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

Big speeches

Emanuel tries to shore up education legacy in final budget address

PHOTO: Elaine Chen/Chalkbeat
Rahm Emanuel at Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village, moments before he announced this year's $1 billion capital plan.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel choked up twice during his final budget address to Chicago’s City Council Wednesday morning: once when he talked about his wife, Amy Rule, and the other when he read aloud a letter from a John Marshall High School senior who lives on Chicago’s West Side.

The address highlighted millions he wants to spend to expand after-school programming, middle school mentoring, and a summer jobs initiative for Chicago teens. It also signaled loud and clear how Emanuel views his legacy: as the mayor who took the reins when the city faced a $600 million deficit and then righted Chicago’s fiscal ship, while pushing for the expansion of programs that serve public schools and children.

In the speech, he ticked off such accomplishments as expanding kindergarten citywide from a half- to a full-day, extending the city’s school day, increasing the graduation rate to a record 78.2 percent up from 57 percent when he took office in 2011, and paving the path for universal pre-kindergarten, though that initiative is still in the early stages.

“When you step back and look at the arc of what we’ve done in the past seven years, and take a wide lens view, from free pre-K to free community college, from Safe Passage to mentors to more tutors in our neighborhood libraries … at end of day, it is really no different than what Amy and I, or you and your partner, would do for your own children,” he said.

Emanuel, the former congressman and chief of staff for President Barack Obama who announced on the first day of school in September that he won’t be running for re-election, acknowledged that shoring up civic finances isn’t glitzy work — not like, say, plopping a major park in the middle of downtown, as his predecessor Richard M. Daley did by opening Millennium Park.

But, said Emanuel, “one thing I’ve learned in the past 24 years in politics is that they don’t build statues for people who restore fiscal stability.”

Outside of the longer school day and school year, the mayor stressed his work expanding programming for children — particularly teenagers — after school and in summers as an antidote to the city’s troubling violence that did not abate in his term. Amid a $10.7 billion budget plan that includes a chunk of new tax-increment finance dollars that will go toward schools, the new budget lays out $500,000 more funding for his signature Summer Jobs program, bringing projected total spending on that up to $18 million in 2019.

He also set aside $1 million for his wife’s Working on Womanhood mentoring program that currently serves 500 women and girls, $1 million more for the after-school program After School Matters, and more money for free dental services at Chicago Public Schools and trauma-informed therapy programs.

The mayor’s address had barely ended when the Chicago Teachers Union sent an email with the subject line “No victory lap for this failed mayor.” It pointed to blemishes on Emanuel’s education record, from closing 50 schools in 2013 to systemic failings in the city’s special education program — an issue that now has Chicago Public Schools under the watchful eye of a state monitor.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey called on the city’s next mayor to restore money to mental health clinics and social services, fund smaller class sizes, broaden a “sustainable schools” program that partners community agencies with languishing neighborhood schools, and invest in more social workers, psychologists, nurses, librarians, and teachers’ assistants.

In his address, Emanuel did not talk about some of the tough decisions the school district had to make during tough budget years, such as the school closings or widespread teacher layoffs that topped 2,000 that same year. 

He did, however, stress his philosophy that investments in children must extend beyond the typical school day. In the letter from the Marshall High School senior, the teen wrote that, until his freshman year of high school, “I never saw or met any males like me who lead successful lives.” The letter went on to praise the nonprofit Becoming A Man, a male mentoring program that has expanded among Chicago schools during Emanuel’s tenure.

The teen intends to attend Mississippi Valley State University next fall, the mayor said. When Emanuel pointed out the young man and his Becoming A Man program mentor in the City Council chambers, many in attendance gave them a standing ovation.

 

 

Schola Latina

With school board approval, new Detroit Latin School plans to enroll students as soon as next fall

Plans for the new Detroit Latin School involve renovating the former Brady Elementary School building on Detroit's west side.

Detroit students in grades 5 through 7 might start enrolling as soon as next fall in a new school focused on the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

The new Detroit Latin School, which hopes to eventually serve students in grades K through 12, won approval from the Detroit school board Tuesday night to enter into a 99-year, $1 lease for an abandoned school on the city’s west side.

The school is one of two new schools opening next year as the district makes a play to recruit some of the 30,000 Detroit children who currently commute to the suburbs for school.

When news of the school first broke last month, some critics grumbled that the district should focus on supporting its existing schools rather than opening new ones. The 106-school district has dozens of buildings that are half-full or in serious disrepair. Others wondered why a district overwhelmingly serving African-American students is backing a school that emphasizes European culture rather than building additional Afrocentric schools.

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he hopes the Latin school’s unusual curriculum will appeal to families who might otherwise shun the district and will keep students — and the state funds that come with them — in the district rather than see them flow to charter or suburban schools.  

Board members, who approved an agreement for the Latin school in a unanimous vote Tuesday night, said they hope the district will hold the new school to high academic standards and will push to make sure that ancient African cultures such as Carthage and Kush are incorporated in the school’s curriculum along with Greece and Rome. They also called on the district to add Afrocentric programs to its schools.

“I’m pleased with this and excited,” said board member Misha Stallworth. “I like the classics but I also hope that as we continue to look at new school opportunities, we can pursue subjects that are a little more reflective of our community.”

According to an agreement approved by the board Tuesday, the new school will be run by the George Washington Scholars Endowment, an organization founded in 1785 that has opened similar schools in Washington, D.C., and New York.

The Detroit version will be a traditional district school, subject to school board oversight and policies. Teaching staff will be district employees and members of district unions, though some administrators will work for the endowment.

The district will pay for routine maintenance and operations, while the endowment plans to raise money — as much as $75 million — to support the school and to renovate the former Brady Elementary School on the city’s west side.

The endowment, which will operate the Latin School in another district building for two years while the Brady campus is being renovated, has ambitious plans involving a four-building campus in a traditional quad configuration. The campus will include a lower school serving grades K through 6, an upper school serving grades 7 through 12, a science and technology building, a “center for rhetoric and performing arts,” and a dormitory.

The agreement authorizes the school to house about 20 international students in the dorm.  

It’s not clear what happens if the endowment falls short of its ambitious fundraising goals. The agreement approved Tuesday calls for the property to revert back to the district if it is no longer being used as a traditional public school.

Also not clear is what happens if the school struggles academically or doesn’t meet the district’s expectations for serving students. The agreement approved Tuesday largely spells out the financial relationship between the district and the school and doesn’t go into detail about the school’s curriculum or academic policies beyond specifying that they will align with Michigan state standards.

The agreement states that if the district terminates the lease, it would have to repay the endowment for its renovation expenses — a provision that one school board member encouraged the district to reconsider as it negotiates the final language for the lease.

“I would push you to think about the terms under which you can cancel the lease,” said board member Sonya Mays. “There’s a requirement in here that we would have to pay back for the first 20 years. I would hope that we can carve out …. If they don’t meet academic standards or something like that. So just making sure that [repayment] is not sort of a blanket requirement on our end.”

Vitti said the district will require the school to meet or exceed the district average for academic performance.

The Latin school will be open to all Detroit residents but admission will be selective, based on grades and a student interview — not on standardized tests. The school will open initially with just fifth, sixth and seventh grades. It plans to add additional grades once it moves to its permanent building in 2021.