after the appeals

City set to begin paying millions for charter-school rent under new law

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

The city is getting ready to cut its first checks to charter schools that are paying for their own space—an outlay that could stretch to nearly $10 million for this school year, based on charter school enrollment figures.

By the end of May, the Department of Education will have sent money to dozens of expanding charter schools to cover this year’s facility costs, according to a letter sent to school leaders this month. The schools are the first to reap the significant financial benefits of a state law passed just over a year ago that is sure to grow more costly for the city in the coming years.

“It’s huge,” said Great Oaks Charter School founder Michael Duffy, who became the first school leader to test the nascent law’s limits this summer. Duffy estimates his Lower Manhattan school stands to receive about $300,000 to cover rent for about 109 students in seventh grade this year.

Great Oaks is one of 46 city charter schools in private space that added grades, according to the New York City Charter School Center, and more than 3,600 students from those schools were enrolled in new grades. Most of those schools successfully appealed to the State Education Department for rental assistance over the last several months.

Under the law, eligible schools can receive up to 20 percent of their total school funding for those students — which this year rounds to $2,755 per student. (The actual amount paid to each school could be less, depending on how much the school pays in rent. The department is reviewing leases to calculate what to pay each school.)

Not all eligible schools have applied for the funding, a department spokesman said, though the charter center said most are expected to have applied or to apply in the future. If they do, the city would be on the hook for as much as $10 million for this school year, although that sum will likely be lower because some school leaders said they paid less than $2,755 per student in rent.

The spokesman said that a precise tally of costs would not be available until city reviews all of the appeals.

But the city’s costs are certain to continue to add up, as more schools open and enrollment increases at expanding schools. Next school year, the charter center’s enrollment projections would put the maximum tab just for expanding schools at $17.8 million.

One of those new schools, South Bronx Early College Academy Charter School, will be due more than $300,000 for 110 six graders next year, according to the founding principal.

“It’s a heck of a gift,” said the founder, Ric Campbell.

The city is obligated to spend $40 million to cover rent costs of eligible charter schools if they are not given space inside of a city-owned building, according to the law. Once the bills hit the $40 million ceiling, costs will be split with the state.

The law was passed in April 2014 as a rebuke to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who during his early months in office signaled that he would end the city’s practice of giving charter schools space inside of city-owned buildings for free. Charter schools do not automatically receive any funding for space, and de Blasio’s predecessor Michael Bloomberg used the controversial space-sharing policy to help grow the city’s charter sector.

“The challenge since the dawn of the charter school sector in New York City has been facilities,” said Duffy, who headed the education department’s charter school office from 2007 to 2010. The new facilities funding law, he added, “is the next chapter.”

Many of the schools set to receive the funding didn’t expect the financial boost when the law was passed last April. Lawmakers and members of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s own staff indicated then that only brand-new schools would be covered.

But a conference call last May between charter school leaders and New York City Charter School CEO James Merriman kicked off what would become a broader campaign. Merriman, a lawyer, said his reading of the law suggested that existing schools could also take advantage of the funding as long as they were adding grades.

Duffy was the first leader of an existing school to request space from the city and, once denied, appealed to then-State Education Commissioner John King. On his last day in office, King upheld Great Oaks’ appeal, a decision that opened the floodgates for other schools to submit their own requests.

Not all the private rent bills will cost as much as the $300,000 that Duffy is expecting for Great Oaks, which next year will move into a school building that will be vacant after the charter school there now closes at the end of the school year.

For instance, there are just 13 students in 11th grade this year at John W. Lavelle Preparatory, according to President Ken Byalin. The most the school could receive for this year is about $36,000, but Byalin said it would be lower because its costs to operate inside corporate offices come out to less than $2,755 per student.

Byalin said that since the school’s rent is already paid for the year, the money might go toward providing summer school classes, more Saturday school days, or maybe to fund a trip for the school’s inaugural senior class next year.

Not all charter schools in private space are eligible for city money. Twenty-three are done adding grades, and are therefore ineligible, a funding discrepancy that has prompted a lawsuit from charter school parents and advocates.

And not all of the expanding schools in private space will receive it. New Dawn Charter High School in Brooklyn is a transfer school for students who had previously left other high schools and are behind in their academic credits. But because students enter the school at different ages and different levels of high school completion, the school doesn’t technically have any grades. So even though it is adding students, it is not technically “adding grades,” which disqualified the school, according to its principal.

“We argued that the wording in the law was not meant to be a barrier to a new school like us,” New Dawn principal Sara Asmussen said of her school’s rejected appeal. “But it’s fine. The law’s the law. That’s what it says.”

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.