renewed questions

An unusual charter school that serves students with disabilities is under scrutiny from New York City

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

When Opportunity Charter School opened its doors a dozen years ago, it had an ambitious and unusual plan: to serve a population where over half the students have a disability.

This year, the school hoped to shift its mission even further in that direction — to stop accepting students without disabilities and shift its focus entirely to special education, while adding an elementary school to its middle and high school.

“Our mission is to take in the lowest-performing students,” said Leonard Goldberg, the charter school’s founder and CEO, explaining the decision to only serve students with disabilities. “You cannot successfully be all things to all children.”

But last week, the city’s education department publicly rejected the school’s expansion plan and moved to eliminate its middle school, citing poor performance. They also did not approve its proposal to exclusively serve students with disabilities. The decision has reignited a standoff between the school and the city — which tried to shut the school down entirely five years ago — about how to fairly evaluate schools like Opportunity, which serves the second-highest proportion of students with disabilities of any charter school in the city.

When Opportunity opened in 2004, the school’s mission was to educate students with learning and cognitive delays alongside typical students. The 423-student school offers intensive support for its students with disabilities, according to staffers, including a social worker and a behavioral and learning specialist for every grade. The school also partners with the Children’s Aid Society to offer mental health counseling and dental care.

On its face, the education department’s argument for downsizing Opportunity is simple: The school met few of its academic benchmarks, reaching four of 22 goals over the past two years.

Just 9 percent of students scored high enough on state reading tests to be considered “proficient,” compared with 13 percent of similar students at other schools. Three percent are proficient in math, compared to 9 percent in the comparison group. Officials who visited the school to help decide whether it should continue to be able to operate said they didn’t see strong teaching or challenging classes.

“Opportunity Charter School was given clear performance benchmarks over the last five years, and the middle school grades did not meet them,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email.

Opportunity’s leaders vehemently disagree with that characterization, and say the city did not adequately take into account the performance of their incoming students or accept their evidence of growth.

Roughly 85 percent of the school’s students are eligible for meal assistance and virtually every student is black or Hispanic, far above average for District 3. Nearly two-thirds of its incoming sixth graders scored at the lowest level on state tests, according to its charter renewal application.

“They get to us shattered — they’ve basically been told to sit in the back of the room with a box of crayons,” Goldberg said, “and they come to us and their world opens up.” He added that Opportunity plans to exclusively serve students with disabilities so the school can play to its strengths instead of stretching to serve students with a wide range of skills.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School founder and CEO Leonard Goldberg

Opportunity officials pointed to some signs of success: Its graduation rate for students with disabilities exceeded the city average in four of the last five years, evidence the city used to keep the high school open. The school’s postsecondary enrollment rate also rivals the city average.

Still, its renewal application does not emphasize academic growth in its middle school grades.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said decisions about whether to renew charter schools are often complex, especially when the evidence of success is mixed.

But without commenting directly on Opportunity Charter, he said, “We created charters as alternatives to the system, to be more successful than the system, to have better outcomes.”

“It’s a very slippery slope to go from wanting an appropriate set of outcomes for a difficult-to-educate population, and using the fact that you’re enrolling a difficult population as a shield to protect you from accountability,” he added.

This is not Opportunity’s first disagreement with the city. In 2010, the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigation released a startling report that showed the school failed to adhere to its own policies in responding to cases where the staff used force against students or verbally abused them.

In a recent interview, Goldberg denied the report’s findings. He noted the school has worked to institute less punitive “restorative” approaches to student discipline, and the school has reduced its suspension rate.

A dispute with the city also flared up five years ago, when it tried to close the school entirely — a decision that was later reversed on appeal. Opportunity officials are hoping for a similar outcome this year, and have already submitted an appeal to the city, with a decision expected later this spring. The school will also face another test quickly, since the city’s renewal of the high school grades only grants the charter for three years, not the traditional five.

In 2011, after a contentious unionization battle, Opportunity teachers voted to join the United Federation of Teachers, the city teachers union, which has long lobbied against school closures. Current staff members and parents said in interviews that the school might have challenges, but oppose the city’s plan to shrink it.

Qays Sapp, a behavioral specialist at the school who graduated from Opportunity in 2011, thinks of the school as a “second home.” Still, he said that the school’s high turnover rate has had an effect on morale. Last year, 18 instructors — or 44 percent — left the school.

“I would be lying if I said the school doesn’t need some improvement,” Sapp said. But he thinks the middle school should stay open. “They’re not doing the kids any justice by shutting it down. Who’s going to take them?”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Opportunity’s request to only serve students with disabilities had been approved. In fact, the city rejected that plan.

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.”

404 not found

New York City’s special ed tracking system malfunctioned more than 800,000 times per day, but changes are underway

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Ever since New York City’s special education data system launched in 2011, it has been mired in technical difficulties. But a new report shows just how pervasive those glitches have been.

The report is the first release from a multi-agency group within the city that is working to fix the Special Education Student Information System — a key piece of infrastructure that is supposed to electronically track learning plans for more than 200,000 students with disabilities.

And while the report found that the city has made some strides in overhauling the system, it also paints a bleak picture of what special education teachers and administrators have been wrestling with. Here are a few examples from the report:

  • One category of user queries related to special education programmatic services on IEPs [individualized education programs], that previously failed about 800,000 times a day, no longer has any failures.
  • A “Missing Files” issue that resulted in HTTP 404 errors about 10,000 times a day, now occurs just 8 times a day.
  • A search-related problem that used to result in about 3,100 timeouts a day is down to just 600 timeouts a day.

Errors like these have long frustrated educators. At a forum last year, one teacher said she faced 41 error messages over a single two-hour span. Early on, the flaws forced so many educators to input data on nights and weekends that an arbitrator required the city to pay $38 million in overtime.

The system has contributed to another major problem: SESIS’s inability to communicate with various city databases means officials don’t know exactly how many students don’t receive mandated special education services.

The city is investing millions of dollars in staff and upgrades that officials have said will help solve some of these longstanding problems. In a statement, education department spokeswoman Toya Holness said the city was “working to implement these changes as quickly as possible,” though she did not provide an exact timeline for upgrades.

The city’s efforts are earning some praise, including from the public advocate, who sued the city last year claiming SESIS has caused $356 million in lost Medicaid reimbursements.

“The new assessment and recommendations from the DOE show a clear trajectory towards fixing this broken system, in line with what my office has called for,” Public Advocate Letitia James said in a statement.

Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, said the report validates the idea that problems with SESIS have persisted for years without being adequately addressed. But the bigger issue, she emphasized, is that many students with disabilities are going without services they need.

“We can’t wait,” Moroff said. “They have to be fixing [SESIS] and fix the service deficiencies in the system at the same time.”