charter chill

Facing federal funding freeze, Success to nix lottery preference

After becoming one of the state’s first schools to reserve seats for English language learners in its lotteries, Success Academy Charter Schools are now planning to roll back the special treatment. The charter school network is making the revision under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, which has mandated the change as a condition to continue receiving $15 million in grants aimed at helping Success expand its reach.

The concession comes despite an all-out effort to reverse the decision by Success CEO Eva Moskowitz, who made her case in dramatic terms directly to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“[T]he millions of dollars in funding that your Department is threatening to withdraw is a gun pointed at our head,” Moskowitz wrote in a letter to Duncan in April.

The dispute has to do with a disagreement over the interpretation of federal education laws about how a charter school must structure its admissions process. A federal reading of the law is that school lotteries can’t reserve seats for at-risk students, unless their state’s charter school law specifically allows it.

In New York, charter school law requires that admission preferences be given for three student groups: returning students, siblings, and students who live nearby.

But policymakers here say that a 2010 provision in the law, which requires schools to meet quotas for at-risk student groups, meets federal compliance on lottery preferences.

The provision left it up to schools and their authorizer to figure out how to hit enrollment targets. State officials have argued that a lottery preference will end up being the best way, making it effectively required.

“For these charter schools, we believe it is, practically speaking, necessary for them to implement [an at-risk] lottery preference to comply with the NY Education Law,” Susan Miller Barker, executive director of SUNY Charter Schools Institute, which authorizes charter schools, wrote to a federal education official earlier this year.

Update: In a statement, Commissioner John King said, “We are optimistic the USED will reconsider their legal interpretation. We are certain the USED shares our commitment to ensuring equal access for high needs students to a high quality education, whether that is in a district school or a charter school.”

Success’ 20 charter schools are the state’s first to be affected by the U.S. DOE’s interpretation. But the change will eventually force many schools into the same dilemma: Eliminate their at-risk lottery preference or forfeit grants seen as crucial during the start-up years.

“It’s to the detriment of charters and the students we want to serve,” said New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman.

Many charter schools already reserve seats for at-risk students. Some offer seats to poor students and, increasingly, new charter schools are opening with preferences for specialized groups of high-need student populations.

For instance, the Children’s Aid Society’s charter school allots seats for students from single-parent households. The Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem leaves open 15 percent of its seats for students with autism spectrum disorders. And Mott Haven Academy provides two-thirds of its seats to students who are a part of the child welfare system.

But these types of new schools would have to eliminate their lottery rules to qualify for some of the $113 million in start-up grants that New York was awarded in 2011.

“These funds are just critical,” Merriman said. “They hire the people who put together the school.”

The federal grants, called the Charter Schools Program, have also been awarded to charter networks such as Success. Since 2010, Duncan has awarded the Success network two grants totaling more than $15 million to open or expand 24 schools by 2016.

U.S. DOE spokesman said that grant guidelines have been consistent and disputed the notion that any changes have been made.

“The Department of Education has not offered new rules nor have we made changes to any existing rules,” said the spokesman, Cameron French.

Despite their objections, authorizers have taken the federal grant guidelines seriously as they prepare to review a new slew of charter applications. In a memo sent last month, a SUNY CSI official warned new charter applicants that they would be ineligible for federal grants if they include admissions preferences as part of their school’s development.

Merriman said that threatening to withhold federal funding sent a message that would discourage schools from finding ways to serve at-risk students.

“It’s a fundamentally misguided policy,” he said.

A frequent criticism lodged at charter schools is that they don’t do enough to serve as many high-need students as district schools. In the case of Success, the criticism was renewed last week in a series of Daily News articles about families whose students attended Success schools.

Spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis disputed the criticism that Success schools didn’t do enough to serve its special education population. She said that 15 percent of the Success student population — 1,000 students — are classified a special education, near the city average.

Success schools don’t give preferential seating for poor or special education students, which Sedlis said were not under enrolled at the network’s schools. A legal memo sent by Success lawyers to the U.S. DOE argued that an ELL lottery preference is necessary because its schools struggle to attract families who aren’t proficient in English to apply. At Cobble Hill Success, for instance, just 4.1 percent of first-year students were ELLs, 19 percentage points lower than what was set aside in its lottery, according to the memo.

Success managed to convince the U.S. DOE to reverse the funding threat for this year. But yesterday, the city sent out public notices about revisions to the Success charters, which would affect lotteries for next year’s admissions.

“We have worked with Success Academy regularly over the last few months for them to remain eligible for the grant program,” French said.

In a statement, however, Moskowitz suggested she wasn’t done fighting.

“We were the second school in New York state to offer this preference because of our strong commitment to serving English Language Learners and we are fighting to reinstate it.”

Eva Moskowitz letter to Arne Duncan

Success Academy Legal Memorandum to U.S. DOE

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.