Future of Schools

A Success principal’s case for closing school and going to Albany

Success Academy Harlem Central Principal Andrew Malone is invoking the Civil Rights Movement in rallying parents to fight for their school’s the continued right to operate in public space.

In a nearly-1,000 word letter to parents sent this morning, Malone writes that “our school has become the political target” of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, which last week cancelled space-sharing plans for two new Success Academy charter schools and for Harlem Central to continue expanding into seventh and eighth grades. He sent the letter out this morning, a day before thousands of charter school supporters, many of which will come from Success schools, travel to Albany for a high-profile rally for more support from the state legislature.

“I believe that the only way to advance is to leverage great teaching as a form of political action, and to, at the same time, leverage political action as a defense of great teaching,” Malone writes. “We need both kinds of Freedom Rides.”

The letter was also sent as Success schools face criticism from local lawmakers around CEO Eva Moskowitz’s decision to close schools for the advocacy day, which she has done before, most recently for a citywide rally in October. City Council Education Committee Chair Daniel Dromm has called a hearing to probe the practice.

A full copy of Malone’s letter is below:

To my Harlem Central family: 

One September afternoon in eighth grade, I hauled my oversized backpack to the public library to begin a research project that would end up changing my life. I was studying the 1961 Freedom Rides. As I read about the Rides – a series of nonviolent protests in which hundreds of Americans rode integrated buses through the segregated South – I became completely engrossed. For the next nine months, I trekked from library to library, searching for Greyhound buses in photographs, articles, and films. I saw vehicles engulfed in flames; I read about hostile crowds waiting at terminals; I watched police handcuff riders and escort them to jail. I was shocked, and felt shamefully naïve. I was a sheltered, suburban child, and none of this history fit into my rosy understanding of the world. But along with shock came inspiration. I promised myself that I would dedicate my life to fighting injustice; that I, too, would be a Freedom Rider.

That adolescent vow proved powerful. Where other childhood dreams (astronaut, Supreme Court Justice, “the next Tom Hanks”) fell to the wayside, my commitment to social justice stayed strong. But it also stayed fairly abstract, until I began teaching acting workshops in Boston public schools during college. These schools were terrible. They were nothing like the schools I had known growing up. The disparity really haunted me, and I began to see education inequality as a civil rights issue. Over the next four years, I would come to believe that education inequality was the civil rights issue of our time. Building great schools and classrooms for every child in America – this was our Freedom Ride. So after graduation, I set out to teach.

Since then, I have been lucky enough to seek justice through pedagogy. Working hard to become a better teacher, and then to become a better school leader; this was the nature of the fight. I felt so fortunate that I could pursue justice by debating the best way to teach a poem, the best way to tackle equivalent fractions. By moving kids and teachers to compelling educational outcomes; by creating proof points of academic success in neighborhoods that had for decades been plagued by academic failure; by providing concrete opportunities to kids and families without the economic means to choose their schools and zip codes; by doing all of that through outstanding instruction; that was the nature of my Freedom Ride.

Thursday has changed all of that. Our school has become a political target despite our incredible academic achievements. Our scholars are 100 percent minority, 80 percent low-income. They attend schools in a neighborhood where district schools are failing, posting an average pass rate of five percent last year. Five percent. Yet, our scholars perform as well or better than Westchester and Scarsdale. In 2012, our scholars ranked number one in Manhattan for academic achievement. In 2013, they ranked number one in the state in mathematics. But Thursday, our mayor announced his intent to shut us down.

And so, the nature of the Freedom Ride has changed. It’s not enough, apparently, to build Harlem’s top-performing middle school. Pedagogic advocacy – achieving change through great teaching and learning – is sadly, and unjustly, not enough.

It is impossible to comprehend. It is 2014. Fifty years have passed since LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Yet the Mayor of New York City is trying to shut down a high-performing school serving low-income students. A Mayor who purports to advocate for low-income families. The hypocrisy is baffling and infuriating.

But of course, the hardest part of this all, is that it is happening to us. It is Laminu and Serea, Vakaba and Amanda, Kwame and Kayla, Jayden and Tiayna, Sharron and Staci. Our actors, artists, dancers, basketball players, computer scientists, chess prodigies. Our community, which we have worked so tirelessly to build, which is full of so much concrete success among so much genuine love.

This, for me, is a very hard reality to accept. In the face of large scale injustice – the lack of logic, the blatant hypocrisy, the backwards history – we are the ones who see the impact on the faces and names of real kids and families we know and love. It’s just terrible.

How do we move forward?

I believe that the only way to advance is to leverage great teaching as a form of political action, and to, at the same time, leverage political action as a defense of great teaching. We need both kinds of Freedom Rides.

We must be incredible educators and advocates at the same time. Our teaching has to motivate our advocacy while our advocacy inspires our teaching. In the end, it boils down to the same message we offered the scholars: Be inspired.

In the face of Thursday’s announcement, we cannot help broken hearts. But we cannot permit broken resolve. When we overcome this, we will stand proud as the school that forced New York and the United States of America to put children before politics.

I have always believed that there is a moral arc to the universe. And I believe that Harlem Central has been put to this test because our community is strong enough to survive it. We have the talent, the commitment, and most importantly, the love, to overcome this. We are the ones with the power to propel the moral arc forward.

Take a moment to embrace what stands ahead of us. Heed the call to be incredible teachers and incredible advocates as we lead a new Freedom Ride toward the right side of history.

We will get there.



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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.

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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.