the plot thickens

Charter high school's founders announce resignation in a mysterious letter

A couple who founded an East Harlem charter high school three years ago abruptly resigned this week amid leadership reshuffling — but they aren’t going quietly.

Nicholas and Rita Tishuk, who founded Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation in 2010, took parting shots at the school’s board of trustees in a resignation email sent to friends and staff on Tuesday evening. In the letter, forwarded to Chalkbeat New York by one of its recipients, the Tishuks said they left voluntarily in the middle of the year because of unspecified actions from the board.

“We love the school and we are deeply saddened to be leaving mid-year,” the married couple writes. “However, given recent actions by Innovation’s Board of Trustees, we can not in good conscience remain at the school any longer.”

Exactly what those actions were are not specified in the email, which Nicholas Tishuk confirmed that he sent. (He declined to comment about the message’s contents.) But the Tishuks suggested that illicit activities might have taken place.

They cited “critical governance problems” and said they’ve handed over evidence to the city Department of Education that has led to an investigation. The school was authorized by the city to open in 2010 and will be up for a five-year renewal next year.

Frank Sala, the chair of the school’s board, declined to comment on the Tishuks’ departure. “We feel that the Innovation Board acted appropriately, with integrity and consistent with its fiduciary duties and the interests of our students and our school,” Sala said in a statement. “Because this is a personnel matter we will not otherwise comment.”

A spokesman for the department did not immediately confirm if an investigation is open into the school. The school’s website, www.innovationhs.org, which is registered to Nicholas Tishuk, has been down since at least Tuesday night.

A possible sign of brewing tension is that the school’s lawyer recently became its executive director. Stephen Falla-Riff was previously the school’s general counsel and director of operations, according to cached files found online. But his LinkedIn page now states that he is the school’s executive director, a position that a source familiar with the school said that he has held for “a few months.”

The school has also come into tension recently with others in the city’s charter sector. Last year, Nicholas Tishuk was among a handful of charter school principals who publicly stated their opposition to a rally organized by Success Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz and other large charter management organizations. Tishuk, who was a teacher and administrator at the Renaissance Charter School in Queens before leaving to replicate the school’s model in East Harlem, favors a progressive approach that is rarely seen in charter schools serving mostly high-need students.

Renaissance is one of the city’s few charter high schools and has gained a reputation for taking in hard-to-serve students. Over one-third of its students have special education plans, higher than the city averages, making the school notable within the charter sector. In just its fourth year of operation, it hasn’t gotten a grade from the city because it hasn’t yet graduated any students.

The school has struggled to hold on to staff in its early years. The school reported 44 percent teacher attrition and 29 percent administrator attrition, according to data collected last year. And a review of minutes from monthly board meetings — which had been posted on the school website before the site was taken down — hint at ongoing staffing concerns at the school.

The school has its sights on turning itself into a career and technical school that trains students to be certified in computer science upon graduation. It applied to change its charter to reflect the direction over the summer and was named as one of 20 schools where the city would operate a computer science initiative beginning this year.

This story has been updated to include a statement from the school’s board.

A copy of the Tishuks’ letter is below.

From: Nicholas Tishuk

Date: January 7, 2014 at 5:24:28 PM EST
To: Nicholas Tishuk, Rita Tishuk
Subject: Nicholas and Rita Tishuk

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am writing you to share with you that Rita and I have resigned our positions at the Renaissance Charter HS for Innovation and that today was our last day as employees. We love the school and we are deeply saddened to be leaving mid-year. We will especially miss the students, staff and families.

As the school’s co-founders, Innovation has been the primary focus in our lives since 2008, when we first began the planning process that led to Innovation. However, given recent actions by Innovation’s Board of Trustees, we can not in good conscience remain at the school any longer.

We have provided detailed information and documents to our authorizer at the NYCDOE in this matter and an investigation is underway. We sincerely hope that critical governance problems can be addressed and the excellent work of Innovation can be continued. Our model of serving at-risk teenagers, many of whom are students with IEPs, overaged and undercredited student, ELLs or students coming in below grade level through project based and experiential learning is a powerful one and we strongly believe in its ability to serve communities such as Innovation’s in East Harlem.

While our time at Innovation has come to a close, Rita and I will continue our work in the education sector. We apologize for the form letter and we hope to have individual conversations with many of you in the coming weeks. We appreciate so much your support of our work and we look forward to continuing the relationships we have built over the years.

If you want to get in touch, please drop us a line: Phone:
[REDACTED] (Nick) or [REDACTED] (Rita) or via email:
[REDACTED] and [REDACTED]

Best,

Nicholas Tishuk
Rita Tishuk
Co-founders, the Renaissance Charter HS for Innovation

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.