musical principals

Proposed charter schools find backing from deposed principals

Manhattan Theatre Lab students performed before the school's closure hearing. Its former principal now wants to lead an arts-themed charter school.

Two of the charter schools vying to open next year have the backing of principals from schools the city has moved to close.

One school’s lead applicant is the principal of Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School, which the city this year deemed so low-performing that it should be closed. Another would be led by Evelyn Collins, an arts evangelist who was principal of Manhattan Theatre Laboratory High School when the city school board voted last February to phase it out.

That’s on top of a third school whose board would include a principal who was removed from the district school he ran until 2010.

The three schools are among 23 whose preliminary proposals won their planners an invitation from the State Education Department to submit formal applications to open in New York City. They join another 12 schools that have asked SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute for permission to open in the city.

James Merriman, director of the New York City Charter School Center, said he would not comment on individual school proposals because he was not familiar with them. But he said that opening a charter school is a bad backup plan for school leaders who have stumbled before.

“Anyone who thinks the charter sector will be an easier way to run a successful school, or running a charter school is going to be easy, is in for a big surprise,” Merriman said. “The fact is charters are held to even higher accountability standards than district schools and so I caution anyone who does not have a track record of success in thinking that success will come to them in the charter sector.”

Musical chairs for principals of struggling schools is not new to the city or exclusive to charter schools. Principals of district schools that the city has closed have sometimes wound up with new schools of their own.

One school leader who has found refuge in the charter sector is Jose Maldonado-Rivera, who was removed from Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering in late 2010 after investigators concluded he had an inappropriate relationship with a member of his staff. A year earlier, he had come under fire after a student drowned during an end-of-year field trip that city investigators found had not been supervised adequately.

As the New York Daily News reported in June, Maldonado-Rivera this summer became the founding principal of Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health and Science Charter School in the Bronx. And now he is a member of the “education committee” for another proposed charter school, the Harlem Engineering and Applied Sciences Charter School, according to the school’s letter of intent. Like Columbia Secondary School, HEAS would offer both middle and high school grades and would focus on bringing a challenging science curriculum to a diverse group of students.

Ericka Wala, the principal in charge of Peninsula Prep when the city moved to close it this spring, is the lead applicant behind another proposal, for Bright Futures Academy Charter School. Bright Futures would serve middle school students and offer a curriculum designed to prepare students for the rigorous International Baccalaureate diploma in high school, according to its application. It is being proposed for District 29, in the northeastern corner of Queens.

After the Department of Education said PPA’s test scores were too low to justify its continued existence, families and staff sprung to its defense, saying that the school was a solid option in a neighborhood with few passable schools. A drawn-out court battle means the school is unlikely to close this summer, and Wala said she intends to stay on this fall.

Wala said today that she had started working with other educators on the Bright Futures proposal long before PPA was in jeopardy and that she would join the new school’s board, but not its staff. She said she was driven by a desire to build on the challenging IB curriculum, rare in New York City but more popular in Georgia, where Wala previously worked.

“I wanted to bring that concept to the Queens community,” Wala said about the IB program.

The Bright Futures Academy letter of intent was among three that were withdrawn from this round of consideration because Wala said certain details needed to be tweaked. She said the school would submit an updated letter of intent before the state’s third and final deadline on Sept. 12.

For Collins, winning approval from the state to open Onyx Academy for Performing Arts would mean the realization of a nearly decade-old dream: to build a performing arts school from scratch.

That’s according to Ruth Morrison, a media executive who is on the charter school’s founding board. Morrison said Collins is not yet discussing Onyx Academy with reporters. But she said Collins had been thinking about starting a school since 2003 and began readying the charter proposal after the city decided to close the high school she had been running since 2006, Manhattan Theatre Lab.

Collins had taken over there in 2006 after serving as assistant principal for the arts at Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts. Both schools struggled academically, and last year, the Department of Education moved to close Manhattan Theatre Lab and Wadleigh’s middle school. (Wadleigh was later removed from the closure list at the eleventh hour.)

At Manhattan Theatre Lab’s closure hearing in January, many students praised Collins’s leadership. But some said she had given academics short shrift in her push for excellence in arts.

Despite Manhattan Theatre Lab’s struggles, Collins’s track record is “excellent,” Morrison said today.

According to its charter school proposal, Onyx Academy would open in 2014 as a middle and high school with two separate principals and Collins as the executive director. Like Manhattan Theatre Lab, it would be performance arts-themed and open to any student who applies, regardless of his or her academic or artistic aptitude, according to its proposal. Most other city arts schools require auditions.

It would also accomplish a vision that Collins had begun to sketch out as head of the Onyx Center for the Performing Arts. According to her profile on LinkedIn, a professional social networking site, Collins had since 2008 maintained the center to produce and promote arts that “celebrate the African-American experience for a discriminating audience.” A video that Manhattan Theatre Lab distributed in its defense this winter carried an Onyx trademark. And a Microsoft Word document, published online, that Collins created lists as a central objective “to design a New York State accredited private high school” that Onyx would fund and support.

Information about the production company was removed today from Collins’s LinkedIn page, and a YouTube video about the charter school that Collins promoted on Twitter last month is no longer available. Morrison said she did not know about a previous plan to open Onyx as a private school.

In fact, Morrison said, it’s the flexibility of the charter school model would allow Onyx to succeed where Manhattan Theatre Lab could not. The middle school and high school principals would act as instructional leaders to the teachers, she said, while Collins would handle big-picture, administrative leadership.

Morrison also said that the way students are admitted to charter schools would bring more prepared students. Many of Manhattan Theatre Lab’s students had not applied for the school but instead had been placed there by the Department of Education, she said. In contrast, charter schools select only from students who have opted into an admissions lottery, and Morrison said Onyx Academy’s founders expect all students who apply to have interest in the performing arts — and for admission to be competitive.

“For many of students that came to MTL, that school was not the appropriate setting for them. They weren’t interested in the arts, they weren’t interested in academics, and in many cases, because of their own circumstances they needed resources that the DOE did not provide,” Morrison said. “Generally speaking, when a young person chooses a school to attend, they have some motivation in being there.”

But charter school advocates say research proves that student motivation isn’t the characteristic that causes charter schools to succeed. And Merriman cautioned that the themes underpinning many of the Department of Education’s high schools are less attractive to families seeking charter schools.

When applying to charter schools, “many students may not be interested in the theme at all — what they’re truly interested in is finding a good school,” Merriman said. “The notion that [themed schools] will attract a group of students all of whom are interested in that theme hasn’t necessarily been borne out.”

Planning teams that the State Education Department invited to submit full applications to open new charter schools will have until next month to do so. The state will announce in December which schools will be allowed to open.


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”