rally day

In Harlem, charter school parents and students target NAACP

Students and families protested today in Harlem against the NAACP's involvement in a lawsuit against school closures and charter school co-locations with district schools. (Chris Arp)

About 2,500 people rallied in Harlem this morning, calling on the NAACP to withdraw from its lawsuit with the teachers union against the city Department of Education. That lawsuit seeks to stop the closure of 22 schools as well as the placement of several charter schools in district school space.

Speakers at Thursday’s rally included charter school parents and teachers, Harlem Children’s Zone president and CEO Geoffrey Canada, and the actor Seth Gilliam from “The Wire,” whose child is a on a waiting list for a charter school. Speakers and attendees denounced the NAACP’s participation in a lawsuit they said would harm charter schools primarily serving students of color.

“Ms. Dukes, turn your back on this lawsuit,” said Kathy Kernizan, the parent of a student at the Uncommon Schools charter network, referring to Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference.

A letter to Dukes with signatures from charter school advocates was circulated through the crowd asking the organization to withdraw from the suit. A spokesperson for the New York City Charter Center, which helped organize the event, said that more than 2,000 signatures had been collected this week.

“We gotta demand quality education,” Canada told the crowd. “We have to be prepared to fight for that.” The city Department of Education’s proposal calls for two of the charter schools associated with the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Promise Academy charter schools, to be co-located inside district schools.

The charter center spokesperson said the protest, held outside the Harlem State Office building at 125th Street, was not the work of any one organization. But at least two groups appear to have taken leading roles: the charter center, an advocacy and support organization for charter schools in the city, and the Success Charter Network created by Eva Moskowitz. Many of the families at the rally had children at one of the Success network’s nine schools. (Seven of the network’s schools are named in the lawsuit.)

Click here for a slideshow of photographs from the rally.

A representative from the New York City Charter School Center distributed flyers with excerpts of the NAACP’s mission statement to people entering the rally. Center officials argued that the lawsuit contradicts the NAACP’s mission to “ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race based discrimination.”

In a telephone interview, Kenneth Cohen, the regional director for the NAACP’s Metropolitan Council, said that the lawsuit supports the organization’s mission. Fighting co-locations of charter schools inside district schools, he said, challenges the unequal distribution of resources to district schools. “We do want alternatives for our parents in those communities,” Cohen said, “but the bottom line is that it doesn’t mean you neglect the public schools also.”

Earlier this week, Dukes told GothamSchools that she would meet with parents who want to meet, but criticized plans for a rally.

It’s not clear what the exact consequences would be for the 18 charter schools named in the lawsuit if the NAACP and the teachers union are successful. The charter center spokesperson said that new charter schools, deprived of space they were counting on, could be prevented from opening, while existing charter schools could be evicted from their current spaces or prevented from enrolling new students.

Charter schools are publicly funded but operated by private boards and regulated by the state. New York education law does not grant charter schools funding for facilities. Arguing that the lack of funding is inequitable, the Bloomberg administration has offered some charter schools district space. The alternative for charter schools is to raise private funding to pay for leases or constructing new facilities.

At the rally, many parents described the lawsuit as an attempt to close charter schools. A flyer handed out to families at Harlem Success Academy 1 to organize the rally, obtained by GothamSchools, endorses that characterization. “WE NEED TO FIGHT TO KEEP OUR SCHOOLS OPEN,” the flyer says.

Charles Moerdler of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, the firm representing the UFT in the lawsuit, would not directly comment on the spokesperson’s characterization. Moerdler repeated the lawsuit’s claim that the proposed co-locations challenged by the suit violated decrees from the state education commissioner. “How the court addresses that is up to the court at the end of the day,” Moerdler said.

Cohen also disputed the claim that the suit was aimed at closing charter schools. “There might be a misconception there,” Cohen said. “We’re not fighting to close any school.”

Charter school parents and students, many of whom held signs calling on the NAACP to drop the lawsuit, made up the bulk of attendees. Parents from several Success charter schools said their children’s classes were starting later than usual to allow children to attend the rally.

Tracey Edwards, who attended the rally with her daughter Saniah Delrio, a first-grader at Harlem Success Academy Charter School 4, said she felt emotional about the rally. She praised her daughter’s school, saying it had allowed Delrio to read at her grade level and spurred her imagination. “I don’t understand why a school like this should be bothered with, want to be shut down at all when the kids are excelling,” Edwards continued.

Majella Dominguez, a third-grader at Harlem Success Academy Charter School 1, expressed enthusiasm for her school and for Thursday’s rally. “I think it’s great,” Dominguez said, “ ’cause they’re fighting for our school to get more space.”

Dominguez said one of the things she liked about her school was that it offered instruction on Saturdays for students who need it.

