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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First Person

The SHSAT helps Manhattan families like mine. I finally stood up last week to say that’s wrong.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Parents in Manhattan's District 3 gathered in June to learn about the middle school admissions process.

Choosing schools in New York City can be a formidable challenge. That was evident at a Community Education Council meeting in District 2 last week, when I spoke in favor of a proposal to phase out the exam that governs admissions to the city’s sought-after, specialized high schools — and many other parents voiced opposition to the plan.

In 2011, when my husband and I began to think about where our daughter would go to kindergarten, we realized what a complex educational landscape we would have to navigate. In the years since, we have struggled, as former teachers ourselves, to reconcile our values and self-interests. And sometimes our choices have reflected the latter.

I’ve come to see these choices through a different, critical lens, and I think our family’s story — just one in a school system with more than one million schoolchildren — may shed light on how the system isn’t yet set up to make the right choices the easy ones, and why I’ve come to believe elevating these values is so important at this moment.

The first decision we confronted was where our daughter should go to elementary school. She was zoned to attend P.S. 51 in Hell’s Kitchen. Although State Sen. Brad Hoylman would later call P.S. 51 “one of the jewels in our city’s school system,” in 2011, by traditional measures, the school faced steep challenges. Almost 70 percent of P.S. 51’s students lived in poverty, and only 61 percent of the school’s third-graders passed the state’s standardized tests. This performance still exceeded the citywide average by a significant margin but remained far below the city’s top-ranked schools. In addition, the school itself was in the middle of a construction zone.

As plans were finalized to build a new housing development and school facility where P. S. 51 stood, it was relocated to the Upper East Side, where the school stayed for two years. And so, although school buses were provided, our neighborhood school was no longer in our neighborhood.

We had another possible option. Midtown West, also known as P.S. 212, an unzoned school that accepted children via a lottery system, was a block away from our home. Years earlier, Hell’s Kitchen parents had founded the magnet school based on the progressive pedagogy championed by Bank Street College as an alternative to the neighborhood’s existing public schools, P.S. 51 and P.S. 111.

The combined efforts of school administrators, teachers, and parents led to a strong program at Midtown West. Increasing numbers of middle-class students from Hell’s Kitchen and neighborhoods around the city began to apply to the school, which attracted more resources of all types. By the time we applied to Midtown West in 2011, 87 percent of third-graders passed state tests, and 22 percent of students lived in poverty. In addition, although P.S. 51 and Midtown West were only four blocks apart, P.S. 51 had 73 percent black and Latinx students, whereas Midtown West had 38 percent. The demographics, performance, and resources of the two schools (which parents often look up) were starkly different.

In addition, we had a third possibility. Our daughter tested into the citywide Gifted and Talented program. The closest gifted program was at P.S. 11 in Chelsea, and we attended an orientation. The majority of the parents there (ourselves among them — I am white and my husband is Indian-American) were white and Asian. The gathering was a reflection of the program’s overall demographics; in 2011, more than 70 percent of kindergartners in gifted programs were white and Asian.

This stood in contrast to the broader demographics of the city’s public schools, where 70 percent of children were black and Latinx. We were deeply uncomfortable with the racial disparities between the gifted and general education classrooms but were also daunted as parents by the logistical nightmare of getting one child to school in Chelsea and another to daycare in Hell’s Kitchen — and still getting to work on time.

So here were our choices: We could send our child to a school in transition that had relocated across Manhattan. We could send her to a sought-after school that served those lucky enough to make it through a lottery system. Or, we could send her to a gifted program that served a fraction of New York City’s children. Options one and three would place our child outside of our neighborhood and in deeply segregated environments. Midtown West was closer and less segregated than most gifted classrooms, but only marginally so.

Ultimately, we were among the few to make it through Midtown West’s lottery system and we chose to enroll our daughter there. But this choice, I now see, was a Faustian bargain between our self-interest and our values.

As former teachers who had benefited from quality educations ourselves and with remunerative careers, we could have enrolled our child at P.S. 51. We could have become active parents, making positive contributions to a school in need of advocates and racial and socioeconomic diversity. But as two working parents with young children, we already felt stretched too thin. We determined that we needed a school that would successfully educate our child — with or without our involvement. P.S. 51’s relocation across town cemented our decision. So we made our own needs a priority and abandoned our zoned school.

