all deliberate speed

In quest for quality, charter advocates push careful planning

On a recent afternoon, dozens of teachers, social workers, and non-profit administrators, pored over the academic calendars of several charter schools. They were studying how a school can express its mission in the way it builds its calendar.

“There’s a lot to think about: Summer school — would that be mandatory?” asked Simeon Stolzberg, a former charter school authorizer who was leading the exercise. “You could have a year-round school, and maybe every eight weeks there would be a two-week vacation. Think about whether or not there is time in a day for teachers to plan and prep and grade — and eat lunch.”

Some of the teachers laughed, but Stolzberg was completely serious.

“Your calendar is one of the things that will set you a part from a district school,” he told the group, participants in a new program, Apply Right, that is helping prospective charter school leaders by taking them through the most minute details of school planning.

The program and two others, projects of the nonprofit New York City Charter School Center, reflect a growing sense that charter school leaders need more support than they have been getting.

“There were a number of schools that were approved in the last five years that frankly probably should not have been approved,” said James Merriman, the center’s director. “What I think we are seeing is that the bar of entry is being appropriately raised. … We want to see more charter schools, but we’re only really interested in seeing high-quality schools.”

New York is seen as having stronger charter schools than many other states. But in the rush to open new schools in recent years, some weak applications got the green light, Merriman said.

The rush was in part politically inspired. In recent years, charter school supporters focused on birthing as many schools as possible. They had a specific target in mind. They saw a state-imposed cap on the number of charter schools as a ceiling to shatter, and so they worked hard to demonstrate demand for more schools than the cap could accommodate. Last year, legislators raised that cap from 200 schools to 460.

With the start-up frenzy less acute, the center is encouraging prospective school leaders to adopt a more deliberate pace to their planning, especially because the state’s two charter school authorizers are applying increasing scrutiny to charter applications, center officials said.

“Now we have two really strong authorizing bodies in the state of New York that are tightening up their process of vetting charter schools, so we wanted to make sure the best possible applicants had the best possible training to create quality schools, as opposed to a quantity of schools,” said Niomi Plotkin, the center’s director of new schools.

While many city charter schools do post higher test scores than other schools in their districts, some do not. When the city released progress reports for elementary and middle schools last month, charter schools had some of the best grades — and some of the worst, with charters more than twice as likely as traditional district schools to get a failing score. Several schools have struggled with basic operations such as keeping their finances above board. A handful of troubled schools have even been closed down.

Charter school advocates have always aimed to see high-quality schools opened but did not always have much information about best practices, according to Peter Murphy, the director of policy and communications for the New York Charter Association.

“Now that we have more schools, more experience about what works, and what doesn’t, it’s important to share that information,” he said. “We didn’t have all that just starting out.”

Programs for charter school hopefuls “help groups navigate through a government labyrinth, and [they] also help to screen out people who just aren’t ready and need to spend more time working on their school,” Murphy said.

Participation in Apply Right, which costs $1,500 and requires an application, doesn’t guarantee that a team will be able to open a school. The schools still have to be approved by SUNY or the Board of Regents, the state’s two charter authorizers, after a process that includes a series of interviews and several different sets of reviewers.

But charter school authorizers say applications that are thoughtful and consistent have a better shot of being approved.

“There is a huge range of quality, from very coherent, very consistent, wonderful presentations to applications that are incomplete even,” Jason Sarsfield, director of applications for the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute, told Apply Right participants last week.

“We often see applications that might present some design element, but their schedule or their staffing plan or their budget isn’t consistent with other areas of their application,” he said. “Maybe they have a special-ed design, but not the staff they talk about in their personnel plan to implement that.”

The inaugural Apply Right class includes 10 school-planning teams. The center wouldn’t disclose how many teams applied or how many of them contain current public school educators. But Merriman said the admissions process was selective and focused on “mom-and-pop” charter schools that might not be able to weather the planning process without expert support.

For Paula Fleshman and Briana Scott, two members of a team that is trying to open a community-oriented charter school in the South Bronx, hiring independent consultants to guide them through the lengthy authorization process wasn’t an option.

“From what we’ve heard, individual consultants can charge anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 or $40,000,” said Fleshman, a former Manhattan middle school teacher. “And that really does prohibit small charter teams like us from accessing the information to really design a school from the ground up.”

Apply Right, she said, is helping the team figure out just how their school will be able to serve the English Language Learners and children with special needs they want to enroll.

“When you first look at the application, all the requirements seem overwhelming,” said Scott, a social worker. “But when you are able to find the resources that are needed to help you develop the finance component, the social services component, the overwhelming component starts to disappear. You become more energetic to reach that goal of putting all these pieces into place and serving children.”

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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.”