unlikely opposition

Bill to help charters serve high-needs students finds foe in union

The state teachers union is lobbying against a bill that would allow charter schools to serve students with special needs more readily.

The bill would allow charter schools, which essentially operate as one-school districts now, to pool their resources to offer special services to students with disabilities and English language learners. The bill was introduced in April, just weeks before state charter school authorizers proposed enrollment targets to comply with a requirement added to the state’s charter school law in 2010 that the schools serve “comparable” numbers of students with special needs.

Charter school advocates have spent recent weeks lobbying for The Charter School Students With Special Needs Act and until now had encountered little resistance in Albany. The bill sailed through the State Senate’s education committee, and Assemblyman Karim Camara introduced an Assembly version two weeks ago.

But last week, NYSUT circulated a memo urging lawmakers to reject the bill. The memo lauded the bill’s sponsors and acknowledged charter schools’ challenges in serving special needs student populations. But it also warned that the bill could result in “a huge expansion of charter schools” and create an arrangement in which charter schools “segregate all of their students with disabilities to one site.”

The bill would allow charter schools to form consortiums to serve students with special needs. Under the proposed law, a consortium might assign one school to serve students with autism, while another school would hire staff who is specially trained to help students who are emotionally disturbed. Or it might hire teachers jointly who can assist students with disabilities in multiple schools.

Those practices “would result in warehousing special needs’ students,” a NYSUT official said about the bill.

Groups that advocate for charter schools in the city and across the state charged that the union “misunderstands and misrepresents” the bill in a memo of their own.

“This bill provides no new resources for charter schools and creates no new space under the cap,” reads the memo, which was distributed by New York Charter Schools Association and the New York City Charter School Center. “It simply provides a new, voluntary tool for charter schools to serve more students with a wider variety of special needs. We are troubled that NYSUT would oppose such an outcome.”

The memo adds, “The bill merely allows charter schools to do what school districts across New York State do now: gather students with similar needs to provide specialized program.” (New York City is moving away from this model and instead is requiring all schools to accommodate the students who enroll, regardless of their needs.)

NYCSA President Bill Phillips said he thought NYSUT’s opposition was more pragmatic than ideological. “Obviously, they don’t want more children to go to charters because a portion of the funding follows the child, and that’s a NYSUT membership problem,” he said.

The vast majority of charter schools don’t employ unionized staff members, a major point of contention for NYSUT, which has 600,000 members. NYSUT and the city’s teachers union, the UFT, have also criticized charter schools for failing to serve a fair share of students with special needs.

In a sign of the union’s considerable political muscle, the last-minute push to defeat the bill has suddenly cast doubt that the bill will pass at all.

“I would assume that the Assembly would not pass a bill that NYSUT opposes like this,” an Albany source said, alluding to the Assembly’s traditional reluctance to flout the union’s  under the leadership of Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Charter school advocates said that they are still holding out hope that the bill will pass. The legislative session ends on Thursday, but lawmakers are racing to wrap up all of their bills by today Tuesday, to allow for a three-day waiting period that is required for public review before final votes are taken.

NYSUT’s memo about the charter school bill is below, followed by the charter sector’s memo:

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.