educational intervention

In Washington Heights, a basic education on charter schools

Last December, Community Board 12’s executive committee was discussing charter schools when committee members realized something: There were almost as many different perceptions of  charter schools as there were people in the room.

This epiphany, recalled board chair Pamela Palanque-North, was the inspiration for a forum the board held Saturday to give Washington Heights residents the basic facts about charter schools.

“This is an opportunity for us to have something called an educational intervention,” Palanque-North said in her opening remarks at the forum, titled “Our Children, Our Choices: An Informative Discussion on Public and Charter School Options.” About 35 neighborhood residents attended the event, which was organized by the board’s youth and education committee and translated live into Spanish.

The panel included charter school advocates and also critics, such as sociologist Pedro Noguera and the public school teacher who directed a new movie that takes aim at the idea that charter schools can fix all educational ills.

But perhaps as notable as who sat on the panel was who did not: a representative from the city Department of Education. Community Board 12 had advertised that Chancellor Dennis Walcott would speak on the morning’s first panel, although DOE officials said Walcott had never agreed to appear.

“Unfortunately this group claimed the chancellor would be attending this event — and put his name on a flier — without our consent or any confirmation,” said Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, a DOE spokesman. “When we finally were able to get in touch, we informed Community Board 12 that Chancellor Walcott was already committed to attending a science and math festival in Harlem that day and would be unable to attend.” Indeed, Walcott told state senators today that he attended a science fair on Saturday.

William Stanford Jr. was among those disappointed with the absence of DOE officials.

“He couldn’t make it. OK. Where are his employees?” Stanford asked after the discussion. “One of them should have been here.”

Had department representatives been at the Russ Barrie Pavilion, they would have witnessed a comprehensive and often contentious discussion that touched on issues including the consequences of co-location — in which charter and public schools share space; the degree of accountability for the schools when it comes to serving special-needs students and English Language Learners; the level of parental input in charters; and the relationship between charter schools and their surrounding communities.

James Merriman, CEO of the NYC Charter School Center, said charters existed in order to give parents the choice to send their children to schools that were of a higher quality and less impacted by bureaucracy and unions than the public school system.

But Julie Cavanaugh, a public school teacher in Red Hook, Brooklyn and director of the film “The Inconvenient Truth About Waiting for Superman,” said charter schools often leave public school students with no choice. She said the practice of charter schools moving into existing public school buildings had forced public school students into unequal, inadequate, and even hazardous learning conditions.

In fact, concerns over inequities was one theme of Saturday’s forum. Noguera, executive director of NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Urban education, alluded in his remarks to GothamSchools’ recent exclusive about illegal admissions practices at Academic Leadership, a charter school in the South Bronx: Noguera said some charter schools are illegally screening students, then mentioned an “interesting article” he had read about the practice at a charter school in the Bronx.

When I asked him to elaborate on these remarks after his presentation, Noguera said he was unfamiliar with the specifics of Academic Leadership but called for more scrutiny of charter schools’ admission practices.

“It really concerns me when I see that there’s some evidence that some of the charters are screening kids and have adopted measures to either screen or to push out students that are more challenging to serve,” Noguera said. “Because it’s creating this very unequal playing field between the charters and the public schools. So I think that the authorizers and the state need to be more vigilant in holding those schools accountable.”

Merriman expressed support for parent involvement but suggested it was less important than the quality of education children receive.  He also argued that parents did not have a great deal of ability to impact public school policies.

But Mona Davids, executive director of the New York Charter Parents Association, argued parent input in charter schools was essential.

“How can any school not have a parent association?” she asked.

Raybblin Vargas, assistant chair of Community Board 12’s Youth and Education Committee, expressed enthusiasm for the discussion.

“I am very very very happy with the panelists that did show up and did speak,” she said. “I think that we were able to have a broad spectrum of perspectives.”

Audience members, too, seemed to come to the forum with a variety of viewpoints, questions, and concerns.

Ronnette Summers is a parent whose daughter attends KIPP NYC College Prep High School in the Bronx and her son attends KIPP STAR Middle School in Harlem, both charter schools. Summers said she thinks the public harbors many misconceptions about charter schools.

“They don’t have parent associations, they don’t have ELL students, they don’t care about parents, they don’t want parents in the building,” Summers said, characterizing what she felt were unfair generalizations about charters. “I know for a fact that in my school that is not the case. I could walk in my school at any time and sit in the classroom without making an appointment.”

But Andrea Lieske, the parent of a kindergartener at P.S. 125 in Harlem, said she was worried about the proliferation of charter schools in District 5.

“There are a lot — a lot — of charter schools, and I am afraid that the charter schools are sort of taking over and there is not much choice in terms of other public schools,” she said.

Lieske said she was specifically concerned about charter schools’ approach to education.

“Seemingly most of the charter schools — at least in District 5 — are not very much into the progressive approach of teaching,” she said. “They are more, ‘they have to know this,’ and the long school day, things like that.”

Questions from the audience — many of which were addressed to Susan Miller Barker, interim executive director of the SUNY Charter Schools Institute — touched on topics including the sharing of best practices between charter and traditional public schools and the ways charter schools are held accountable for serving special-needs and students who are learning English.

In her closing remarks, Palanque-North said she hoped to make the discussion an annual occurrence.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”