close of business

DOE collapses charter schools office as charter landscape shifts

Outgoing Charter Schools Office Executive Director Recy Dunn responds to a parent who was challenging the city's decision to close Peninsula Preparatory Academy in January.

While one tightly organized contingent of the city’s charter school sector prepared to stage a rally outside City Hall today, the Department of Education was shaking up its charter schools bureaucracy.

The Charter Schools Office’s executive director, Recy Dunn, is leaving the department, and the office is being subsumed into a broader division responsible for managing the opening, closing, and siting of schools, Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg announced in an email to his staff today.

Eliminating the Charter Schools Office is in some ways a remarkable move for the department, which has made charter schools a central prong of its reform strategy. But in other ways it is unsurprising, because the office lost momentum and authority in 2010, when legislators stripped the city of the right to award new charters.

Now, all new schools are authorized by either the State Education Department or SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute. The city’s role has been to assess existing schools, supporting them when they fall short of their promises and closing schools that do not improve.

This year, the department moved to close two schools that had faced academic and management problems and backed off of a threat to close a third struggling charter school. Both closures are currently on hold because of parent lawsuits challenging the validity of the department’s closure decision.

A charter schools insider who worked with Dunn at the department said Dunn was well liked but that the ongoing court battles had reflected poorly on his office.

“The DOE’s role right now is closing [charter] schools and they are not even able to do that successfully,” the source said.

Going forward, Sonia Park, who has headed one of the charter school office’s three networks, will supervise charter school accountability and support. Miriam Sondheimer, who is already working in the department’s portfolio division, will take over responsibilities relating to charter schools’ space — a challenging job because of the often contentious co-location arrangements.

Dunn had run the Charter Schools Office since October 2010, months after the state law change and two months after the previous director, Michael Duffy, departed to run a charter network of his own. Dunn had previously run the Department of Education’s early childhood office. He will become a manager at New Leaders, a national nonprofit that helps develop school leaders, according to Sternberg’s email.

Sternberg also announced that he had selected a replacement for his chief of staff, Romy Drucker, who has worked at the department for five years. Edward Hui, who has headed an office in charge of new school development, will take over. A large portion of his work will focus on implementing “turnaround,” the controversial process set to take place in 24 struggling schools over the summer, Sternberg wrote.

Sternberg’s complete email message to his staff is below.

Dear Colleagues:

I am writing to update you regarding several organizational realignments in the Division of Portfolio Planning. Although we are sad to see some of our most-valued colleagues go, we look forward to seeing members of our team take on new leadership roles and are excited about the contributions they will make to our work going forward.

On June 20th, Recy Dunn, who serves as Executive Director of the Charter Schools Office, will be leaving the Department of Education to become Regional Director at New Leaders.  In his tenure at the Department, Recy has made an enormous contribution to the children of New York City.  He was instrumental in strengthening the work of the Office of Early Childhood Education so our youngest learners can be better prepared for college and career readiness.  Leading the Charter Schools Office, Recy assembled an all-star team to carry out the critical charge of developing, supporting, and holding accountable high-quality charter schools.  Please join me in thanking Recy for his immeasurable investment in our work.  We wish him well in his new post and know he will continue to be an ally to the cause.  Over the next two weeks, Recy will serve as a special advisor to me to ensure a smooth transition.

Effective immediately, the Charter Schools Office (CSO) will move into the Office of Portfolio Management (OPM).  I am pleased to announce that Paymon Rouhanifard will become the Chief Executive Officer for Portfolio Management and will now oversee all CSO work, in addition to his current responsibilities overseeing citywide planning strategy.  This realignment will strengthen the Department’s efforts to attract and site high quality charter schools, to provide top-notch support and oversight to New York City’s 160 charters, and to make key charter processes sustainable.

Reporting to Paymon, Sonia Park will become Executive Director of Charter Schools Support & Accountability. In this role she will lead charter oversight efforts and the delivery of operational support to New York City’s 160 charter schools.   Miriam Sondheimer will become Executive Director of Charter Policy & Planning, and will also report to Paymon.  In this role she will manage citywide charter school policies and activities related to pipeline development, siting, and facilities.  Sonia and Miriam both bring years of experience working with charter schools to their new roles. We are excited about the vision and leadership they will bring to their charge.

As many of you already know, my Chief of Staff, Romy Drucker, will be leaving the Department to attend Harvard Business School. Over the past five years, Romy has been a colleague and friend to so many of us, and always a resilient advocate of the Children First reforms.  I am personally grateful for her partnership over the past two years and hope you will join me tonight (6pm @ Bubble Lounge) to show your appreciation for her work.

As Romy transitions out, I am pleased to announce that Edward Hui, who was previously serving as Executive Director of the Office of School Development in our Division, will become my Chief of Staff.  In this role, Edward will serve as senior project manager for Turnaround, as has Romy, as well as support work across the Division. In his five years at the Department, Edward has played a critical role in advancing numerous citywide reforms including ARIS, School of One, and New York City’s School Improvement Grant work with Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools. I am excited about the experience, excellence, and energy he will bring to this post.

It has been an impactful year for the Division of Portfolio Planning. As a result of our teams’ collective work this year, more than 170 portfolio reforms are planned for implementation in school year 2012-13 – up from 134 portfolio reforms that were implemented this year.  Thank you for your teams’ continued partnership and support to expand and enhance student and family choice, increase access to great schools, and improve learning conditions systemwide – from Pre-K to 12.

Please feel free to forward this announcement to your teams.


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.