clashes in the space wars

Success Academy co-location exposes fault lines among de Blasio’s allies

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Success Academy parents testify at an April Panel for Educational Policy meeting.

The city’s controversial plan to place a charter school in a South Bronx building was narrowly approved Wednesday night, but not before drawing rare “nay” votes from two of the mayor’s own appointees to the city’s education policy board.

In an unusually divided 7-5 vote, the Panel for Educational Policy voted to move three grades of an expanding Success Academy elementary school into a building with three existing middle schools next year. The district schools are all a part of the city’s School Renewal turnaround program, and will have to give up space just as they begin to craft improvement plans — a scenario that appeared to test the patience of some of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s allies.

“I cannot in good conscience vote for a co-location of a charter school with three Renewal schools,” panelist Norm Fruchter said at the end of the meeting. “So I vote no.”

Elzora Cleveland, another mayoral appointee, also voted no.

The dissent is the latest illustration of how the panel’s dynamics have changed since the Bloomberg administration, when mayoral appointees voted in favor of the city’s proposals or were replaced before they could vote against them. (The mayor appoints eight of 13 members.)

The co-location debate also encapsulates a number of complicated problems the education department is facing: The need to support the schools in the Renewal program and its need to follow through on promises of space in public buildings to Success Academy; its desire for schools in shared buildings to work together and the three Bronx schools’ vehement protest of Success Academy’s arrival; and its need for space-sharing proposals to earn panel members’ approval while giving members the independence de Blasio has promised them.

Concerns about struggling schools facing co-locations aren’t new. At February’s panel meeting, in which three of eight co-location plans affected Renewal schools, Fruchter said he worried the space plans could undermine the city’s goal to provide the schools with extra resources like health clinics or additional counseling services. Chancellor Carmen Fariña said then that those worries were unwarranted, a message she repeated on Wednesday.

This time, Fruchter, a longtime education activist and policy analyst for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, took his concerns a step further, breaking ranks for the first time since joining the panel 15 months ago.

“I try as best I can to support the chancellor because I think she’s doing a Herculean job in very difficult circumstance and she has terrific educational instincts,” Fruchter said.

Fruchter’s vote raised eyebrows among some of his colleagues, with one saying it would force some soul-searching as the city proposes more co-locations.

“For me, it was personally newsworthy and it made me think twice,” mayoral appointee Isaac Carmignani said. “It didn’t change my vote, but I respect Norm a lot. Norm has tons of experience, so that meant a lot.”

Four other co-locations were also approved at the meeting, including a contentious plan to co-locate a New Visions charter school with August Martin High School, also a Renewal school. Fruchter voted for that that proposal, which passed 7-3. Two members, including new mayoral appointee Ben Shuldiner, recused themselves.

The votes came after hours of charged testimony from parents, teachers, and students from several schools affected by the five co-locations being debated. More than 200 Success Academy Bronx 3 supporters, many donning orange shirts, packed into the middle seats of the auditorium of Pace High School in Chinatown, while a smaller group from J.H.S. 145, one of the other schools, huddled in the back.

Angel Cornejo, the mother of a Success Academy second grader, said she wanted the plan to be approved because she was concerned her son would otherwise have to return to a district school.

“He had a hard time the first couple of months. He was reading below level and struggling with math,” Cornejo said. “I was so confused because I was told by his teachers a local district school that he attended in kindergarten that he was right where he needed to be.”

Success Academy, which now operates 32 charter schools across the city, is the city’s top-performing charter network. But its strict discipline practices and intense academic focus, much of which is geared toward the state’s annual tests, as well as its high-profile lobbying efforts, have also attracted fierce criticism.

And while political tensions may have eased between Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz and de Blasio since they faced off over school space last year, Wednesday night’s close vote shows that the network is still deeply divisive. Even panel members who voted for the proposal criticized what they called overly dramatic testimony from parents.

Jim Donohue, an English teacher at J.H.S. 145, testifies in opposition to a co-location plan involving Success Academy.
Jim Donohue, an English teacher at J.H.S. 145, testifies in opposition to a co-location plan involving Success Academy.

“Tonight’s comments confirmed to me that stakeholders at Success Academy are only concerned about themselves,” said panel member Vanessa Leung, a mayoral appointee.

Adding to the administration’s school-space headache is that Fariña and de Blasio are working to convince the state legislature that they should hold onto their control of the school system. The city’s mayoral control law expires at the end of June, and lawmakers have expressed concerns that the panel is too strongly connected to the mayor.

“We’re concerned about who gets appointed, how it gets appointed, how decisions get made,” said Walter Mosley, Jr., a Brooklyn Democrat and member of the Assembly education committee. “Right now, it feels as though nothing has changed.”

The building that the Success Academy school will enter next year has the capacity to serve more than 1,700 students, but is only currently serving about 920, according to the city’s (often disputed) estimates. As many as 120 third-grade students from Success will join them next year.

Success Academy will take over 14 full-size rooms next year, while the largest middle school in the building, J.H.S. 145, will give up nine of its 27 full-size rooms. Urban Science Academy will lose two of 20 rooms, and New Millennium Academy, the smallest school, will lose three of 15 rooms.

In response to concerns that the co-location would harm the city’s plans for its Renewal program, Fariña said her vision for the schools did not necessarily mean that they would require more space.

But Fariña’s comments did little to assuage some concerns.

Jim Donohue, who has taught English at J.H.S. 145 for the last 16 years, said taking away space sent mixed messages about his school’s future.

“What I find ironic and frustrating is that just as they’re saying, ‘You’re a Renewal school, you’re a school in need, here are resources,’” Donohue said. “On the other hand they’re saying, ‘Here’s an eviction notice.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said two members abstained from a vote on a co-location involving New Visions charter school, rather than recused themselves.

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.