not going quietly

Brooklyn charters protest city’s closure decision, as at least one prepares to fight

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Fahari Academy Charter School, above, will close in June.

The two struggling charter schools that the city plans to close in June aren’t going down without a fight.

Both schools, Fahari Academy Charter School and the Ethical Community Charter School, were told last week that the city would not renew their charters. Now, both say the city has ignored their strengths and are pushing back, with Fahari hinting at possible legal action.

“We will exhaust all options to ensure that this decision is reconsidered and reversed so that we may remain the incredible place of opportunity we have become for our families, staff, and students,” Jason Starr, board chair of the Fahari Academy Charter School, wrote in a four-page statement.

“We ask you to restore our faith in your leadership by visiting our school and revising your renewal decision,” Annette Keane, principal of Ethical Community, wrote in a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Fahari’s response in particular underscores an ongoing struggle for the city’s charter school office, which has had trouble closing schools in the past — both when it has tried to not renew an expiring charter, and when it has tried to revoke a charter mid-term. Low-performing schools, or ones in precarious financial positions, have successfully sued to remain open by proving in court that the city’s performance standards were moving targets and poorly communicated.

“The entire procedure utilized by the [charter school office] for revocation is riddled with inconsistencies and lacks a certain level of transparency,” a judge wrote in a 2012 ruling that overturned the city’s decision to close Williamsburg Charter High School.

Peninsula Preparatory Charter School also used the courts to stay open after the city attempted to close it in 2012. Fahari’s board has used the tactic, too, suing to keep the school open last year but withdrawing the lawsuit after Fariña agreed to give the school a one-year reprieve.

The situation has looked different for schools authorized by the State University of New York. Two SUNY-authorized schools set to close at the end of this year, UFT Charter School and Innovate Manhattan Charter School, had boards that voluntarily surrendered their charters (or in UFT’s, the charter for the school’s lower grades), in part because SUNY’s tightly enforced standards left little question that they would be closed.

Following the announcement on Friday, leaders at both Fahari and Ethical Community also criticized the city for giving the schools minimal advance notice that they were facing closure. Jason Starr, Fahari’s board chair, said he was shocked when the city informed the board.

“Neither Fahari’s Board of Trustees nor its administration were given notice of the DOE’s intentions, much less an opportunity to respond before the decision was made,” Starr said.

Keane, principal of Ethical Community, said she found out about 90 minutes before the city made its announcement, leaving her “completely blindsided by the media blitz that ensued.”

“Our families came to school shocked and confused, many in tears, on Friday morning,” Keane wrote in her letter to Fariña. “The Ethical Community Charter School believes it was unfair for you to deny our school the opportunity to share the news of our closure with our own community members.”

On Thursday afternoon, department spokeswoman Devora Kaye acknowledged in an email to reporters that the schools had been notified recently. In response to the schools’ criticism, she told Chalkbeat that the city had communicated the stakes and the timeline for its decisions with the schools.

“This was not a surprise,” Kaye said in a statement. “Each of these schools was given clear conditions with benchmarks for performance they had to meet to demonstrate they were best serving children. Both failed to do so.”

Thursday’s notice triggered a 30-day process, she added, during which each school’s board will get a chance to formally respond to the city’s decision.

Correction: A previous version misstated the Board of Regents’ role in approving the city’s non-renewal decisions. Unlike renewal decisions, no action from the Regents is needed to close charter schools through a non-renewal. 


father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

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.