first reaction

From outrage to indifference, charter school educators respond to the NAACP’s call to limit their schools

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Charter school teachers, principals and staff members gather at a rally organized by Families for Excellent Schools.

When Khari Shabazz, principal of Success Academy Harlem West, heard that the NAACP passed a resolution to curb charter school growth, he called a meeting with his teachers.

“In my school, I just brought them together. I gave them news reports if they hadn’t seen it already. I asked them to take a look at that, just read it, quietly, and then we shared,” Shabazz said. “We had a conversation. We talked about it.”

During that conversation, Shabazz said, his teachers expressed confusion. They could not understand why, after working to help educate so many students of color, they were being admonished by the NAACP, he said.

That was a common sentiment at a Wednesday afternoon rally in Foley Square for charter school teachers, principals and staff, organized by the pro-charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools. Like Shabazz, other school leaders and teachers felt compelled to facilitate either formal or informal conversations about the NAACP’s resolution.

The NAACP called for the moratorium last weekend, arguing charter schools expel too many students and “perpetuate de facto segregation” by catering to higher-performing children. Those arguments have long been made by the teachers union, which quickly praised the NAACP’s decision.

Success Academy, the largest charter network in New York City, came under fire last year after one principal was found with a “Got to Go” list featuring students’ names.

The NAACP’s decision drew criticism from the editorial boards of several major news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. But on Wednesday night, Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP, stood by the organization’s decision, saying, “We will do what we have to do.”

That is both distressing and personal to Kiah Hufane, principal at Success Academy Harlem Central.

“I grew up with family who talked about the NAACP as the next great hope for African-Americans during the civil rights movement,” she said, “and to have this organization speak for me is really just downright offensive.”

The news was distressing enough to her, she said, that she felt it necessary to have a school-wide discussion about it, which she characterized as “a hard conversation to have with my staff.” One of her main concerns is that the NAACP’s actions will cause a withdrawal of public support for charter schools. In cities other than New York, she fears it could significantly slow charter school growth.

Others say that while the NAACP’s position is upsetting, it won’t cause a tangible difference for charter schools.

“Although it makes me sad — and maybe I’m being naive — it doesn’t really worry me that much,” said Katherine Genao, a teacher at Success Academy Bronx II. “While there are people opposed, there are more and more people who are rallying for us.”

(Most teachers and staff approached by Chalkbeat declined to answer questions, but the organizers made certain attendees available to the press.)

Jacob Mnookin, executive director at Coney Island Prep, argued his own experience speaks louder than the NAACP’s criticisms.

“We haven’t talked a lot about it as a school,” Mnookin said. “We have over 2,000 families on our waiting list, and I think it’s unfortunate and sad for an organization like the NAACP with such a storied history to tell families that desperately want a better choice like that for their children, that they shouldn’t have that.”

BARRIERS TO ACCESS

Public transportation won’t solve Denver’s school choice woes, study finds

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Riders disembark a Denver city bus.

Providing all Denver middle and high school students with free public transportation is unlikely to result in equal access to the city’s best schools, according to a new analysis from the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Washington state.

The concentration of the best schools in central Denver, coupled with the city’s large size and geographic quirks, mean that only 58 percent of students could get to one of the small number of top-rated middle and high schools in 30 minutes or less by public transit, the study found.

Racially segregated housing patterns make the odds worse for African-American and Latino students: While 69 percent of white students could get to a top-rated school in 30 minutes or less, just 63 percent of black students and 53 percent of Latino students could. A similar gap exists between low-income students and their wealthier peers.

Lack of transportation is often cited as a barrier to school choice, even in a school district like Denver Public Schools that strives to make choice easy for families. While DPS does not promise transportation to every student who chooses a charter school — or a district-run school outside their neighborhood — the district has for six years provided shuttle bus service to students attending all types of schools in the northeastern part of the city.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised that system, known as the Success Express, in a speech in March. But expanding it to cover the entire city would cost too much.

Community advocates have been pushing instead for the city and the school district to work together to provide more bus passes to high school students. Currently, DPS gives passes to high school students attending their neighborhood school if they live more than 3.5 miles away.

The district earmarked $400,000 from a tax increase approved by voters in November for that purpose, and city officials have said they’d contribute money toward the initiative too.

