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.

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”