the cruelest cut

A unionized charter school says it was betrayed by the unions

Renaissance students organized a protest against the freeze in their budget. (Lisette Lopez, Renaissance student)
Renaissance students organized a protest against the freeze in their budget.

Staff at a Queens charter school that is represented by several city labor unions are growing frustrated with the unions, which they worry sat quietly by while state lawmakers slashed charter school budgets two weeks ago.

The school, Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, is expecting a cut of between $500,000 and $600,000 from what was projected for next year after state lawmakers froze planned funding increases to charter schools two weeks ago.

Charter school activists have said that they’re hopeful that Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, who founded another unionized charter school in Queens, will yet restore the extra funds to charter schools, but no deal has been struck yet.

That leaves teachers at Renaissance planning for possible teacher layoffs and big program cuts. (The $500,000 cut from the increase the school was expecting is especially hard to shoulder given that pension costs are skyrocketing by $300,000 next year and teacher salaries are slated to go up.)

A main frustration, a Renaissance administrator said, is that the unions to which Renaissance’s staff belong did not give them a heads up about the cuts — even though staff repeatedly asked union leaders if they should expect a cut. “Our members here feel shafted,” Nicholas Tishuk, Renaissance’s director of programs and accountability, said. “We were told that this charter school cut was mentioned two months ago, and it hasn’t been on anyone’s lips. And then we find out the Sunday night before the vote on Tuesday that not only was it on everyone’s lips; it’s actually happening.”

Most charter schools in New York City are not represented by teachers unions, since the schools operate outside of the Department of Education and therefore do not see their staffs unionize automatically. But the union has fought to bring charter schools teachers into its fold. Their slow but steady inclusion has put the union in the tricky position of on the one hand lobbying for limits on charter schools, while, on the other hand, representing some charter school staff.

Renaissance teachers had joined other charter school union members in a campaign to lobby against possible cuts to charter schools after a New York State teachers union official, Alan Lubin, indicated in February that he supported slashing funds to charter schools. Charter school supporters said that what he called for would have amounted to a double cut for charter schools, whose funding is based on the amount of money that goes to traditional public schools.

The concerns led a group of charter school teachers represented by unions to plan a press conference that would have called on the president of the New York City and national teachers union, Randi Weingarten, to denounce Lubin’s testimony. But the press conference was canceled after Weingarten wrote a letter to charter school teachers assuring them that she does not support unequal cuts. (Peter Murphy, of the New York State Charter School Association, first reported the canceled press conference on his blog.)

Tishuk, who as an administrator at Renaissance belongs to the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said that he also reached out to his union for advice, and was told by president Ernest Logan that he had not heard of any cuts. (I’ve yet to speak to Logan about this; I will report back with a comment from him.)

Tishuk said that representatives of the city teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, came to Renaissance last week to discuss concerns about the budget with staff, meeting first with Renaissance teachers and then with administrators. Tishuk said that staff members did not leave satisfied.

“We don’t think that it’s consistent to have a union charter school basically lose the support of the union. There’s plenty of political back and forth — they say the numbers are this, we say the numbers are that – but no matter how you cut it, next year I’m doing a budget that’s going to have $500,000 less in income, and $300,000 more in costs,” he said.

Tishuk said that he was also dismayed by testimony from a leader of the DC 37 union at yesterday’s City Council hearing about charter school expansion. A union leader testified critically of charter schools, yet office aides at Renaissance are represented by DC 37. “It just blew my mind,” Tishuk said.

I have not spoken yet to the two UFT officials Tishuk said he spoke with. I’ll report with those details.

Tishuk’s testimony to the City Council is below. You can also check out this Web site that students at Renaissance have made to protest the funding freeze.

Esteemed City Council Members,

My name is Nicholas Tishuk and I am the Director of Programs and Accountability at the Renaissance Charter School.  Our small school has served the Jackson Heights community in Queens for fifteen years and currently serves 530 students grades K-12.

We are a school that works:  we have happy kids, a dedicated and respected staff, and an involved parent body. We have received “A” ratings on our most recent K-8 and High School progress reports from the Department of Education and have K-8 and Regents scores that outperform similar schools and the City averages.  We are, in the very best sense, a community school serving the needs of families in Jackson Heights, District 30 and Queens.  As a conversion school, we are one of the oldest charter schools in New York City.

Our message is clear, charter schools are public schools and our 530 students and their families deserve to be treated with respect.  The recently passed budget from Albany has been called a “freeze”, but we had already received a preliminary allocation from the Department of Education and this “freeze” has slashed our expected budget by over $500,000 for the 2009-2010 school year.  This catastrophic budget cut has forced us to come together as a community.  I invite all City Council Members to visit our student developed website, linked below, which documents the rallies and march that our students participated in to let elected officials know how these cuts affect our small school in Queens.

Councilmen Dilan’s New York City Resolution 1889 is a step backward.  By making access to facilities and space more difficult, the City Council will be making a grave mistake.  I am an absolute believer and advocate for public education in New York City and, whether foes like them or not, charter schools are public schools full of public school children. To cut the funding for these children, as Albany has done, or to restrict their access to buildings, as Resolution 1889 proposes, is an injustice against the civil rights of our students to a great education.

Thank you for your time.

Nicholas Tishuk
The Renaissance Charter School

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson appears to be cracking open the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

But on the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do what’s generally considered among the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said that the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 110 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a city where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.