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.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.