Zelda Owens said she learned about the rally only five minutes or so before it began. Owens, whose child attends Future Leaders Institute in Harlem — not one of the charter schools named in the lawsuit — said the issues raised in the rally affect all parents.

“As a lifelong Harlemite, I do recognize the fact that charter schools have given parents incredible options in educating our children,” Owens said. “And I believe that any option, one that adds tremendous demonstrated value, is something that all parents should fight for whether they’re in charter schools or not.”

Many charter school parents disputed the NAACP’s argument that charter schools located inside district space hurt district schools.

One parent at the rally, Julius Tajiddin, represented a district school, Frederick Douglass Academy II Secondary School, which is slated to be co-located with a Harlem Success school. Tajiddin, who said he is the chair of the school leadership team at Frederick Douglass, said the lawsuit is motivated not by a desire to limit choice, but to protect the needs of district school students.

He said that co-locations often force classes at district schools into hallways and stairwells. “It’s about resources,” said Tajiddin.


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'Clarity 2020'

Superintendent León calls on Newarkers to help shape his plan for city’s schools

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy to improve the district at Central High School on Wednesday.

Newark Superintendent Roger León unveiled his strategy for transforming the school system at a community forum Wednesday, the first of several meetings where residents will be invited to help shape the plan.

The strategy, dubbed “NPS Clarity 2020,” calls for closer cooperation among schools and between them and the community. The strategy’s premise is that schools must challenge students academically while also attending to their physical and emotional needs.

Over the next few months, officials said, the district will turn the strategy into a detailed, three-year plan with help from families, students, and partner organizations, who will be invited to planning sessions in each of the city’s five wards. The final plan will be released in June.

“How are we going to do this? Everybody in here — all of you,” León said to hundreds of mostly invited guests at Central High School. “There’s a lot of hard work we’re about to do, and we’re not going to be scared about it.”

While Wednesday marked the start of public feedback on the strategy, León has been referencing his plan at meetings for months. Some leaders, including Mayor Ras Baraka and a few board members, have previously urged León to publicly share his plan, along with specific goals he hopes to achieve.

Baraka, who was Central’s principal when León was an assistant superintendent, made a brief appearance at Wednesday’s event to lend his support to León’s vision. He said the two have been working in particular on a plan to get local universities to enroll more Newark Public School graduates.

“I just want people to know that the superintendent and I are on the same page,” said Baraka, who famously clashed with León’s state-appointed predecessor, Cami Anderson. “And it hasn’t been that way for a very long time.”

Baraka is also part of a new advisory committee that will provide input on the plan. The 24-member committee includes teachers, principals, and advocates, along with business, higher-education, and philanthropic leaders.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Newark residents wrote down challenges and opportunities in the district during Wednesday’s forum.

The district hosted a similar series of public forums in 2016 under Superintendent Christopher Cerf, which led to the district’s current three-year roadmap.

The district has hired a Newark-based consultancy, Creed Strategies, to lead the current planning process. The firm’s founder and president, Lauren Wells, is a former advisor to Baraka and previously helped spearhead a high-profile reform effort in Newark called the Global Village School Zone.

Started in 2010, the program lengthened the school day and added extra support services at seven Central Ward schools, including Central High School. It also brought the schools’ teachers together for joint trainings and made sure their courses were in sync so students could easily progress from the elementary schools to Central. However, Anderson abruptly ended the effort in 2012.

Now, Wells is helping incorporate elements of that program’s approach into León’s strategy. At the forum, Wells described some tenets of the strategy: recognizing and addressing poverty’s effects on students; helping schools work together rather than in isolation; taking advantage of the resources that families and local organizations have to offer schools; and measuring student success on a variety of scales.

“They will be risk-takers, they will be sought-after,” she said. “They will pass assessments — and not just the PARCC, but the bar.”

Attendees were also given a document with an elaborate diagram representing the “Clarity 2020” approach, which district employees received at an August conference where León previewed his plans. The diagram features a dozen “keys to 2020,” such as higher education and social services, and six “game changers,” including alumni and internships, but provides no details beyond those broad headings.

The district has not yet posted the document online or announced dates for the forums in each ward. León declined to be interviewed after the event.

Several attendees said they were energized by Wednesday’s forum, which included small-group brainstorming sessions where participants listed challenges and opportunities in the district.

“You don’t usually have a superintendent that asks questions,” said Nitia Preston, the community engagement specialist at Peshine Avenue School. “He’s asking, ‘What change do you want? What strengths do you have?’ I love that.”

six months in

As Newark superintendent makes whirlwind changes, some residents seek ‘clarity’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León has faced calls to share more details of his agenda. On Wednesday, he unveiled his "NPS Clarity 2020" strategy.