Geography and school performance had combined to shape our choice. Midtown West was a short walk from our apartment and offered a well-rounded program. But in the process, we became inured to a system that lifted our choice about what was best for our child over the needs of the majority of the city’s schoolchildren.

By not enrolling our child in P.S. 51, we divested our zoned school of whatever resources we could have provided. Our values were in conflict with our actions. And we participated in this system again as we made our way through the screened middle school process. Our daughter received an offer from the Salk School of Science, one of the most selective and least diverse middle schools in the city. We accepted the offer, and she is at Salk today.

Now, with our daughter two years away from high school, our city is immersed in a battle over the Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, a conflict that often pits families’ interests against one another, and the needs of the city’s children as a whole.

A small but vocal group of largely white and Asian parents has mobilized to protect the SHSAT, a mechanism that has historically preserved seats in the city’s most selective high schools for their children. Today those schools are comparable to gifted programs in their racial disparity. The majority of specialized high schools’ students are white and Asian; only 10 percent are black and Latinx.

The energy of these parent advocates for their cause could measure on the Richter scale. I know because I felt the tremors when I spoke out at the District 2 CEC meeting in favor of the city’s initiative to make the system more fair by phasing out the test and offering seats to the top 7 percent of each of the city’s middle schools. Education department projections show this measure would increase black and Latinx enrollment at the city’s specialized high schools to 45 percent — still far below the average citywide but a step closer to representative.

If the SHSAT is eliminated, the odds of these parents’ children attending specialized high schools will be significantly reduced. The same will be true for our daughter. Last year, in a school system with almost 600 middle schools, students from just 10 middle schools received 25 percent of the overall admissions offers from the city’s specialized high schools. Salk was one of those 10 schools; 70 Salk students received such offers. If the city’s plan is adopted, Salk’s number of admitted students will likely plummet.

So why did I speak out in support of phasing out the SHSAT? When our daughter was entering elementary school and middle school, we chose what was most advantageous to our family. Why change course now? Some will say the answer is because the hard choices are behind us. Many great New York City high schools exist beyond just the specialized ones. But that’s not quite it.

In 2011, as our daughter was about to enter the New York City school system, this country stood poised to elect President Obama for a second term. A common perception — one that we naively shared — was that the critical mass of American politics and culture was moving in a progressive direction. And in such a climate, my husband and I reflected less on how our choices made in self-interest might undermine the momentum toward a greater public good.

The state of our country in the last two years has increasingly reshaped our thinking and helped us begin to grapple with and develop a new understanding of how our individual actions, however great or small, contribute to the weaving or unraveling of a more just society.

Our evolution is also related to changing family dynamics. During earlier decisions about our daughter’s education, my husband and I had to answer only to each other. We had long discussions during which we weighed our options against our values and could more easily accept and forgive rationalizations and expediency. Now we are making choices in the presence of a highly engaged third party: our perceptive young daughter, who has a keen sense of social justice honed in New York City’s public schools.

How do we look her in the eye and continue to seek privilege in an educational system that is structured to favor some children, including our own, and not others? She is old enough to understand that our choices define and reveal who we really are.

The fervor of the parents at the SHSAT meeting is surely driven by their desire to secure the best opportunities for their children. That’s something we have in common with all parents across New York City.

So what would happen if we united to demand that the New York City public schools genuinely serve the public good? What if we took to heart the words issued by the city’s Board of Education in 1954, in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision: “Public education in a racially homogeneous setting is socially unrealistic and blocks the attainment of the goals of democratic education, whether this segregation occurs by law or by fact.” What would happen if we insisted that the goals of a democratic education — equal educational opportunities for all children — be realized?

Committing to those values would mean scrapping more than the SHSAT. It would mean rethinking gifted programs and middle school screening, and all the ways we separate and isolate children, which have contributed to making New York City’s school system one of the most segregated in the country.

Committing to these values would mean integrating our schools, so all children can benefit from the enhanced ability to participate a multiethnic, democratic society. It would mean offering well-funded, high quality schools to all children in all New York City neighborhoods. Yes, it would also likely mean more discomfiting conversations, like the ones at the meeting where I spoke — conversations with each other and also with ourselves. And it would mean living in harmony with what we say we believe and what we actually do.

Alexis Audette is a parent of two children in District 2. Portrait photo credit: Mark Weinberg.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.