chartering territory

SUNY green-lights 17 more city charter schools, 14 for Success Academy

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Families for Excellent Schools organized a rally in Foley Square in Manhattan that drew thousands of charter school students and parents last week.

The city’s charter school sector, and its largest charter-school network, got a big boost Wednesday.

A State University of New York committee unanimously approved 17 additional charter schools to open over the next two years, with 14 of the charters going to Success Academy, the city’s largest and most controversial network. The other three charters went to Achievement First, a Brooklyn-based network of schools.

Together, the schools are projected to serve more than 11,700 students, according to proposals for both networks — growth that will have major implications for the de Blasio administration, which is facing new budget and space pressures. Under a new state law, the city is required to find the new schools space inside its own buildings or pay the schools a rent subsidy.

The city hasn’t yet decided where it will place any of the planned schools, and the administration has its own plans that will require space in city schools: pre-kindergarten programs and its community schools initiative, which will add health and career services to some struggling schools. Denying the new charter schools public space would mean spending millions on private space under the new law, which was partially spurred by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision in March to block three Success Academy schools from moving into public buildings.

There are hundreds of district school buildings where existing vacancies would make co-location a cost-effective option for siting new schools,” a Success spokesperson said in a statement.

The 17 newly-approved charter schools come after SUNY and the state’s Board of Regents, the state’s other charter authorizer, approved 13 additional charter schools earlier this year. That means just one more charter school can be authorized by SUNY to open in the city under state law. The Board of Regents still has 27 city charters left to approve.

While mostly effusive in their brief remarks about the charter proposals, SUNY officials expressed some concern about the size and oversight of charter management organizations, which now serve similar numbers of students as small school districts. Success Academy’s 14 new schools will add to the 32 that Success currently operates to bring the network to 50 schools—roughly the size of the Savannah, Ga. school district, for example.

SUNY Charter School Institute Executive Director Susan Miller Barker, SUNY trustee Joseph Belluck, and general counsel Ralph Rossi as the authorizer approved 17 city charter schools on Wednesday.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
SUNY Charter School Institute Executive Director Susan Miller Barker, SUNY trustee Joseph Belluck, and general counsel Ralph Rossi as the authorizer approved 17 city charter schools on Wednesday.

“We need to start thinking about how we authorize and monitor and review networks that are this large,” said Joseph Belluck, chair of SUNY’s charter schools committee.

Belluck directed Susan Miller Barker, the director of SUNY’s Charter School Institute, to look into ways SUNY could monitor how charter networks were serving their high-needs students, work more collaboratively with nearby district schools, and replacing students who leave the school—a contested policy known as “backfilling.”

Belluck also took some credit for Success Academy’s recent offer to host a professional development day for district-school principals. Another idea Belluck floated was for networks to share special-education teachers and resources across schools in the same way that districts do. Such a change would require revisions to the state’s charter school law and had encountered opposition from teachers unions in the past.

Miller Barker said that some changes were already underway. She said Success Academy officials told her that they planned to begin replacing students who leave the school at all grades, which would be a dramatic shift from the network’s current policy of only replacing students who leave through third grade.

Critics of Success often cite the network’s backfilling policy as a contributor to its impressive state test scores, since the policy means its elementary schools serve fewer students as they reach tested grades—and many of the students who leave for various reasons might have struggled.

Noah Gotbaum, a member of the District 3 Community Education Council, speaks to press outside Tweed Courthouse, protesting SUNY's decision to approve more charter schools.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Noah Gotbaum, a member of the District 3 Community Education Council, speaks to press outside Tweed Courthouse, protesting SUNY’s decision to approve more charter schools.

A Success spokesperson confirmed the network was changing its enrollment policies, but would only say that it would be filling empty seats up to fourth grade, up from its current cutoff of third grade, in the 2015-16 year. (A spokesman for SUNY later clarified that Miller Barker misspoke about Success backilling in every grade).

Meanwhile, in an illustration of how divisive charter schools remain in the city, and how divisive Success Academy is in particular, parents and City Councilmembers stood outside the Department of Education headquarters on Wednesday to protest SUNY’s approvals. There is too little oversight of how charter schools spend their money, they said, and traditional public schools that are co-located with charter schools remain underfunded, with arts programs cut, occupational therapy sessions held in hallways, and science labs scaled down. They also pointed to enrollment data from SUNY showing that 13 existing Success Academy schools were under-enrolled last October, including three by more than 27 percent. (The Brooklyn parents group, WAGPOPS, compared charter enrollment targets obtained from SUNY via a FOIA request with enrollment figures from education department space-sharing documents.)

“We have a right to say what happens with taxpayer dollars,” said Tesa Wilson, a parent who heads District 14’s Community Education Council.

“This is about oversight. This is about accountability,” said Daniel Dromm, chair of the City Council’s education committee. “This is about creating better public schools in New York City.”

Jessica Glazer contributed reporting. 

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the approvals will bring Success Academy to 50 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.