rallying the troops

Charter school rally focuses on the sector’s growth, largely sidesteps recent dustup with the mayor

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Thousands of parents and students attended a charter school rally hosted by Families for Excellent Schools in September

When Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. took the stage before a sea of cheering charter school students and their families, one might have expected him to have strong words for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Over the summer, the mayor instigated a high-profile spat with the city’s charter schools after he suggested they are obsessed with test prep, and help inflate their scores by screening out English language learners and students with disabilities.

But at Wednesday’s rally, which organizers said attracted over 25,000 people, the rhetoric centered on celebrating the charter sector’s growth and encouraging more expansion.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

“Today we celebrate surpassing 100,000 students in charter schools — 100,000 is not the top of the mountain!” Diaz said. And in a departure from the tone of his comments at last year’s rally, he added: “We don’t have to attack the traditional public school system. I support the traditional public school system, but I also support, 100 percent, charter schools.”

Wednesday’s event — branded with the hashtag #PathtoPossible — was organized by the well-funded pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools and called for expanding the charter sector to serve 200,000 students. (It also featured a performance by the rapper Common.)

In recent months, FES has tried to cast a shadow over district schools by waging a public relations campaign claiming they are more violent, and accusing officials of failing to own up to the “glaring failures” of the mayor’s community schools program. More recently, the pro-charter group has claimed the city is not letting them occupy vacant space in public school buildings, a charge the city disputes.

But those issues have only gained modest traction, perhaps owing to the fact that the charter sector has gained ground on many of their policy goals: The city is now required to find space for authorized charter schools, for instance, and last year the state doubled the number of new charter schools that can open. Still, the New York City Charter School Center announced a petition Wednesday calling on state officials to eliminate the cap on charter school expansion entirely. (Around 10 percent of New York City’s students currently attend a charter school.)

But pro-charter groups mostly let the optics of the rally speak for itself: Thousands of families — many of whom took off work to attend — gathered in support the growing charter school sector, a visual reminder of an increasingly powerful political constituency.

Many parents in attendance said they showed up precisely to lend political support. Yusuf Taylor, a parent at Success Academy Harlem 5, said he attended “to be a part of a movement to make sure there’s a quality education for everyone in our community.” With his five-year-old son perched on his shoulders, he waved a sign that read “Charter = Possibility.”

Herman Delvi, whose first-grade daughter attends Success Academy South Jamaica in Queens, said he was attending out of concern that there are not enough middle or high school Success Academy options near his South Ozone Park home.

Thousands of families rallied in Prospect Park.
PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Thousands of families rallied in Prospect Park.

“The city needs to provide more co-locations and let more schools transition toward charter,” he said.

And Delice Mitchell, whose fifth-grade son attends Achievement First Voyager Middle School, hopes charter schools will get more funding to reduce class sizes.

To the extent that parents see charter schools — rather than traditional district schools — as a mode of closing achievement gaps, that could pose a political challenge for de Blasio, who will face re-election next year. Two of the event’s prominent speakers, Diaz, the Bronx borough president, and U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries are both potential primary challengers.

Asked about the rally on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio said he was confident in the city’s Equity and Excellence Agenda and vowed to “work cooperatively” with charter schools to find space.

“I think the focus has to be on the 90 percent of our kids in the traditional public schools who deserve better,” he added. “And that’s where our energies have to go.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”