frontiers of choice

Cobble Hill parents say they would consider a charter school

Parents in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood say they’re happy with their children’s schools but wouldn’t mind seeing a charter school move in.

Charter school operator Eva Moskowitz yesterday announced plans to open a new school in the Success Charter Network in Cobble Hill, an affluent, tree-lined neighborhood whose public schools are flush with parent involvement and, in some cases, parent donations. It would be Moskowitz’s second foray into a middle-class neighborhood after pushing through a contentious plan to open a school on the Upper West Side this year.

In District 15, Cobble Hill’s district, 1,500 parents signed a petition supporting the charter school’s bid to open, according to a press release from Success Charter Network.

But parents I spoke to today at a coffee shop and housing project in the neighborhood said they hadn’t heard of Moskowitz and weren’t aware that space-sharing was a likely scenario — or that co-location fights can turn ugly.

Still, they said that the neighborhood could use more school options, no matter what they are.

“If there’s a good school set up in the neighborhood and has a program my kid would like, I’d consider it,” said Madely Rodriguez, a P.S. 29 parent who was sipping coffee outside Cafe Pedlar, a magnet for neighborhood parents after morning drop-off.

Rodriguez said she thought that some of the neighborhood’s middle-class families would be attracted to a school that draws children from a variety of backgrounds. State law indicates that charter schools should serve needy students.

“At the end of the day it might be all talk, but I think there a lot of families that value diversity,” she said.

Moskowitz’s Upper West Side school gives admissions preference to students zoned for the district’s lowest-scoring elementary schools. But for that school, Moskowitz also made a point of cultivating affluent families, with sushi and wine information sessions and fliers targeting parents who expect to pay college tuition. The former city councilwoman’s motivation seems to be to prove that demand for choices beyond the district offerings extends beyond poor communities — and, perhaps, to grow political support for charter schools.

P.S. 29, the only public school that is technically located in Cobble Hill, has mostly white students and is famous for soliciting sizable donations from parents. Just over the border in Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens, two other elementary schools, P.S. 261 and P.S. 58, also serve largely middle-class populations. But District 15, which includes much of Brownstone Brooklyn, also includes several struggling schools that often serve students living in public housing — including in the Gowanus Houses, just over the neighborhood border from Cobble Hill.

Of the district’s three existing charter schools, two share space in Red Hook and mostly enroll residents of the housing projects there. A third, Brooklyn Prospect, is building its own space in Gowanus.

A school crossing guard working at the Gowanus Houses said she knew parents there were already looking for charter schools because PAVE Academy, which opened in 2010 after a protracted battle in Red Hook, picks up students from the housing project daily.

Blanca and Carmen Soltero, two sisters who grew up in the Gowanus Houses and still send their children to schools in the area, said families living in public housing would have to be educated about the new option and how to enroll. The new school could promote itself at resident meetings and would have to appeal to Spanish-speakers and elderly grandparents, they agreed.

If those efforts aren’t made, Carmen Soltero warned, there is a chance that the new school will serve mostly middle-class families, just like the other schools in the neighborhood increasingly do.

But the bigger question for parents I spoke to was not whether a charter school should move in but where it should go.

Parents at Cafe Pedlar and the Gowanus Houses both said they would not be likely to consider a new school if it opened in the Baltic Street building with a reputation for roughness that houses two secondary schools — one so weak that it is undergoing federally-funded “transformation.” The principals of both of those schools, the School for Global Studies and the School for International Studies, have both been working to boost enrollment to head off the possibility of seeing a third school move in to the building.

Mitchima Ramos, a Gowanus Houses resident whose children have finished elementary school, noted that Brooklyn Prospect was briefly slated to move into space currently occupied by two preschools that the city tried to close. That space could become available again, she said.

Rodriguez suggested an Amity Street building vacated by Long Island College Hospital. And Blanca Soltero said the new building under construction for P.S. 133 could fit a charter school onto one floor.

Carmen Soltero had a different idea altogether. “They should go to District 13,” she said, referring to the neighboring district where she now lives, where schools are seen as more troubled. “The parents there just take their kids to school and don’t even think about it.”

“This neighborhood isn’t so bad,” Blanca Soltero said. “It has pretty decent schools compared to other neighborhoods.”

Future of Schools

What it could mean for Indianapolis Public Schools if Ferebee takes a new job

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lews Ferebee

The revelation that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was a finalist for the top job in the Los Angeles school district will have broad implications at a critical moment for Indianapolis Public Schools — even though he decided not to pursue the job.

