Recruitment, finance troubles force closure of charter school that opened in Tweed

A charter school that got its start in the Department of Education headquarters will close its doors at the end of this year, becoming the latest in a string of charter schools set to close in the coming months.

Innovate Manhattan Charter School, a middle school that now operates in private space on the Lower East Side, saw its enrollment drop too low to continue operating after this year, board vice-chair Kathleen Mone told Chalkbeat. After the school had already gone $330,000 into the red, it became clear that no amount of recruitment for the next school year would allow the school to sustain itself. (That financial gap was filled by Kunskapsskolan, the group whose Swedish educational model underpins the school.)

“Next year, we realized we just couldn’t do it,” Mone said.

Innovate Manhattan opened in 2011 and will close before completing even its first charter term. And while it got off to a fortuitous start, with a year of free space inside Tweed Courthouse, the school lost its first principal quickly and posted mediocre academic results. Only 6 percent of its students earned a proficient score on last year’s state math exams, and 15 percent did on the English exams, well below district averages.

Mone said the school’s new leader David Penberg had begun to make improvements over the past year. But even after a big recruitment push last spring, the school’s enrollment across three grades this year stood at 145, with just 29 of those students in sixth grade. The school’s charter allowed it to serve 225 students.

The State University of New York’s Charter School Institute, the school’s authorizer, came to the board’s January meeting to warn the school against opening its doors in fall 2015 if it could not guarantee it could fund a full year of schooling, Mone said, prompting the board to vote to give up the charter on Feb. 12.

“It was a horrible, horrible decision to have to make,” Mone said, describing the board’s disappointment. “But when you fall below 200 kids, you know where you’re heading.”

The school isn’t the first charter school in District 1, one of the city’s few all-choice districts, to feel the recruitment pressure. In 2013, two Girls Prep Lower East Side schools briefly offered cash cards and college savings plan contributions to students who found new recruits, before backlash prompted the schools to pull the program.

Recruitment is “something that many of our schools have to deal with,” Lisa Donlan, president of the district’s Community Education Council, said then.

SUNY Charter School Institute spokeswoman Mahati Tonk said the board had consulted SUNY while making its decision to close, and that the authorizer will monitor the school’s wind-down. The Department of Education and the New York City Charter Center will be at the school next week for the first of several fairs designed to help the school’s younger students find new schools.

Last week, the city teachers union announced it would close the elementary and middle school grades of UFT Charter School, displacing more than 600 students. SUNY will issue a final vote on the future of New Hope Charter School, which it has recommended for closure, on Friday.