damned if you do

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

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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.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”