existential crisis

Opened to prove a point, UFT's charter school could be closed

The UFT Charter School’s secondary grades are housed at East New York’s J.H.S. 166. Both schools could face closure this year.

The city teachers union could face a school closure this year that hits uncomfortably close to home.

A decade ago, the early success of some charter schools became a case in point for a larger argument: The absence of a union contract in the schools enabled them to succeed with high-need students, proving that the presence of unions was holding other schools back, charter school advocates said.

Randi Weingarten, then the president of the United Federation of Teachers, opened the UFT Charter School in 2005 to pierce that argument. By posting higher scores, the school would “dispel the misguided and simplistic notion that the union contract is an impediment to success,” she said at the time.

The school got hefty grants from the Broad Foundation, space in two Department of Education school buildings, and a flood of applications from teachers and students alike.

But seven years into its existence, the nation’s first union-run school is one of the lowest-performing schools in the city. Fewer than a third of students are reading on grade level, and the math proficiency rate among eighth-graders is less than half the city average.

On the school’s most recent progress report, released last week, the Department of Education gave it a D and ranked it even lower than one of its co-located neighbors, J.H.S. 166, which the city tried to close last year and now has shortlisted again for possible closure.

The latest bad news comes as the school’s legal right to operate is nearing expiration. This year, the school’s charter authorizer, SUNY’s Board of Trustees, must decide whether to allow the school to remain open.

The renewal process started today with the first of a multi-day visit by reviewers from SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, which makes renewal recommendations to the trustees.

The last time SUNY CSI considered the UFT Charter School, it issued only a three-year charter renewal instead of the regular five years, citing an “ambiguous or mixed record of achievement.”

Test scores have plummeted since then, the school has cycled through multiple principals, and enrollment is down to just 70 percent of capacity. But union officials say they are optimistic that the school will weather the renewal process.

“I go to that school and I’m very, very happy with what we see,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said last week. “The parents are great, the teachers are doing a good job. We are very happy.”

A document that SUNY CSI submitted to its board last week offered a far bleaker assessment: Of the 13 schools with elementary and middle school grades authorized by the institute up for renewal this year, the UFT Charter School has the worst track record, according to the report.

In fact, according to the report, the UFT Charter School is the only school up for renewal actually performing worse than its district, District 19, as a whole, even though its students are, on average, less needy.

That statistic could doom its chances. Charter schools receive the right to operate free from city bureaucracy in exchange for promising to give students a better shot at academic success than they would otherwise have had. Advocates say a crucial metric is whether students outperform their peers in neighboring schools.

“Where schools don’t meet the standards as established by their authorizers and don’t meet them by a wide margin, it’s clear that in the charter sector the result should be closure,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Schools Center. Merriman was also SUNY CSI’s executive director when the UFT Charter School first received its charter.

This chart, produced by SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, ranks charter schools by their performance relative to their local districts. The UFT Charter School is the blue line closest to the bottom of the chart.

If SUNY CSI decides to close the school, it would mark the embarrassing end of Weingarten’s high-stakes bet that teachers can run a school as well, or better, than the Department of Education or other charter school operators, as long as no one is telling them what to do.

But it would be incorrect to conclude that the school foundered because the union contract is too constricting, sources close to the school said.

“You can look across the city and find talented principals working within the four corners of the contract and they have great schools,” said a source familiar with the project who asked to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing ongoing professional relationships.

“It’s not the contract. It’s the quality of the leadership and the management that picked them,” the source said.

In keeping with the school’s philosophy, the union drew principals from its own ranks, giving them the title of “teacher leaders.” To open the elementary school, Weingarten chose Rita Danis, who had been working at the union’s teacher support office. The next year, the union picked Drew Goodman, an assistant principal, to run the secondary school. Neither had led a school before, and within three years, each had resigned amid public clashes with teachers and families.

The union appointed Michelle Bodden, once seen as a possible successor to Weingarten, to replace Danis at the elementary school, where she has remained since 2008. But the secondary school has run through four different principals since 2009.

Its current leader, Martin Weinstein, is a former Department of Education superintendent who resigned after being accused of sexual harassment, according to a lawsuit he filed against the city last year.

“There are other people who we thought should be principal, but nobody wants to take over the job,” said a teacher who left the school last year after working under Weinstein for several months. He said many other teachers also left because they thought the school was in decline.

Even Shelia Evans-Tranumn, a former State Education Department official whom the union hired to supervise the charter school in 2010, said leadership changes had hamstrung the school.

