signs of life

Top DOE official endorses a "turnaround" transfer high school

At most of the public hearings about the city’s plans to “turn around” dozens of struggling schools, Department of Education representatives have insisted that closing and reopening the schools with new principals and teachers would be in students’ best interest.

That was not the case at Bushwick Community High School Wednesday night.

After hearing dozens of students deliver emotional speeches in defense of the transfer high school, the department’s second-in-command offered a testimonial of his own.

“This is a school that looks at the whole child. This is a school that gives students second chances. It’s a place of redemption. It’s a family. It saves lives,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer.

“I was moved by what you said tonight,” he said. “I’ve been to a lot of public hearings and I think it’s a tribute to the educators in this community that students here speak with such passion, with such eloquence, and so thoughtfully about what works.”

It was not the first time that education officials have given students and staff at Bushwick Community hope since the school landed on the turnaround list in January. That month, state officials said they would ask the U.S. Department of Education for permission not to penalize transfer schools for having low graduation rates — an inevitability when students enroll years into their high school careers, already far behind where they should be.

But that permission is not expected for at least another couple of weeks, and it would kick in for future assessments of school performance.

By that point, turnaround could be well underway at Bushwick Community. The school is one of 26 whose turnaround proposals are set to come before the Panel for Educational Policy next week. The panel has never rejected a city proposal brought to vote.

But Polakow-Suransky signaled that the school might not wind up on the panel’s final agenda.

“I want you to know that as I take those stories back I will share them with our chancellor, Dennis Walcott, who is going to make a decision about whether this school will continue to the panel meeting or not. But I was moved by what you said tonight,” he told the students. A few moments later, he added, “And I do think that whatever gets decided as a result of this process, there’s something very powerful here.”

One student after another spoke about how abuse, crime, drugs and teenage pregnancies had derailed their academic lives until Bushwick Community put them back on track.

Ricardo Rodriguez, who said he was addicted to drugs and was affiliated with the Bloods gang, enrolled at the school in 2010 as a 17-year-old dropout with so few credits that even other transfer high schools wouldn’t take him. Rodriguez graduated last year and is working as a part-time counselor with the school.

Audrey Rochelle is on track to graduate in June after getting kicked out of her last two high schools for fighting and cutting class. She brought her one-year-old child up to the microphone to explain how the teachers supported her during her pregnancy and pushed her to return when she considered dropping out.

“At this point I just know I want a good job so I can provide for my child,” said Rochelle, who plans to attend LaGuardia Community College and study to be a paramedic.

There was Hector Solo, 21, a former Latin King arrested for robbery and assault in 2009. Only a letter of recommendation from his teachers at Bushwick Community saved him from time in jail. Solo graduated last year and is taking community college classes.

Justin Soto, 21, said he was the “chief of armed robbery” at Broadway Junction, a subway hub in East New York, before he began going to Bushwick. “After this school, it changed my life,” he said.

Bushwick Community is the only transfer school that accepts students regardless of how many credits they have (most transfer schools require a minimum of 10 credits). It is also the only city transfer school where all students are at least 17; other schools take younger students.

That means few students can graduate within the four- or six–year time periods that the federal No Child Left Behind law uses to measure progress in most high schools. As a result, Bushwick Community was listed as a “persistently lowest achieving” school two years ago and became one of 33 schools to receive federal funding as part of the School Improvement Grants program.

But Mayor Bloomberg abandoned those plans in January, and instead opted to pursue turnaround for the schools instead, which requires the schools to be closed. It was bad timing for Bushwick Community, which was working with city and state officials on the waiver application that would ease NCLB’s accountability guidelines for transfer schools.

Supporters of Bushwick Community worry that if the closure plan goes through the replacement school will no longer be able to fully serve the most over-aged and under-credited students in the city. The city has proposed allowing the replacement school to enroll students starting at age 16.

“That is so cynical,” David Donsky, an English teacher, said of the plan. “Because all you’re doing is juking the stats. You’re taking younger kids who are more likely to graduate on time, but you’re not improving academic outcomes.”