Although Ferebee has withdrawn his name from contention in Los Angeles, he still could be an option for other districts. As U.S. News and World Report’s Lauren Camera reported earlier this month, about a dozen cities are on the hunt for new leaders, including large districts such as Houston and smaller districts such as Washington, D.C.

Five years into his tenure as superintendent of Indiana’s largest district, Ferebee’s agenda has been ambitious, potentially making him a desirable candidate for other school districts. He has spearheaded a radical new approach that is transforming the city’s schools by creating innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but managed by charter or nonprofit operators.

In Indianapolis, Ferebee has faced many of the same issues that urban districts across the country are grappling with, such as declining enrollment, pressure to improve academic results, and severe budget crunches.

But while he may have an itch to move on from Indianapolis, his administration is in the midst of closing nearly half of the district’s high schools, and the district is pursuing plans to ask voters for a dramatic boost in school funding.

Here’s how all those changes could be altered by the news that Ferebee is at least weighing other job opportunities.

It’s not a surprise that he was considering a new job.

Urban superintendents don’t often stay for long — the average tenure is just over three years, according to the Council of Great City Schools — so it’s not surprising that a relatively young superintendent who is drawing national attention might be interested in other jobs.

For superintendents to move up in their careers, hopping to new cities is fairly typical.

A native of South Carolina, Ferebee, 43, spent most of his career in North Carolina before moving in 2013 to take the helm in Indianapolis. He has few ties to the city, and critics and supporters alike have long recognized that Indianapolis is likely just one rung on his career ladder.

For school districts where leaders are interested in offering a portfolio of school options, Ferebee’s track record in Indianapolis — and his increasing national prominence — could be particularly appealing.

In 2016, Ferebee was profiled in Education Week as a leader to learn from, and last year, he was chosen as a fellow by The Broad Academy, a leadership development program supported charter advocate and philanthropist Eli Broad.

But his tenure in Indianapolis hasn’t gone perfectly.

Ferebee’s administration has also had some significant stumbles that cast doubt on whether he would be ready for a larger district. Last year, he announced plans to appeal to voters to increase local taxes and school funding. In the face of pushback, however, the district first reduced its request and then suspended the campaign. Now, leaders are hoping that the Indy Chamber will be able to help them craft a plan that will win voter support.

If he left, it might put Indy in a bind — temporarily.

If Ferebee took another job, it would put Indianapolis leaders in a tough position. The school board would need to find his replacement at the same time the district is facing a host of pressing issues, including high school closings, a school board election, and a campaign to convince taxpayers to increase local school funding.

And he could take some of his top deputies with him, as he did when he came to Indianapolis, leaving the district short-handed at a particularly challenging time.

The current board has largely been on the same page with Ferebee when it comes to the most controversial initiatives in the district, such as creating innovation schools and closing high schools. Board members would likely choose a candidate who would sustain those policies.

But a lot of his most controversial changes could stay in place.

A new superintendent would have huge sway over the district’s future direction. But many of the changes Ferebee has led would be difficult to unwind. Innovation schools, for example, have contracts that last several years, and many of them are also authorized as charter schools, so the district would not immediately be able to back away from the innovation strategy.

Plus, innovation schools have strong support from other players in Indianapolis, such as lawmakers and The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that led the push for the hybrid model.

It is also unlikely that the district would change course on its plan to close high schools because the new superintendent would almost certainly take the helm after the painful process of closing schools was already complete.

It would make the November election of the school board more important.

Three of the seven school board seats are up for election in November, and it is likely that the newly elected board would choose Ferebee’s replacement. It’s not yet clear who is running and how strong the competition might be, but the outcome would be especially important if Ferebee leaves.

If he does take another job, it could be an opportunity for critics of his administration. In recent elections, supporters of Ferebee have dominated. But there is a nascent opposition movement that could be influential in the fall election.

Even though he is staying, the honeymoon is over.

Even with Ferebee withdrawing his name from consideration, the revelation that he was interested in the job in Los Angeles could have a ripple effect. It raises questions about how long he plans to stay in Indianapolis and whether he is applying for other positions.

The new uncertainty about Ferebee’s commitment to Indianapolis comes at a particularly tough moment. In the face of a budget deficit of about $26 million, the administration could soon impose cuts across the district. Earlier this month, the district offered $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire, and Ferebee has said they are considering other cuts, such as hiring freezes and furloughs for administrators. Those cutbacks will be extra painful if school staff and parents lose faith in the administration.

It also could have broad implications for the campaign to raise more money for schools. After district leaders initially fumbled plans to ask voters for additional money, they are planning to put a referendum on the ballot in November. For that measure to succeed, they must convince community members to vote in favor of raising their own taxes, a difficult sell that will also be made harder if the superintendent loses trust from the community.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.