A whirlwind of activity. A legion of initiatives. A blitz of meetings. Pick your metaphor — Superintendent Roger León has been busy.

In his first six months as Newark schools chief, León has overhauled the district’s central office; launched a wide-ranging assortment of programs involving high schools, testing, technology, and more; and offered a litany of wildly ambitious promises, including a vow to make Newark “the highest-performing school district in the country.”

León’s maximalist approach has thrilled many residents who find it invigorating to hear a Newark native present a vision of greatness for a school system that, until February, spent two decades under state control. In recent years, the 36,000-student district has attracted national notoriety mainly for its struggles and the pitched battles that erupted when outside reformers tried to reshape the city’s schools.

But León’s jam-packed agenda and sweeping promises have also raised concerns, even among those rooting for him to succeed — an unease that León may be hoping to address Wednesday evening at a community forum on the district’s future.

Observers have privately asked how the new leader’s disparate initiatives fit together, and whether he can pull them all off simultaneously. Occasionally, their frustration has bubbled to the surface, as when some board members refused to approve some of León’s requests until they knew more about his plans or when Mayor Ras Baraka urged León to make those plans public.

Even the name of León’s elaborate strategy — “NPS Clarity 2020” — has baffled some people, who are unsure when it starts and what it entails. They are hoping the forum will address some of those concerns.

As a former Newark Public Schools educator and administrator, León brings a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge to the job, said Antoinette Baskerville Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer. While León obviously “has a big vision,” she added, it is imperative that he share detailed plans with the public — especially after 22 years of state control, when officials had license to make wholesale changes without locals’ consent.

“I think a lot of stakeholders are looking for more clarity — and it’s up to the superintendent to bring that,” she said. “Folks are looking for substantive plans.”

After a quarter-century working in the district, León started July 1 with strong convictions about what approaches work in schools — and which don’t. But as he’s rushed to reverse policies he considers ineffective and enact alternatives, schools and partner groups have often had to scramble to keep up.

In June, he tried to oust top district officials before informing the school board, which then rejected some of the staffing changes. In September, he axed a program that extended the hours of struggling schools — resulting in scheduling changes just days before classes began. Last month, he cast doubt on a program that brought extra services to several South Ward schools, leaving the schools and their partner organizations uncertain about its future.

At the same time, he has undertaken several efforts of his own. While most new superintendents are eager to start making their mark, León’s aggressive timeline and ambitious agenda have run up against roadblocks.

He is planning a redesign of the city’s high schools, including changes to the admissions process for magnet schools and new career-themed academies inside the traditional schools. However, the new magnet admissions test was recently postponed, and the district has not formally announced the themes and partners of the new academies. Meanwhile, the enrollment period for next school year is already underway.

León has also promised to tackle one of the district’s most dire and long-standing challenges — absenteeism. One in three Newark students missed the equivalent of a month or more of school days last year, qualifying them as “chronically absent.” The crux of León’s plan for getting students to school is to rehire attendance counselors who were laid off by his predecessor. However, labor rules have complicated the rehiring process, leaving many of the counselor positions unfilled five months into the school year.

Other new superintendents might be content with these already ambitious goals: revamping the district’s high schools and combating severe absenteeism. But León has not stopped there. He has personally reviewed student transcripts and conducted teacher trainings; negotiated changes to the city’s enrollment system with charter-school leaders; and ordered comprehensive audits of the district’s teaching materials and facilities.

León has described different parts of his agenda to different audiences at meetings large and small with parents, district employees, students, union leaders, and local philanthropies. However, members of the public who aren’t invited to all of these gatherings and can’t make the public school-board meetings may have a limited view of León’s entire agenda. His administration seldom holds press conferences or posts summaries of his initiatives on the district website, and reporters’ questions often go unanswered. (A spokeswoman did not respond to questions for this story.)

Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the Newark NAACP and a former district teacher, said she is eager to learn how León will incorporate all of the feedback he has received into a clear plan with measurable goals.

“He’s doing a lot of outreach,” she said. “But after you get all of those opinions, how do you prioritize what you’re going to pay attention to and implement something that can be measured?”

León may begin to answer that question at the forum Wednesday evening at Central High School. A public notice for the event says it will include a discussion of “goals and timelines” for Clarity 2020, along with a 10-year district roadmap León is crafting and various policy reviews he is conducting.

The event will also kick off a series public meetings intended to gather input for a new three-year strategic plan for the district, according to the notice. León’s predecessor, Christopher Cerf, organized a similar planning process in 2016 to create the district’s current strategic plan.

Whether Wednesday’s forum will leave the public with a clearer sense of León’s overarching vision remains to be seen. But some of the superintendent’s most ardent supporters say they already know enough.

“He’s planning to turn this into the most successful district in the state,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “What’s obtuse about that?”