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Shifting course, East Harlem nonprofit evicts charter school

One of the city’s oldest and highest-performing charter schools is being evicted by an unlikely landlord: the community organization that founded it.

Harbor Science and Arts Charter School, which opened in 2000, will have to find a new space in coming years after Boys & Girls Harbor, a 74-year old nonprofit that serves East Harlem youth, told the school’s board that it was ending an 11-year partnership.

The sudden news has jolted school administrators and unnerved families — and also illuminated a strange irony: While charter schools are sometimes criticized for disrupting other schools’ space, they too are at the financial and operational mercy of their landlords if they rent private space, as Harbor Charter does.

For Harbor Charter, which has paid $150,000 a year for use of two floors in the nonprofit’s building and access to its pool and gym, the shift could come at significant cost. Some charter schools in private space spend up to $1 million annually for their facilities.

The “decision to dissolve its current partnership/relationship” was Boys & Girls Harbor’s alone, according to a letter that Joanne Hunt, Harbor Charter’s principal, sent to parents last week. In the letter, Hunt assured parents that the school’s existence was not in jeopardy and that it planned to stay in the district. But she said she did not know where it would be located next year.

“We are confident that this separation will be a positive one for the charter school,” Hunt wrote in the letter. “Change is uncomfortable, but at times it is necessary.”

Hunt’s assurances weren’t enough to calm all parents, who sought additional answers at a PTA meeting Thursday night.

“We want to know why,” said Steven Greene, whose daughter is a seventh-grader at the school, before the meeting. “Why are you pushing out the charter school?”

A clue can be found in Boys & Girls Harbor’s evolving educational mission, according to the school’s board chairman, Alvin Patrick. When the school opened in 2000, the school’s board and the Boys & Girls Harbor board were basically made up of the same people, he said.

Initially the school struggled, but it stabilized after Hunt took it over in 2002, according to a trajectory of annual reports from the school’s authorizer, SUNY’s Charter School Institute. Since then, the school, which enrolls 240 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, has twice had its charter renewed, boasted a near perfect student retention rate, and has mostly outscored other schools in its district on state tests.

As the school improved, the relationship between the two boards “evolved, with the school becoming more independent,” Patrick said. Now, just one of the 25 members of Boys & Girls Harbor’s board, its executive director, also sits on the school’s board.

“The current [Boys & Girls Harbor] board said that they wanted a more inclusive role in the relationship beyond a landlord and back-office support role, and they did not foresee a more inclusive relationship in the future,” he said.

Leadership changes at Boys & Girls Harbor might well have heightened the tension.

In recent years, William Ackman, a hedge fund CEO who has recently plunged into the world of education philanthropy, has become a more prominent figure on the board. Ackman, the founder of Pershing Square Capital Management, joined the board in 2005, became real estate chair two years later, and is now the board’s president. His commitment to education issues seems to have deepened in recent years. In 2010, his firm’s foundation donated $25 million to Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s school reform efforts and in early 2011 he led fundraising efforts for an event to benefit Boys & Girls Harbor.

In 2010, Hans Hageman resigned from Boys & Girls Harbor after nine years as executive director, a period in which he oversaw the charter school’s turnaround. Hageman was replaced with Thomas Howard, a former music teacher and principal. Howard’s most recent job was chief academic officer of Victory Schools, Inc., the city’s first charter schools network, which rebranded itself in 2010 after a new law barred for-profit companies from operating or managing charter schools in New York State.

In an interview, Howard praised Harbor Charter and said the decision to part ways with the school was less about controlling its operations and more about controlling the nonprofit’s longterm strategic vision.

“It’s about strategic growth within the organization,” he said.

Howard said the organization would focus on expanding its early learning programs, from serving 85 children to “several hundred.” He also said the organization was looking into “other education partnerships to expand the number the students we serve.” He would not specify if Boys & Girls Harbor might try to host another new charter school.

Howard said that both board are working together on a transition and that Boys & Girls would continue to support the charter school until at least the end of the school year and as late as September 2013 as the school seeks new a space — which Patrick said it has already started doing.

“District 4 is where we want to be and the move will happen when we find the right space,” said Patrick, who added that a public school building could be an option. “We’ve been in contact with the DOE, but we’re also looking at private spaces. We just don’t know.”

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.