one more round

Regents refuse to approve city’s latest charter school renewals

Teaching Firms of America co-founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, with parents and staff of the school, speak with Regents Kathleen Cashin in Albany after a meeting about charter school authorization. In a rare move, Regents said they would not approve a spate of charter school renewal recommendations submitted to them by the city's Department of Education because they lacked consistency.

Updated, 6:54 p.m — The city’s charter-school oversight came under harsh scrutiny Monday after it submitted a slew of school renewal recommendations that state education officials said were too lenient.

“I wouldn’t vote to keep most of these schools open, quite honestly,” Chancellor Merryl Tisch said at a Board of Regents meeting. “None of them have a track record worth writing home about.”

City officials had recommended allowing seven of its charter schools to stay open for another two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half years, according to a report posted to the Board of Regents website on Friday (and since revised). But in a rare move, the Regents agreed to delay voting on six of the renewals, citing the city’s own reports that said several were out of compliance with federal disciplinary laws and produced lower-than-average test scores. A seventh school was abruptly taken off the agenda after a last-minute lobbying spree from the school’s founder and parents.

The renewals are typically considered rubber-stamp votes by the time they make it to the Regents agenda. This time, state officials said they wouldn’t approve the extensions until representatives from the city’s charter-school office came to Albany and explained their reasoning.

The strong rebuke comes just a month after the Board of Regents faced a barrage of criticism for signing off on a new school in Rochester whose 22-year-old founder lied about his credentials. (Only after the founder’s lies came to light was the application withdrawn.) It also puts the spotlight on the city’s charter-school office, which has shrunk and merged with another office under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who has only selectively embraced the charter sector.

While discussing the potential renewals issue on Monday, officials pointed to the city’s own reports, which showed that five of the seven schools have been out of compliance with federal disciplinary laws. The disciplinary policy at one of the schools, Hyde Leadership Charter School – Brooklyn, said that students could be expelled for minor infractions.

“I’m sitting here wondering, well, why would they recommend renewal if there’s evidence that was strong enough to include it in the renewal [report]?” said Lester Young, a Regent from Brooklyn.

Advocates of Children of New York says the charter school sector’s compliance problems go well beyond a handful of schools. The nonprofit says it reviewed more than 150 charter school discipline policies and is “alarmed by the number of policies that fail to comport” with the state’s charter school act, according to a letter sent to Tisch last week.

The schools up for review this week struggled in other ways, according to the city’s reports.

Staten Island Community Charter School went without a principal for five months during the last school year and experienced a 68 percent turnover of its instructional staff. Another school appeared to be in dire financial straits. Bedford-Stuyvesant New Beginnings was deemed to be in a “weak position” to meet its near-term financial obligations because it had just $304,257 in cash to cover more than $1 million in current liabilities.

Academically, several of the schools underperformed district averages, although they fared better when compared to district schools that served similar populations of students.

“The DOE reviews every school’s application for renewal and possible grade expansion carefully, and bases decisions on the proposal’s educational merit,” department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement.

All seven schools that were part of the city’s renewal reports this month were approved in 2009 as part of the last cohort of charter schools created by the Department of Education. The city lost its power to authorize new schools soon after, but it still has responsibility to oversee the charters of the 70 charter schools it had already approved. (The state’s other authorizers, the State Education Department of the State University of New York, can still approve new charters.)

It’s not the first time that the city has faced scrutiny for its charter school authorizing. Michael Duffy, who headed the city’s charter-school office for nearly three years before it lost its power to authorize new charter schools, said in 2012 that it was difficult to convince officials at the Department of Education to close schools because it the Bloomberg administration had been working hard to expand the charter school sector. And a judge once ripped the department’s authorizing standards as being “riddled with inconsistencies.”

Despite Regents’ concerns that the city went too easy in their recommendations, none of the schools earned a full, five-year renewal recommendation. Three of the schools were denied requests to add grades, and leaders of one of those schools felt that the city had been far too harsh.

Teachers and staff from Teaching Firms of America Charter School in front of Tweed on Monday.
PHOTO: Brian Charles
Teachers and staff from Teaching Firms of America Charter School in front of Tweed on Monday.

In a last-minute lobbying spree that seemed to pay off, Teaching Firms of America founder Rafiq Kalam Id-Din traveled to Albany on Monday morning along with parents and staff to protest the city’s decision to deny the school’s request to add middle school grades. In New York City, more than a dozen parents and teachers waited in the lobby of the Department of Education’s headquarters demanding a meeting with Fariña.

In an interview, Kalam Id-Din said he believed the decision was “political” because an expansion would have meant the city would have had to find space for the school’s new grades. He also disputed some details in the city’s report for his school, including the suggestion that he had hired four TFOA staff members without bachelor’s degrees. Kalam Id-Din suggested that the city’s recommendation might have be racially motivated.

“Why is this happening to the only black-led charter school in Brooklyn?” he said

State Education Department officials said that Fariña asked them to take down the city’s renewal recommendation for TFOA on Sunday. They said the reason was that Kalam Id-Din had not signed the charter school agreement, though Kalam Id-Din said he wasn’t informed of Fariña’s letter until Monday afternoon.

“Someone said something to someone and the city is now negotiating,” said Assembly Member Walter Mosley, Jr., whose district includes the Bedford-Stuyvesant charter school. “I think something positive will take place.”

The other schools facing a delayed vote are Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School and Rochdale Early Advantage Charter School. The Regents have 90 days to take action on any proposal before it is automatically approved.

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.