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.
“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.”