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

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.