transition planning

Growth assured, Democracy Prep plans for a founder-less future

Superintendent Seth Andrew answers questions after the Democracy Prep admissions lottery event earlier this year.

When the first crop of seniors at Democracy Prep Charter High School graduates next June, they won’t be alone. The founder of the school’s network of charter schools will be exiting alongside them.

Seth Andrew, the founder and superintendent of the six-school network, has spent the last week making hundreds of phone calls to friends and professional contacts to let them know that he will be stepping down in June, seven years after launching a middle school steeped in civic values.

Andrew’s decision comes weeks after the U.S. Department of Education announced that Democracy Prep Public Schools would be one of two charter school networks to get federal funding to expand. Democracy Prep will get $9.1 million over five years to open 15 new schools in Harlem; Camden, N.J.; and potentially beyond.

Andrew said the award made him confident that he could depart without destabilizing Democracy Prep — and relieved that the network would be able to grow using only public funds, a value to the network.

“The organization is incredibly healthy,” he said today, speaking by phone from Boston, where he had been meeting with Building Excellent Schools, the nonprofit that helped him start up his first school a decade ago. “This is the time to do a transition.”

Andrew opened his flagship middle school, Democracy Prep Charter School, in 2006 with a $30,000 grant from the city’s Center for Charter School Excellence (now named the New York City Charter School Center). He expanded to a high school in 2009 to accommodate his graduating eighth-graders and has since opened three more middle schools.

Last year, Andrew was granted permission to acquire a charter to run a failing elementary school, Harlem Day Charter School. Mayor Bloomberg declared the takeover a success last spring, in the process comparing Andrew to Jeremy Lin, a basketball player who was then on a streak with the Knicks.

Accelerating its expansion plans doesn’t mean that Democracy Prep is giving up on the idea of taking over struggling schools, Andrew said. The network’s application for the federal grant explicitly asked for permission to create new schools and take over existing ones, he said, adding that conversations are underway in the city and elsewhere about both strategies.

Andrew will help engineer the first round of new schools because he will continue to run Democracy Prep until the end of the school year while the school’s board searches for his replacement. Using the consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners for support, the board members will look across the country and at “some very strong internal candidates,” he said today, hours before sending a mass email announcing his impending departure.

A graduate of the Bronx High School of Science who taught briefly in Massachusetts and Korea early in his career, Andrew said he doesn’t know what he will be doing a year from now — only that he will still be running his fledgling parent advocacy group, Democracy Builders, and working toward the same goal that motivated him to start Democracy Prep.

“My life’s work is truly high quality education for every child in the world,” he said. “I am considering everything and there are certainly lots of different ways and different places to make impact.”

But he said there are two areas of education policy that he thinks need particular attention right now. The first is the “talent pipeline” that brings teachers and principals to schools. Too often, he said, policy makers have focused on rules about firing bad teachers, when they should be thinking more about how to recruit and create great ones.

“There’s no way to get rid of teachers and just think that fixes schools,” Andrew said.

The other is the concept that Neerav Kingsland, a New Orleans charter school advocate, calls “relinquishment.” Rather than centralize control, Kingsland argues, superintendents should let families and schools make decisions for themselves, while still holding schools accountable for their performance.

“I’m interested in being disruptive and trying to push new boundaries in those fields,” Andrew said today.

Within the city’s guarded charter school sector, Andrew stands out for more than his ubiquitous yellow Democracy Prep hat. He and Democracy Prep’s board made a decision to tie his salary to the Department of Education’s salary structure for a similar position, even as some charter school operators earned salaries twice as high. They also avoided allowing the network’s schools to become dependent on private fundraising, an essential support for some charter schools.

And while he eagerly touts his schools’ academic accomplishments, he sometimes sounds even more excited about their civic engagement. He required students to attend and participate in civic events, and sent them out to canvass the Harlem community to vote on Election Day. Four Democracy Prep students attended the Democratic National Convention with him last month.

“I have great respect for the work he’s done in Harlem and the civic engagement he’s instilled in every Democracy Prep student,” said Mona Davids, a former charter school parent who has been a vocal critic of some charter school practices. She said Andrew was among the first charter leaders she met when she started a charter school parent advocacy group in 2009.

Davids said she regularly fought with Andrew because she said he refused to start a parent association at the school. “We just agree to disagree on that.”

After drawing the spotlight to himself this week, Andrew said he hopes attention will soon shift to the network of schools he has spent developing for the better part of his career so far.

He added, “Democracy Prep should not be about me, it should be about vision and implementation. Right now Democracy Prep and Seth are kind of synonymous, and that’s an unhealthy thing.”

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.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.