In another sign that the city might not be fully decided about Bushwick Community’s fate, eight-year Principal Tira Randall remains in charge. The city has already installed new school leaders at many schools slated for turnaround whose principals would have to be removed under the federal government’s rules. Randall has been told she will have to leave at the end of the year if turnaround proceeds, teachers said. They also reported that another administrator who had started working at the school this year, an appointee of the school’s nonprofit management partner, departed in recent weeks for a principal position elsewhere in Brooklyn.

Here’s a full transcript of Polakow-Suransky’s speech:

This is a school that looks at the whole child. This is a school that gives students second chances. It’s a place of redemption. It’s a family. It saves lives. The students in this school call it home. It’s a school that has built a curriculum around teaching students to think critical, to value their history and their culture, to know their identity, to respect each other’s humanity. It’s a school that’s safe. It’s a school that develops leadership, both amongst the faculty and amongst the students. And it’s a school where teachers know kids well and know kids deeply and are willing ot go above and beyond what you see in most schools in order to provide kids needs.

We heard students talk about coming to a school after being in schools where no one ever cared what they thought or what they felt. We heard students talk about the fact that this is a school where they want to learn as a result of the commitment that they feel from their teachers. And we heard many stories about individuals who had come back from very difficult situations and learned how to be students and how to go on to be successes as educators, as musicians, as artists when they left here.

And those were powerful stories and they came through loud and clear and I want you to know that as I take those stories back I will share them with our chancellor, Dennis Walcott, who is going to make a decision about whether this school continue to the panel meeting or not. But I was moved by what you said tonight. I’ve been to a lot of public hearings and I think it’s a tribute to the educators in this community that students here speak with such passion, with such eloquence and so thoughtfully about what works. And I do think that whatever gets decided as a result of this process, there’s something very powerful here and I thank you for sharing that tonight.

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely based on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.

Charter schism

Independent charter schools look to raise their profile, apart from networks and Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Coalition of Community Charter Schools
Veter education journalist John Merrow moderates a panel at the Independent Charter School Symposium.

Stand-alone charter schools say they’re often overlooked in favor of big-name networks like KIPP — while at the same time being unfairly tied to Betsy DeVos’s agenda.

At a symposium last week, a number of school leaders agreed to try to change that by launching a new national organization dedicated to independent, or “mom-and-pop,” charters.

“When people think of charters, they do not think of us,” said Steve Zimmerman, an organizer of the conference and founder of two independent charter schools.

In a hotel conference room in Queens, leaders from nearly 200 schools across 20 states unanimously called for the group’s creation. They also adopted a progressive manifesto that tried to separate the members from the Trump administration and common criticisms of the charter schools.

It marks yet another fissure in the nation’s charter school movement, which has seen political and philosophical divides open up in the wake of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s appointment.

And while the loose group of independent charters does not yet have a name or a clear funding plan, its leaders believe they can provide a louder, more democratic voice for their concerns than existing charter advocacy groups, which they say are too focused on expanding networks.

“The National Alliance [for Public Charter Schools] truly believes they act in the interest of all charter schools. And to some degree they do,” said Zimmerman, referring to the country’s top national charter advocacy group. “The truth is, though, that they can’t really represent the real interests of independent charter schools because their funders really believe in the network model.”

National Alliance spokeswoman Vanessa Descalzi said the group supports independent charters.

“Advocating for independent, community-based schools is in the National Alliance’s DNA,” she said. “Where folks feel we could do more, we look forward to continued discussion and seeking solutions together.”

A response to testing, and to Trump

Zimmerman is the co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, an organization for independent charters based in New York City that co-sponsored last week’s conference. That symposium, he said, came out of a desire to shift the discussion around measuring schools away from just test scores.

“We felt that there was too much thinking of outcomes as being the bottom line of the enterprise … and that was keeping our schools from being innovative,” he said. “It felt like a zero sum pissing game of comparing test scores all the time.”

When the Trump administration took office, a new set of concerns arose for many leaders of schools like his. In Zimmerman’s telling, there was “too much coziness between major players in the charter world and the incoming administration.”

