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 Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”


Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbian Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

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Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.