First Person

Voices: A cautionary charter school tale

Nick Avila, chief operating officer at the PODER Academy, says critics unfairly targeted the charter school and it deserves another chance in Westminster. 

In August of 2007, Marcos Martinez opened a charter school in the Adams 50 School District that served a community of children who were primarily lower-income and Latino.

Students playing chess at PODER Academy.

The school had a unique curriculum that focused on tennis and chess, in addition to the other core academic areas like reading, writing and math. Students would attend an extended day from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. and were given an hour of homework every day. Parents were required to sign off on their child’s homework and students would lose privileges if homework was not complete, regardless of the reason.

The Ricardo Flóres Magon Academy became a model in the community as one of the few to achieve an A- on a statewide report card system and was placed in the top 8 percent of schools based on its standardized test scores. The chess team won several trophies that were displayed in a glass case by the school’s entrance, along with a variety of press clippings that told stories about defying the odds.

I decided to accept a job at the school managing a unique program where students received tennis lessons year-round as part of their school day. They would not only become some of the best tennis players in the state but would also benefit academically from the self-reliance and focus they developed in the process.

School embroiled in controversy

In the spring of 2012, a showdown would ignite that would turn the school upside down. A group of parents had grown frustrated with Martinez and began circulating a petition outside of the school doors outlining complaints about how children were being bullied by abusive teachers and how the school was overly militant.

The situation came to a boil when a story appeared in Westword as told through the eyes of employees who had been fired over the past five years. The former employees gave accounts of how they were mistreated and exploited by a tyrannical leader who promoted an environment of fear. Soon the school was engulfed in a flood of accusations that grew increasingly sensational as time went on.

Martinez drew criticism for being unapologetic when it came to firing teachers he felt were uncooperative or incapable of achieving results and for holding students back in grade who were falling behind academically. He had a stubborn management style and was dismissive of criticism from parents who didn’t agree with the school’s policies.

The ensuing firestorm would eventually prompt the school’s Board of Trustees to take action. In a drastic and questionable move midway through the school year, they put Martinez and two other staff on leave until they were able to sort out the situation. This led to a hostile conflict between parent groups that spilled into the school hallways forcing the Board of Trustees to hire security guards.

Meanwhile, the wheels had come off inside the school, which was now severely short-staffed and reduced to utter confusion. The remaining staff struggled to keep things operating as communication broke down amongst the teachers who were now divided. The once structured student culture in the school was coming apart.

The nasty and divisive ordeal overshadowed much of the work we were doing inside of the school. Neither Martinez nor the two other employees placed on leave were given a chance to respond to the accusations and Martinez would eventually part ways with the school he created.

Support for the school overshadowed

Many questions remain that were never resolved. Questions like, why would more than 300 parents send their children to a school if it wasn’t in their best interest? Why would teachers and staff continue to work at a school that was abusive and dysfunctional? At least 75 percent of the students were returning students, some of whom had been there since the school doors opened. A majority of the faculty and staff had been there for three years or more. The situation inside the school was nowhere near as bad as the Westword article made it seem, but the fallout had already run its course.

The school’s pattern of high test scores that continued even after Martinez resigned were subject to ongoing suggestions of fraud, despite the fact that the Charter School Institute was present to monitor testing on at least two separate occasions and that student scores matched those on other similar tests taken quarterly.

Nevertheless, Martinez was determined to pick up the pieces and try again about 100 miles up north in Cheyenne, Wyo. The town’s school board approved his application to open the district’s first charter school and I signed on once again, this time in a management capacity. We both saw an opportunity to learn from the mistakes that were made the first time in order to build something even stronger.

PODER Academy opened its doors in the fall of 2012 and is now in full operation with more than 100 students in grades kindergarten through third. The school operates on the same model that brought success in Westminster. We recently submitted a proposal to the Adams 50 School Board to open another location in Westminster with more than 200 applications from parents, many of whom were familiar faces from the school we left behind. Yet the school board dismissed our application because of an association with the Magon Academy, along with the same mountain of unproven allegations that followed Martinez.

We are now considering an appeal to the Colorado State Board of Education.

While the next chapter of this story has yet to be written, I can say that I’m excited to be at the forefront of one of the hottest issues right now in the U.S. Charter schools will continue to grow in number and are capable of producing some of the world’s brightest scholars and athletes. If, of course, adults in the room can play nice.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.