The study suggests free bus passes aren’t the solution.

“Our analysis shows that most of the city’s students can reasonably use public transit to get to their current school,” the study says, “but public transit won’t necessarily help them access the city’s highest-performing schools.”

The study offers other strategies to increase students’ access to top schools, including sending those who live near Denver’s borders to better-performing schools in the suburbs.

First Person

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

PHOTO: NPEF

This is the fourth entry in a series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

My child attends a Nashville charter school. But that might not make me the “charter supporter” you think I am.

Let me explain.

My husband and I chose our neighborhood zoned school for our child for kindergarten through fourth grade. We had a very positive experience. And when we faced the transition to middle school, our default was still the neighborhood school. In fact, I attended those same schools for middle and high school.

But we also wanted to explore all of the options offered by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Eventually, we narrowed it down to three choices: our zoned school, one magnet and one charter.

We spent months studying everything we could learn about them, visiting each one more than once, asking countless questions, talking to other parents, and openly discussing different options as a family. We even let our child “shadow” another student.

I also did a lot of soul searching, balancing what we learned with my deeply held belief that traditional public education forms the backbone of our democracy.

When we chose the charter school, it was not because we wanted our neighborhood public school to fail. It was not because we feel charters are a magic bullet that will save public education. We did not make the choice based on what we felt would be right according to a political party, school board members, district superintendents, nonprofit organizations, charter marketers or education policy wonks.

These are the reasons why we chose our school: A discipline policy firmly grounded in restorative justice practices; a curriculum tightly integrated with social and emotional learning; a community identity informed by the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of its families; a culture of kindness that includes every child in the learning process, no matter what their test scores, what language they speak at home, or if they have an IEP; and not least of all, necessary bus transportation.

It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me. The discussion about charter schools, especially, has become so polarized that it sometimes seems completely divorced from the realities faced by many Nashville families.

Education advocates and even some of our elected school board members often characterize families that choose charters in an extreme way. We’re either depicted as corporate cronies out to privatize and destroy public schools with unabated charter growth and vouchers, or we’re painted as uneducated, uninformed parents who have no choice, don’t care, or don’t know any better.

This is simply not reality. As a parent who opted for a charter school, I am by definition a “charter supporter” in that I support the school we chose. That doesn’t mean I support all charter schools. Nor does it mean I support vouchers. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the current presidential administration’s stance on public education.

Nashville families who choose charter schools are public school supporters with myriad concerns, pressures, preferences and challenges faced by any family. Demonizing families for choosing the schools they feel best fit their children’s needs, or talking about those families in a patronizing way, does not support kids or improve schools.

I am aware that shady business practices and financial loopholes have made it possible for unscrupulous people at some charter organizations to profit off failing schools paid for on the public dime. Exposing this kind of abuse is vital to the public interest. We should expect nothing less than complete transparency from all our schools.

That does not mean that every charter school is corrupt. Nor does every charter school “cream” high-performing students (as many academic magnet schools do).

It’s important that, unlike other states, Tennessee doesn’t allow for-profit entities to operate public charter schools or allow nonprofit charter organizations to contract with for-profit entities to operate or manage charter schools. And we need Metro Nashville and the state of Tennessee to limit charters to highly qualified, rigorously vetted charter organizations that meet communities’ needs, and agree to complete transparency and regulatory oversight.

We also have to recognize that traditional neighborhood schools separated by school district zones are themselves rooted in economic inequality and racial segregation. Some charter schools are aiming to level the playing field, helping kids succeed (and stay) in school by trying new approaches. That’s one of the reasons we chose our school.

I’m not saying this all works perfectly. My school, like any school, has room for improvement. Nor am I saying that other traditional public schools don’t incorporate some of the same practices that drew us to the charter.

If we believe that our public schools have a role to play in dismantling inequality and preparing all children to be thoughtful, engaged citizens, let’s look at what is and is not working in individual school communities for different populations.

I know that my family is not alone, and other families have grappled with these same issues as they made a careful choice about a public school for their child. I have no doubt that if charter school opponents would keep this in mind, rather than making sweeping generalizations about all charter schools and “charter supporters,” it would make our community dialogue more meaningful and productive.

Aidan Hoyal is a Nashville parent. This piece is adapted from one that first appeared on the Dad Gone Wild blog.