kick the can

Union charter school gets a harsh review and an uncertain fate

When members of SUNY’s Board of Trustees consider whether the nation’s first union-run charter school deserves to stay open, they won’t have much guidance.

That’s because in what could be an unprecedented move, reviewers from the SUNY Charter Schools Institute have declined to recommend a fate for the struggling UFT Charter School in East New York.

The reviewers did not recommend that the school stay open, or that it be closed — despite saying that academic performance was not up to par, discipline bordered on corporal punishment, high-need students were underserved, and basic mechanisms to keep students safe were not in place.

Without the advice, the decision will be left up to a three-member SUNY Charter Schools Committee, which will meet Tuesday morning to consider renewals for 10 charter schools. The UFT Charter School was the lone school not given an endorsement for renewal.

In a report that was also harshly critical of the school’s operations and financial mismanagement, which left the school with a $2.8 million budget deficit, reviewers wrote that they opted out of making a recommendation because not all grades performed poorly enough to justify revocation. The school’s third and fourth grades, which the review recognized for their relatively high test scores, performed well enough to stay open.

James Merriman and Jonas Chartock, former executive directors at the Institute, both said they couldn’t recall an instance when SUNY issued a renewal report that didn’t actually make a renewal recommendation.

“I don’t know of another instance where a recommendation report did not contain a specific recommendation to either renew or not renew,” Merriman, now CEO of the New York City Charter Center, said in an email.

Since it began authorizing charter schools in 2001, the SUNY Charter School Institute has earned a reputation for closing schools that don’t meet its own high authorizing standards. In all, it has closed ten schools since 2004.

But UFT Charter School’s status is a politically sensitive one and the unusual renewal report was highly anticipated.

It also comes at a time when some charter school supporters have called on state authorizers to be more stringent when renewing struggling charter schools. Merriman told Schoolbook that that standard for renewal for authorizers in New York State — including SUNY — “is becoming increasingly low.”

When it opened in 2005, the UFT Charter School was held up by union leaders as a promising experiment that would prove a point to critics: Union contracts could exist in successful charter schools. By posting higher scores, the school would “dispel the misguided and simplistic notion that the union contract is an impediment to success,” Randi Weingarten, then the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said at the time of its opening.

But the school experienced a high rate of teacher and leadership turnover early on. Over the last seven years, five principals have been in charge of the middle and high schools; 30 teachers left the school two years ago during a staff shakeup. The school has lost dozens of students amidst the tumult and the ones who stayed have not performed as well academically as similar students who attend nearby district schools.

Executive Director Shelia Evans-Tranumn did not respond to messages left on her phone this afternoon. But in a statement provided by a union spokesman, she said school officials “take issue with some of the assertions made in the report.”

She said the school has altered its disciplinarian and school safety policies, which reviewers wrote had in past years resembled corporal punishment and contributed to the high student attrition.

“All substantiated incidents of inappropriate discipline – often involving verbal rather than physical confrontations – have resulted in further training for the staff involved,” Evans-Tranumn said. “The school has intensified its overall counseling on how to deal with disruptive behavior by students.”

High attrition was also one reason the school faces steep debt. The school lost $1 million in funding when 75  students left the school in a short period of time, according to documents provided at a school board meeting last year.  The school also has to payback another $1.8 million in loans made by the teachers union.

The report also said that the school was not conducting criminal background checks for its employees. Evans-Tranumn said that the school has since updated its fingerprint files for all employees or contractors working at the school.

And students with several disabilities were not adequately being served at the school, according to the report. But Evans-Tranumn said that some of their parents “have determined that they do not want to relocate their children and believe their children’s needs are being met in the less restrictive environment of the UFT Charter School.”

UFT Charter School Renewal Report — SUNY by

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”