He declined to offer specifics. But Eva Moskowitz, the head of the Success Academy network in New York, met with Trump soon after he was elected, and the National Alliance initially praised a Trump budget proposal featuring deep cuts to education spending but an increase for charter schools. Both have since distanced themselves further from the administration.

“To have in any way the charter world associated with that felt that it was really going to hurt our message,” Zimmerman said.

A distinct approach to judging charter schools

The manifesto adopted at the conference emphasizes a community-oriented vision for charter schooling — and a response to many common criticisms of charter schools.

Charters should be “laboratories of innovation” that seek to collaborate with districts, it says. Charter schools should serve “students who reflect our communities and neighborhoods, particularly students with the greatest educational needs,” and their leaders should create workplaces that are “collaborative, not adversarial” for teachers.

And while the group calls for schools to be held accountable for results, the mission statement says “real accountability must be rooted in the development of the whole child and the needs of society.” That’s a different emphasis from advocates who promote charter schools because they are more effective, as measured by test score gains.

In some ways that philosophy is more aligned with that of more conservative charter school supporters, including DeVos, who have argued for more innovation and less emphasis on test results.

“Some of these folks really feel like [charter] authorization has gotten too strict and has cut back innovation,” Zimmerman said. “And I believe so too.”

But Zimmerman distanced the group from a free-market approach. He is strongly opposed to private school vouchers, though said that’s not a stance the new organization has codified in its manifesto.

Zimmerman also points to issues with the Trump administration more broadly. The new group’s manifesto offers thinly veiled criticism: “We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community.”

A spokesperson for DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.

There is evidence that nonprofit charter networks do a slightly better job, on average, boosting test scores than independent charter schools. Those findings may explain, in part, why independent charter school leaders bristle at focusing on those metrics.

Zimmerman offered raised specific concerns about the National Alliance, which is funded by philanthropies including the Arnold, Broad, Gates, and Walton foundations. (Chalkbeat is also supported by the Gates and Walton foundations.) Those funders are focused on the replication of networks with high test scores, making the Alliance limited in its ability to represent independent schools, he said.

Christopher Norwood, who runs Florida’s independent charter school group, agreed that the networks exert outsized influence. He pointed to his state, where a recently passed bill to support the creation of new charters in areas where traditional public schools are struggling was limited to networks already operating at least three schools.

“There’s no charter management association of America because their interests are being promoted through the charter associations,” said Norwood, who along with Zimmerman, emphasized that he is not opposed to networks of charters.

Descalzi disputed that characterization of the Alliance.

“The National Alliance represents all public charter schools — including those which belong to a network or function as independent single sites — and we appreciate when any of our constituents take proactive steps to identify areas of need and provide resources to their communities,” she said.

Challenges await a new national organization

The top challenge for any nonprofit getting started is garnering funding. That will be amplified for the independent charters seeking to offer an alternative to charter school establishment — and the groups that financially supported them.

“It’s a huge hurdle,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the Walton Family Foundation, one of the charter sector’s largest benefactors turned down requests to sponsor last week’s conference. “They don’t necessarily see how we fit into their strategic vision, but I’m hoping they will,” he said.

Marc Sternberg, the Walton Foundation’s education program director, disputed the idea that the philanthropy is focused on replicating existing schools, saying they support “all types of schools,” including both “proven charter management organizations” and single schools. In the past eight years, nearly half of the schools funded by Walton’s charter start-up grant program were independent charters, according to the foundation.

Norwood says the new group for independent charters will look into funding itself through membership dues and from sponsorships. (The symposium was supported by a number of businesses that work with charters.)

It’s also unclear how much interest there truly is among the diffuse independent charters across the country for an alternative membership group. The conference brought together a few hundred leaders of the many thousands of such schools.

For now, the organization is its infancy, and Zimmerman says the next step will be creating a national advisory committee to craft a strategic plan.

The work is necessary, he said, if independent charters want to sidestep the problems of the broader sector, which has seen its popularity drop.

“They win battles but they’re losing the war, if the war is hearts and minds of people,”  Zimmerman said, referring to existing charter school advocacy groups and their funders. “We really have to separate ourselves from them as a matter of definition.”