reaching out

As Fariña meeting nears, a new charter school coalition angles for acceptance

A new coalition of charter schools has a public message for Chancellor Carmen Fariña just days before she is set to meet with the entire sector: We’re not what you think.

Education leaders representing 27 charter schools serving 13,000 students announced this week that they’ve united in hopes of playing nice with Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a delicate moment for the charter sector. The group includes organizations tied to the de Blasio administration, such as the Children’s Aid Society, as well as an independent charter school whose principal counts Fariña as a mentor.

“This group supports the mayor’s progressive agenda for children and families,” the statement says. “It also believes that the majority of the city’s charters share the administration’s desire to reach those students who most need a high-quality public education.”

Members of the fledgling group say they also want to further distinguish themselves from the sector’s fiercest advocates, especially Eva Moskowitz, a frequent target of de Blasio’s criticism.

“This group came together out of a concern that generalizations have allowed misperceptions of charter schools and their work,” the group said in a joint statement sent Wednesday night, three weeks after Chalkbeat first reported about its formation. “[D]espite the best of intentions, the growth of the charter sector did not always hear or heed community concerns. This needs correcting.”

The move comes at a politically sensitive moment for the sector, which is anxiously awaiting de Blasio’s decision on several pressing issues affecting charter schools. It remains unclear whether he will cancel space plans for new charter schools, charge rent to charter schools in public space, and push to include charter schools in his pre-kindergarten expansion.

“I am hopeful that this group can help serve as a bridge to City Hall as the next chapter of the charter school story in NYC is written,” Harlem RBI CEO Rich Berlin, a founding member, said in an email.

The group’s formation marks a decisive step forward in a movement that has been building within the sector for years, in response to growing tension over how charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, should assert themselves politically.

Some charter school advocates argue that any effort to curtail growth in charter networks like Success Academy, KIPP, and Uncommon Schools, which are popular with parents and boast high student test scores, is unacceptable. To make their case, they’ve organized mass rallies, given money to political campaigns and advertised publicly. Today, one advocacy group, Families for Excellent Schools, held a rally to tout support from an assemblyman, Karim Camara.

But others — mostly among the 99 of the city’s 183 charter schools that are not affiliated with a network — say they are less concerned with growth than being able to continue to serve their existing students. They say their preference for a more middle-of-the-road approach has been drowned out.

“Our voices don’t get heard,” said Michael Catlyn, a founding board member and current vice chair of Brooklyn Charter School, which opened in 2000.

“I respect her work,” Rafiq Kalad Id-Din, founder of Brooklyn’s Teaching Firms of America Charter School, said of Moskowitz. “But she doesn’t speak for me.” 

Based on its membership, the coalition is in a good position to influence Fariña and de Blasio. Former Children’s Aid Society CEO Richard Buery, an early supporter of the group, is now a senior aide at City Hall. Christina Tettonis, who runs Hellenic Classical Charter School in District 15, Fariña’s former district, is a protégé of the chancellor from when she was a student at Teacher’s College Columbia University. Tettonis is also rumored to belong to a group of principals that is advising Fariña.

Most of the member organizations run a single charter school (New Visions for Public Schools is an exception). Several have unionized teachers, including University Prep High School in the Bronx and Renaissance Charter High School in Queens. And many serve high-need student populations, including New York Center for Autism Charter School and Broome Street Academy, which serves students at risk of dropping out.

In interviews, charter operators who signed onto the statement emphasized that they shared an opposition to de Blasio’s plan to charge charter schools rent with other schools in the city but said they disagreed with some of their colleagues about how to advocate against it.

“There’s a communication problem,” said Kalad Id-Din. “This is not a policy problem.”

Privately, several members said they believed that an ongoing political rivalry between de Blasio and Moskowitz, a former City Council member who is seen as having mayoral ambitions, has undermined their ability to work with the new administration.

Responding to the group’s statement, Moskowitz said she agreed that the sector suffered from misperceptions, which “have obscured the real achievements of our students. New York City children will only benefit if the administration and charter community can jointly embrace the task of providing equal access to high quality education.”

(Another charter operator who did not sign on to the coalition, Dave Levin of KIPP, said he was “completely aligned in spirit and with the hopes expressed by our charter friends.”)

Now, the sector is preparing for an important meeting that could determine its future. On Saturday, the New York City Charter School Center is hosting a meeting between Fariña and the city’s charter school leaders. All schools have been invited, but the group said they released their statement in advance to get Fariña’s attention. A spokeswoman for the center declined to comment about the center’s hopes for the meeting.

Like de Blasio, Fariña has criticized the charter sector and noted that it contains both “good” and “bad” schools. She has also said she has concerns that some charter schools use enrollment rules to serve fewer high-need students.

Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said Fariña “believes in listening to and engaging with all members of our school system” as a way to set good education policy.

“Families across the city want access to high-quality schools — district and charter — and we celebrate when families find schools that meet their needs,” Kaye added.

The group’s complete statement and list of members is below:

A diverse group of leaders from more than two dozen community-based charter schools met this week to discuss ways in which charter schools can develop a more collaborative working relationship with Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña. Along with other interested schools that were unable to attend, this group currently includes over 45 organizations, educating more than 13,000 students in all five boroughs, housed in private and public space.

This group includes independent charter schools and charters affiliated with well-known social service organizations that have a long tradition of partnering with the city to serve children and families. Although the schools represent many different approaches to public education, they all share a firm commitment to social justice through public education.

This group came together out of a concern that generalizations have allowed misperceptions of charter schools and their work. And despite the best of intentions, the growth of the charter sector did not always hear or heed community concerns. This needs correcting.

This group supports the Mayor’s progressive agenda for children and families. It also believes that the majority of the city’s charters share the administration’s desire to reach those students who most need a high-quality public education. We look forward to engaging the city in a productive dialogue to consider how the charter sector, working in partnership with the city, can continue its work and help advance the administration’s priorities and values to the benefit of the children of New York.

Academy of the City Charter School
Amber Charter School
Bedford-Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School
Beginning with Children and Community
Partnership Charter School
Brooklyn Charter School
Broome Street Academy and University
Settlement House
Central Queens Academy Charter School
Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School
Compass Charter School
DREAM Charter School and Harlem RBI
East Harlem Scholars Academy Charter School
Family Life Academy Charter School
Heketi Community Charter School
Hellenic Classical Charter School
Hyde Leadership Charter School
John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy Charter School
Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School
Math Engineering Science Academy
Middle Village Preparatory Charter School
New Dawn Charter High School
New Visions for Public Schools
New York Center for Autism Charter School
New York City Montessori Charter School
Opportunity Charter School
Renaissance Charter School
Summit Academy Charter School
Teaching Firms of America Professional Preparatory Charter School
University Prep Charter High School

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.