extended time

After closure scare, Opportunity Charter gets five-year renewal

Opportunity Charter School's principal, Marya Baker, is optimistic about the Harlem school's future.

Months after fighting to stay open, a troubled Harlem charter school has secured a long-term future after the Department of Education recommended that it receive the longest-possible charter renewal.

Last fall, Opportunity Charter School was one of six charter schools whose performance landed them on the city’s short-list for closure. Now the city is locked in legal battles to shutter two of schools, Peninsula Preparatory Academy and Williamsburg Charter High School. But Opportunity is set to keep its doors open until at least 2017.

It’s good news for Opportunity, a middle and high school that has had its share of performance and management troubles in recent years. The Harlem school stands apart from many charter schools because it serves older students and maintains an even balance of students with disabilities and students who do not require special education services.

“Opportunity Charter is incredibly pleased to have been recognized by the city for all the hard work we do,” said Principal Marya Baker while chaperoning the school’s prom in the Bronx last Friday. “I think that we’re finally being recognized for being successful for a model that is incredibly difficult and something we feel we do very well — that is, having an inclusive setting for 50 percent of our students who have special needs.”

The about-face is especially remarkable because the city recommended a shortened charter renewal for Opportunity in January. Short-term renewals are given when a charter school has failed to fulfill performance promises but is considered capable of improvement. Opportunity got one in 2010.

The school has made significant strides since then, meeting or exceeding all but a handful of goals set out as terms of the 2010 renewal. Its four-year graduation rate zoomed up, from 32 percent in 2010 to 57 percent last year, and the rate at which the lowest-performing students passed high school Regents exams increased.

But scores are still very low. Last year, just 7 percent of Opportunity’s middle school students passed the state’s reading exams, and just 21 percent passed the reading tests. Not a single high school graduate met the city’s standards for college readiness, compared to 21 percent of graduates citywide.

The city cited those statistics to justify the short-term charter renewal offered in January. “OCS has not fully demonstrated that it is an academic success as illustrated in its overall absolute student performance,” the renewal recommendation reads. It goes on, “Overall, rigor and instruction is lacking throughout the school.”

The department set out performance benchmarks that the school would have to meet each year to stay open after 2014. Those targets included posting a 75 percent six-year graduation rate, doubling students’ college-attendance rate to 50 percent, and retaining 70 percent of staff each year.

Hitting those numbers in two years would have been a stretch. But the school won’t have to try: On May 16, school leaders got the surprising news that Opportunity would get the full five years to show improvement.

The school's website heralded the five-year charter renewal this month.

“After an extensive review process and engagement with Opportunity’s leadership and board, we determined that Opportunity Charter School is well-positioned to serve their students for at least five more years,” said Matthew Mittenthal, a Department of Education spokesman.

The United Federation of Teachers, which began representing teachers at the school last year after a fierce unionization battle, supported the decision.

“Because Opportunity – uniquely among charter schools – has taken on the challenge of working with a large number of high-needs students, the UFT strongly urged that it be given a chance to succeed and a five-year renewal,” said Vice President Leo Casey.

Department of Education officials explained that two years was too little time for Opportunity to make the kinds of improvements that it needs. Over the course of the five-year term, the school will be asked to post performance scores that far outstrip any it has posted before, the officials said.

Some charter school insiders questioned why the same reasoning couldn’t apply to other schools that, like Opportunity, have struggled but shown improvement while serving a challenging student population.

“[Peninsula Prep] is doing a mediocre to okay job, there are no other options in the community, and it’s being closed, whereas a school that’s showing progress but not showing really amazing progress is getting a five-year renewal,” said Dirk Tillotson, who runs a training and support program for charter schools that are not part of networks. “It’s hard to square those two decisions.”

Tillotson added, “Opportunity has taken on hardest kids in the city, but at the same time it doesn’t seem like their performance justifies a five-year renewal.”

The renewal is a bright spot in a troubled history. The school has repeatedly fought to stay open despite consistently low test scores and a series of problems involving staff. In 2010, the city investigated accusations that several of the school’s staff members were physically disciplining students. In 2011, teachers won their bid to unjoin the UFT — but first, more than a dozen teachers who had led the unionization bid were fired at the end of the 2010-2011 school year. The UFT teamed up with the school’s leaders to fight the closure threat last fall.

Now, the school has turned a corner, Baker said. This year’s graduation rate is set to hit 66 percent, besting last year’s city average, she said, adding that several students were heading to college, including to Morehouse and Iona colleges. The office of the school CEO, Leonard Goldberg, is plastered with pictures of the school’s graduating class, accompanied by descriptions of the students’ achievements and plans for the future.

Veronica Conforme, the department’s chief operating officer, visited the school a week before school leaders learned about the five-year renewal. “I did see very positive things happening at the school,” she said today. “I saw a lot of good teaching with a lot of good practices with their special education.”

The new lease on life wasn’t students’ top priority at last week’s prom, but it wasn’t far from their minds, either.

“I’m happy because my boyfriend goes here and if they were to shutdown the school, I don’t know where he’d go,” said senior Amanda Awla, who arrived at the school’s prom in matching colors with her boyfriend, who is in the 11th grade. “I’m happy that he’s going to graduate next year.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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