Call for ban on co-locations has charter school backers nervous

The city’s charter school sector is pushing back against a groundswell of support for a moratorium on the space-sharing arrangement that has allowed the schools to proliferate.

Their resistance is not unified in tone. Some charter school advocates are requesting that proponents of a moratorium reconsider and others are taking their fight to the street.

The Bloomberg administration has relied heavily on co-location, the practice of allowing one school to open in another school’s building, to open new schools. Its critics say the arrangement breeds unnecessary tension and takes resources away from existing schools.

Now, three of the Democratic candidates for mayor — Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, and former comptroller Bill Thompson — have all said they think Bloomberg should not be allowed to close or co-locate any schools in its last year. A bill proposed in the State Senate would bar school closures even into the next mayor’s term, and Assembly members are lining up to sponsor their own version of the bill.

Blocking co-locations and the school closures that often make space for them would be a serious blow to the city’s charter sector, which has flourished because the Bloomberg administration has offered more than 100 charter schools free space in district buildings. It would be difficult for new schools to open at the same pace if they had to find and pay for private space.

The threat has united independent charter schools and schools in management organizations, which are sometimes at odds, in the sector’s defense. On Wednesday, two dozen school leaders and advocates distributed a statement asking the mayoral candidates “to set aside the call for a moratorium on co-locations and show the kind of thoughtful leadership New York City needs.”

Several of the signatories handed out flyers to people attending the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators’ event featuring mayoral candidates on Wednesday evening, where the candidates later reiterated their support for a moratorium.

“I believe anyone who wants to lead the city is going to be a thoughtful person,” said Rafiq Kalam Id-Dinn, head of Brooklyn’s Teaching Firms of America Professional Preparatory Charter School. He said that if candidates surveyed city charter schools’ strengths, they should think, “Hmm, maybe we shouldn’t push pause.”

Some charter school operators are taking a more aggressive stance. Unlike representatives of the other major charter school networks in the city, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz did not sign on to the sector’s letter. Instead, parents from her schools protested outside the three mayoral candidates’ offices this morning.

Outside Liu’s office, more than 100 parents from Success waved signs accusing the candidates of being pawns of UFT President Michael Mulgrew. The union has long opposed closures and co-locations, at times suing to stop the city from going through with them.

“We’re out here because we want co-location,” said Ali Aybakal, who has a child at Harlem Success Academy 4 in Harlem and three at New Heights Academy.

“Liu, Thompson, and De Blasio declared basically to destroy charter schools,” said Kelly Alday, an outspoken parent from Bronx Success Academy who is often a ringleader at the network’s protests. “They’re basically turning their backs on us.”

Moskowitz, who aims to open six new schools in public space this fall, 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.  A former City Council education committee chair, she has also sought — and received — more space from the city than any other charter school operator, at times forcefully proposing space-sharing plans directly to the chancellor.

Now, she is taking an extra share of criticism about the practice of co-location.

“Another thing that has to change starting in January is that Eva Moskowitz cannot continue to have the run of the place,” de Blasio said during the mayoral debate, where Moskowitz was the only school leader named, to loud applause. “She was giving the orders and chancellors were bowing down and agreeing. That’s not acceptable.”

In a statement responding to this morning’s protests, Melinda Martinez, a parent at Cobble Hill School for International Studies, said, “The Bloomberg-era policy of ‘what Eva wants, Eva gets’ is at stake now, and only the mayoral election can stop her from continuing to hurt our students, because not everyone can be bought off.” Success Academy Cobble Hill moved into the school’s building this year.

Perhaps anticipating this year’s political rancor, many independent charter schools opted out of a rally to support the sector last year. “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,” Harvey Newman, who heads the Center for Educational Innovation’s charter support network, told GothamSchools at the time.

Charter school parents – who number over 100,000 and counting — could potentially be a significant voting bloc in the mayoral election. At an event to mark National School Choice Week this morning at Democracy Prep Charter School in Harlem, a parent asked Chancellor Dennis Walcott what families can do to support the sector. Walcott suggested holding a forum for mayoral candidates and giving them each a report card based on how much they favor charter schools.

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.