“The number one reason why schools fail is rotation of leadership,” she said. “When you have leaders coming in and out, they’re not able to really get their vision across. It certainly impacted our school.”

Weingarten and Leo Casey, a former UFT vice president who was heavily involved with the development of the secondary school, each declined to comment on the school’s current state. They both said their involvement with the schools had ended years ago, for Weingarten shortly after she resigned as union president in 2009 and for Casey when he left the school’s board in 2011.

But during a panel discussion on a different topic in May, Casey said he was hopeful that the school could get better in the future.

“We’ve had our struggles,” he said. “There is a somewhat mixed academic record that we’re working on and that we think we’re in a position to improve.”

The school’s board seems to be pinning its renewal hopes on the improvement plans, according to a statement from chair Evelyn DeJesus.

“As part of the renewal process, we will be meeting with the SUNY Charter School staff [sic] to discuss the situation at the school, and to talk about the new programs we are instituting — including Saturday remediation and a College Bound program — designed to improve student performance, particularly in the middle school grades,” she said.

Evans-Tranumn said she is “a realist” about the school’s chances of renewal. But she said there are real signs of improvement already. For several years, she said, not a single fifth-grader stayed in the school for sixth grade. This year, 35 students made the transition to the secondary school, which is housed in a different location from the elementary school. And union officials noted that the school is considered “in good standing” with the state after multiple years on a list of schools needing improvement.

“I understand what is before us in terms of the analysis that SUNY will make, but they dont have the whole story,” Evans-Tranumn said, “We plan to do whatever we need to do to tell our story.”

The fact that the school is finishing a three-year renewal could work against it.

“The idea when we established short-term renewals was that thereafter it was a full five years or nothing,” said Merriman. He added, “Further … another full-term renewal wouldn’t be granted where schools simply had plans in place to improve in the future.”

SUNY CSI’s current executive director, Susan Miller Barker, said she could not comment about any individual school because her office is responsible for making renewal evaluations.

But, she said, “we do adhere pretty strictly to our renewal protocol.” The protocol involves examining the school’s performance data and comparing it with the achievement promises it made three years ago, as well as considering the information gleaned from the site visit, she said.

But SUNY CSI has allowed other struggling charter schools to stay open in dramatically different forms. In 2004, it ordered Albany’s New Covenant Charter School to stop serving middle school grades; the school stayed open until 2010. Agreeing to close the secondary school could be one option for the UFT Charter School, whose elementary grades post stronger results.

But Evans-Tranumn said she was optimistic about the middle school’s prognosis. In addition to the higher student retention this year, the union is still working on securing a single space that could house the entire school. Last year, the City Council gave the union $2 million to plan for a potential private space.

Another possibility is to hand the reins over to a different charter operator, similar to what Harlem Day Charter School did in 2011 when it was facing closure. But no formal process exists to make such a transition happen, and even if it did, convincing someone to take over the school would be a hard sell.

“We believe we need the freedoms of a charter to do effective turnaround work,” said Morty Ballen, CEO of Explore Schools, a charter network that this year absorbed the students from a Brownsville elementary school that was closing. Those freedoms, he said, are dependent on not having a collective bargaining agreement like the one the UFT Charter School currently has in place.

And yet another is to play politics, a move that the UFT Charter School is uniquely positioned within the charter sector to make. SUNY’s Board of Trustees is appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose major education initiative, overhauling teacher evaluations, can only happen with the UFT’s cooperation.

Under a timeline that Miller Barker sketched out, the UFT Charter School would find out its renewal recommendation at the same time that Cuomo has set as a deadline for districts and their unions to agree on new evaluation systems. If the union appeals to Cuomo for helping securing a charter renewal, the governor could conceivably consider it expedient to accede.

Whatever the outcome of SUNY CSI’s deliberation, the UFT Charter School is already out of favor with the union’s top brass when they cite examples of successful teacher empowerment.

Weingarten said this week that Green Dot New York Charter School in the Bronx, which opened with a unique union partnership and a “thin contract” that gives teachers some of the rights they would get in a district school, is thriving. Virtually all of the members in its first cohort graduated in four years, she said. She also said the union was participating in school improvement efforts in New Haven, Newark, and Boston.

“We are continuing to see progress and innovation at many teacher-led schools,” she wrote in an email.

And even the teacher who left the UFT Charter School in June said he had not given up on its original mission.

“This school was supposed to be run by the teachers, but it obviously didn’t work out that way,” he said. “If you have the right leadership it could work.”

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.