who rules the schools

Despite differences, Buery seeks support from charter schools on mayoral control

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

The de Blasio administration is making nice with some of the city’s charter school leaders just in time to seek their support for a legislative priority that has so far eluded them: renewing mayoral control.

Deputy Mayor Richard Buery was the featured speaker at a Tuesday event hosted by the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, a group of independent charter schools whose relationship with the de Blasio administration had recently soured. In his speech, Buery praised the coalition’s advocacy work and encouraged a renewed partnership with the city, then asked the audience to take a long-term view of the city’s needs.

“Whatever you believe about Mayor de Blasio’s views on education, whatever you believe about Chancellor Fariña, one thing I think we can all agree on is that we don’t want to go back in time,” Buery said, referring to the period before the mayor was granted control of the city’s schools in 2002. “That whoever is in charge, having a system where the mayor is clearly in charge, where the mayor is clearly accountable for results, is the best system for transparency and accountability and therefore can drive results.”

Charter leaders on Tuesday said they largely agreed with Buery. “There’s just no point in going back,” said Steve Zimmerman, who heads the coalition. “It shouldn’t be contingent on whoever’s in office.”

“I believe this is bigger than just who the mayor is now,” said Jeff Ginsburg, executive director of East Harlem Tutorial Program, which operates the East Harlem Scholars Academies network, whose schools are not coalition members.

When mayoral control was last due to expire in 2009, supporters of charter schools played a starring role in helping then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg get the law renewed. The Robin Hood Foundation, which provides charter school start-up funding, supported a lobbying campaign headed by then-Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada, who pointed to Bloomberg’s encouragement of charter schools as a reason for his support.

The shift is a symptom of the de Blasio administration’s fractious relationship with the charter sector. Last year, charter advocates helped derail de Blasio’s plans to charge rent to co-located charter schools, and as recently as a month ago, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz and James Merriman of the New York City Charter Center were saying the mayor’s policy ideas should cause state lawmakers to think twice about extending his power.

Merriman said in a statement that his support for mayoral control has not wavered with the new administration, but that passage remains closely linked to allowing more charter schools to open in New York City. The state’s current cap on charter schools allows for another 25 to be authorized to open in the city, and charter leaders say it’s important to lift the cap now to allow for the sector to continue to grow.

“We supported mayoral control under Mayor Bloomberg and we support it under Mayor de Blasio but are mystified why the mayor won’t support eliminating the charter cap, and in so doing, make the path to mayoral control renewal much easier and outcomes for kids better,” Merriman said.

Buery did not mention the cap in his remarks on Tuesday, and reiterated the mayor’s opposition to lifting the cap in a brief interview.

“We think there’s lots of great work to do, lots of great opportunities for the sector to continue to flourish and grow, but we’re not in a position where we need to raise the cap to do that,” Buery said.

Most of the charter schools at the event are independent without plans to replicate and expand, unlike the city’s charter management organizations, the largest of which, Success Academy, has 32 schools. But speakers said they supported lifting the cap for political reasons.

“Whether we get it this time or not, I think we need to continue to push for it because a movement that’s capped is a movement that eventually dies,” said Stacey Gauthier, principal of the Renaissance Charter School in Queens.

Buery did note one area that the de Blasio administration is making an effort to give charter schools what they ask for. After leaders of the coalition helped him understand how important it is for charter schools in private space to have access to facilities funding, Buery said, the city has not sought to impede a state law that requires the city to provide that funding to new and expanding charters — even though it will cost over $30 million over the next two years alone.

“We’ve been going out of our way to make sure the process has not been contentious,” Buery said, referring to legal appeals that schools must file to receive the funding. “That it’s speedy and collaborative, and it really feels like, as much as possible, we can get money out to schools that need it.”

His request for charter leaders’ support is the latest case of the Blasio administration has reaching beyond its political base to portray mayoral control as an issue with wide-ranging support. De Blasio has also cited the endorsements of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and dozens of prominent business leaders. (De Blasio’s reliable ally, the United Federation of Teachers, officially opposes the current mayoral control setup but has stayed quiet during the lobbying effort.)

Buery’s appearance came a day after the heads of several nonprofit organizations that run or support charter schools — Harlem Children’s Zone, Harlem RBI, New Visions for Public Schools, and Civic Builders — signed onto a letter meant to “strongly urge” state lawmakers to make mayoral control permanent. At minimum, they wrote, mayoral control should be renewed for three years, as the Assembly and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have proposed. (The Republican-controlled Senate has proposed a one-year extension that would weaken mayoral control and be paired with a law that raising the charter cap.) Forty-five organizations signed onto the letter in all.

“We have seen that mayoral control makes possible the coordination and focus that is necessary to achieve ambitious large-scale reform: expanding pre-k to serve every child who needs it by September; launching Community Schools that meet students’ social, emotional, and health and mental health needs; and focusing resources and accountability on the city’s most struggling schools,” the letter reads.

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.