second chances

Second look at charter law could leave city with unexpected rent bill

Hyde Leadership Charter School, a K-12 school that moved into a private facility in 2012. Hyde is one of more than 60 New York City charter schools that operate in private space.

When Michael Duffy opened Great Oaks Charter School in a shuttered Catholic school building last year, he assumed he’d continue to pay rent as Great Oaks expanded, year by year, to eventually serve grades 6 through 12.

Starting this year, however, he’s hoping the city will pick up the tab.

Duffy’s newfound optimism comes months after the passage of a new state law that seemed to offer little to schools like his. The legislation grants some charter schools a right to publicly-funded space, but lawmakers said then that it would only help brand-new schools or schools that decided to apply for a new charter to add grades.

“The initial conclusion that I had was that it wouldn’t apply to Great Oaks because it would only apply to new schools,” said Duffy, who is the president of the Great Oaks Foundation. “I kind of put the issue aside.”

That changed in June, when the New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman told charter leaders that he interpreted the law differently. And if the city accepts that reading of the law — or if the interpretation holds up in a legal dispute — the city could be on the hook for millions of dollars more in rent than it expected.

Merriman told school leaders that the law could also be read to include charter schools in private space that are adding grades under their current plans, like Great Oaks. The Center’s guidance on the law has encouraged schools to request that assistance from the city beginning this year, triggering a process that could mean big savings for the 45 charter schools that the Center says are still growing in private space.

Because charter schools don’t receive facilities funding, schools in private space receive about 20 percent less funding than district schools and charter schools that are co-located in city-owned buildings. The gap means school leaders often use their operating budgets or fundraise to pay for rent and utilities.

Covering those costs would have far-reaching financial implications for the city, which is already facing a squeeze from the unambiguous part of the law, which states the city must provide space or funding to brand-new charter schools. The city could have to pay out more than $5 million in rent for private space for the 5,000 students who will attend charter schools opening in 2015-16.

For Great Oaks,the rent subsidy would amount to $2,755.40 for each of the 110 seventh-grade students who are being added to the school in the fall, according to the Charter Center. The subsidy would increase yearly with each new grade, excluding the original sixth-grade class.

To avoid those costs, the city could provide its own public space to schools, although that would bring about its own set of space-sharing issues.

The dilemma could set the stage for another unwanted showdown for the de Blasio administration, which has sought to downplay its differences with the charter school sector, especially the smaller schools that tend to operate in private space. Earlier this year, de Blasio’s decision to roll back three space-sharing plans for Success Academy charter schools resulted in weeks of negative advertising from advocacy groups that were closely aligned with Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz.

“De Blasio doesn’t want to get back into denying charter schools of public space,” said Brooklyn College education professor David Bloomfield.

A spokeswoman for the department said the city has received about two dozen requests from charter schools for access to facilities, but that includes schools slated to open for the 2015-16 school year. No requests have been ruled out yet, she said.

The city now has five months to respond to the requests. Duffy submitted a request for space in late June, meaning he might not get a response until nearly three months into the school year.

Daniel Rubenstein, executive director of Brooklyn Prospect, whose expanding elementary and high schools plan to add seven grades between the two schools over the next several years, also said he requested access to facilities.

“This relief will allow us to put every dollar possible from our budget in what matters the most: our classrooms,” Rubenstein said in a statement.

The process begins with a request for public space, but the department could respond with a proposal to cover rent in a school’s private facility. Under the law, schools can appeal any decision if they feel it is not “reasonable, appropriate, and comparable.”

Not all schools adding grades next year are planning to start that process, though. Some school leaders said they weren’t aware that the option existed. Phyllis Siwiec, who runs Global Community Charter School in Harlem, which will add two grades before it reaches capacity, said she had been under the impression that the law “did not apply to current charters.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story included a quote from Joshua Morales, who misrepresented his position with Bedford Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School. That quote has been removed.

 

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.