damned if you do

A school has a year to prove it can do the (almost) impossible

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Opportunity Charter School's flags line 113th street in Harlem, where the school shares a building with P.S. 241.

Opportunity Charter School in Harlem is a rare species in the charter school movement.

Its student body is roughly half general education students and half students with learning disabilities. The two groups learn in classes side by side, following the “inclusion” model. And year after year, students entering the school have some of the lowest test scores in the city — a distinction that’s become a point of pride.

“Lowest achieving kids in New York City. Bottom 10 percent,” Opportunity’s assistant principal, Brett Fazio, said in an interview, with the same delight other school administrators reserve for science fair champions.

But the point of Opportunity, as CEO Leonard Goldberg dreamed it up when he was an administrator at a residential school five years ago, is to take the least and make them champions.

That hasn’t been an easy task and as a result, Goldberg’s school is in trouble. In part, this is because it’s a charter school, subject to the demands of the charter school ultimatum: set your standards high and meet them, or else.

At the same time that the combined middle and high school is preparing its first twelfth grade class for graduation, the city has put the school on probation. Opportunity has one year to improve its test scores or it will lose its charter, something that’s rarely happened among the city’s charter schools.

A School on Trial

Walking through Opportunity’s hallways, there’s no sense that the school is on trial. During the first week of class, students were busy learning the school’s rules, teachers were trying to capitalize on the first-week honeymoon, and a crew of affable bouncers patrolled the hallway. Linger too long between classes? Someone will nudge you on your way. Arrive at school irritable and with an empty stomach? Someone who knows what’s going on at home will pull you aside. There is someone watching Opportunity students at every turn, waiting to see whether they might need managing.

“I think we continue doing what we have been doing,” said Yoly Parra, a Spanish teacher. “For me every day is probation because every day I make sure I’m doing what I have to do for these kids.”

When Goldberg left a residential school in Westchester to found Opportunity in 2004, he convinced Fazio and several other staff members to come with him. Goldberg, who graduated from the Bank Street College of Education and taught students with IEPs for years, was fed up with the traditional special education model.

“I felt marginalized as a teacher,” he said. “The schools’ attitude was: ‘Why bother with your kids?'”

According to Goldberg, Opportunity is on its way to meeting its charter goals, which include having the majority of students score Levels 3 or 4 on the state tests by the time they enter high school, seeing that all eighth graders are promoted to high school, and ensuring that all high school seniors have the ability to go to college.

How well the school has been able to meet that first goal has been the subject of intense scrutiny. State testing data shows that when it comes to moving general and special education students from Level 1 to Level 2 in math and reading, Opportunity has been successful. More of its special education students have made one year of progress than students with learning disabilities throughout the city.

picture-5However, Opportunity has a difficult time getting its Level 2 students past that ceiling. This year, 19 percent of its students tested proficient in English, while 40 percent were proficient in math and though those numbers may seem low, they’re massive improvements over the 2008 scores.

More alarming to state and city officials is the comparatively little progress high scoring students and general education students have made.

Testing data from 2007 and 2008, the two years the school’s charter renewal report studies in depth, shows that most students who regularly score in the top two thirds of the school did not make one year’s worth of progress and, in some cases, slid backward.

“I think it’s great to say that your model is inclusive, but you can’t do that at the expense of the students in general education,” Michael Duffy, director of the Office of Charter Schools for the Department of Education. “You can’t spend a year and make less than a year of progress.”

Many Opportunity teachers and administrators believe the strides they’re making with their nearly 400 students, some of whom enter unable to sound out letters of the alphabet, can’t be picked up in an annual test.

“They don’t have those tools yet to truly, accurately measure us and the achievements that we create,” said Opportunity Charter’s principal, Marya Baker. “Sometimes they’re little steps.”

“I don’t think they [the city and state] understand that you can’t measure students who are four or five years behind on one state standardized test and expect the school to be accountable for a system that has failed them for six or seven years,” Fazio said. “I think that’s a very unfair judgment, but it is a judgment we have to work with.”

Goldberg sees the school as being caught between two masters — the state and the city — who view OCS differently. The state, he said, is focused on whether the school is meeting the goals laid out in its charter, while the city is more interested in signs of progress.

“We’re obviously a school that benefits from a progress lens and not an absolute goal lens,” he said. “Because, if you take the absolute goal of a student who’s coming in at sixth grade and doesn’t know that A sounds like “ah”, then yeah, you’re not going to be successful, but if you see that that student goes from not being able to say A is “ah” to passing the Regents in high school, then that’s huge. And how do you measure that?” he asked.

When it came to the school’s own renewal process, the difference in approach may have been more concrete. In the first report the city submitted to the state and Board of Regents for approval, the Department of Education called for a more lenient, two year probation period, but in its second report, it had downgraded it to one year. A spokesman for the State Education Department would not comment on whether SED had pushed for a shorter time frame.

Duffy, who visited the school last August, said he’s seeing encouraging signs. “I think they’re taking all the right steps,” he said, noting the introduction of an AP English class and several honors English and math classes.

“They had a come-in-everybody mentality, which is a good thing, but they weren’t prepared to handle it,” said one advocate who works with parents of students with disabilities. “Opportunity is trying to do the right thing. They didn’t just run and hide and not take kids like other charter schools did.”

By Goldberg’s calculation, the school is about to send its twelfth grade class into the world with a higher graduation rate than the city average. Asked if he expects the city to give Opportunity Charter a five year renewal, Goldberg said, “Absolutely.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the department's FY2019 budget. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.