Future of Schools

Charter school offered $100 reward to anyone who referred students who enrolled

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Carpe Diem Meridian.

Carpe Diem Meridian charter school embarked on an aggressive plan to boost enrollment this winter.

The North side Indianapolis school wanted to grow its roster by nearly 40 students by Feb. 2 — one of two critical dates when the state uses student attendance to determine the school’s 2015 funding levels — so board members approved a strategy to get the word out that included distributing fliers to parents and day care centers, making TV and radio appearances and hosting two open houses.

That wasn’t all.

Carpe Diem also offered $100 Marsh grocery gift cards to anyone who refers a student who enrolls — an incentive that some critics say went too far.

“My concern is that instead of a parent making a rational choice about where to send their child based upon who their child is and what they see the schools doing, we’re asking parents to discount that,” said MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger, an Indianapolis attorney who has been skeptical of charter schools. “It’s not something that should count.”

Recruitment practices like these are legal in Indiana but have been outlawed elsewhere.

Those leading the charge against such giveaways say they are an unintended consequence of the state’s increasingly competitive school marketplace where schools must compete with each other for students and the state dollars that follow them. Indiana has seen a recent expansion of charter schools in recent years as the result of new state laws that foster their growth.

“I think we’re creating something people didn’t necessarily anticipate,” said Lori Schlabach, a former Washington township school board member who currently sends her children to township schools. “Now we’ve got a situation where a lot of districts have to do advertising or big public relations efforts just to survive. Do we really want our education dollars, be they donated dollars or taxpayer dollars, going to efforts like that, or would they be better spent elsewhere?”

Carpe Diem Meridian’s interim principal is LaNier Echols, who also was just elected to the Indianapolis Public School Board. She said the gift card promotion helped capture parents’ attention about the school. The school now has 250 kids enrolled, compared with 206 at the beginning of last month.

“People are more excited to do something where they get something out of it,” Echols said. “Parents are like, ‘Oh I do have a cousin that was looking for a school.’ It’s just to encourage people.”

But she said she is confident offering a gift card wasn’t the reason the school ultimately exceeded its enrollment goals. Two more Carpe Diem campuses are slated to open this fall in Indianapolis, each aiming to eventually enroll 300 students. Carpe Diem combines traditional classroom instruction with online lessons.

“We are a blended learning school and that’s what parents love about it,” Echols said. “We have children coming from everywhere, not because of the gift cards, but because we’re offering something different. We are filling a niche.”

Though at least one other state — Colorado — has declared illegal the practice of schools offering gift cards to students as an enrollment incentive, state charter school sponsors say there are no rules restricting the practice in Indiana.

Indiana Charter School Board Director Nick LeRoy, who manages the state’s oversight of more than 10 charter schools, said he asked the board’s attorneys to look into the legality of the practice in Indiana after Chalkbeat’s inquiry. He said he was not aware of the school’s plan to use gift cards as an enrollment incentive.

“That doesn’t sound right,” LeRoy initially said.

Later, LeRoy said state law “does not limit the use of general fund dollars … and schools have flexibility to use those dollars for supplies, salaries, fundraisers, etc.  This flexibility is determined by the board of directors for the school.”

The practice of using taxpayer dollars on marketing materials is relatively common, LeRoy said, even among public schools.

“(Indianapolis Public Schools) in particular uses billboards extensively to raise awareness and support their student recruitment efforts,” LeRoy said.

Robert Sommers, Carpe Diem’s chief strategy officer, said spending money up front to attract students is worth it to reduce the cost it takes to educate students in the long run. Carpe Diem’s Indiana office budgeted $30,000 in 2015 for marketing and advertising. The gift cards came out of that budget.

“I’m not one of those folks who sees it as a problem,” Sommers said. “The real shame would be if taxpayers built the building, bought the computers and nobody showed up. That would be the ultimate abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

But who watches the spending?

LeRoy said the Indiana Charter School Board reviews Carpe Diem’s financial expenditures quarterly and completes an annual third-party audit.

“We do this for every school that we authorize,” LeRoy said. “This additional safeguard serves as a further means of transparency and accountability for how our schools use state funds.”

Another of Indiana’s charter school sponsors — Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, which oversees more than 30 schools — requires schools have detailed plans when it comes to marketing and recruitment before they are up and running, said Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth.

“We require schools to have robust recruitment plans in both the application and pre-opening phases which is an opportunity for our team to review those practices and make sure they’re activities that are going to lead to enrollment and that are ethical,” Kloth said.

But some things inevitably slip through the cracks.

Last year, one of the mayor’s charter school drew scrutiny after it began charging an enrollment fee. Charter schools are supposed to be free public schools just like traditional public schools, which do not charge enrollment fees.

In light of cases like this, Ruegger said it may be time to clamp down harder on schools to limit how they can spend taxpayer dollars.

“We’ve over regulated, and now, at least for charters and vouchers, we seem to be afraid to regulate at all,” Ruegger said. “But in this area, we really need to. Is this really something we want our public schools to be doing?”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.