Reich of Beginning with Children Charter Schools.

Also not on the agenda is Newark Mayor and “ed reform rock star” Cory Booker, who was billed as the keynote speaker in an email announcement sent late last week. The New York State Charter Schools Association sent the alert prematurely and had never confirmed Booker’s attendance, according to an official there.

Booker’s possible appearance triggered charter school opponents to organize a counter protest at the same time and place this afternoon. After learning that Booker would not attend, they sent out an updated media alert: “Keynote Speaker Cory Booker a No-Show; Why is He Hiding?”

Mnookin, of Coney Island Prep, said it’s essential that tensions within the charter sector not overwhelm the schools’ shared interests.

“Obviously, we have incredibly diverse and varied schools,” Mnookin said. “But the opportunity to come together as a united group is a huge benefit.”

The event falls at a time when most charter school days aren’t over and with the school year winding down, organizers said they didn’t expect every charter school to be represented at the rally.

Some charter school parents and organizers said they had gotten very little information about the rally.

A parent at a school that is not part of a network said parents had received a generic invitation through email late this morning. The invitation, a Word document created by Families for Excellent Schools, included the words “Insert school logo” and billed the rally as an end-of-year celebration.

“I don’t even know who is sponsoring it or what it is about, just that we are invited,” said the parent, whose school appeared on a list of confirmed participants provided by a rally organizer. “I doubt anyone would show with such little info.”

And Joanne Hunt, the principal of the independent Harbor Science and Arts Charter School, one of the city’s longest-running charter schools, wrote in an email that she hadn’t heard about the rally. “Was it publicized?” she asked.

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.