war of attrition

The quieter charter school divide: what you need to know about 'backfill'

As rancorous charter school space debates continue to dominate the headlines, another lower-profile round of discussion about who attends the schools is just beginning.

Charter leaders strategizing about how to work with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and avoid paying rent say that they believe committing to particular enrollment policies could be one way to assuage de Blasio’s and Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s concerns about charter schools “doing their part.”

One main issue is backfill, or what happens to space vacated by students who leave charter schools. Some schools, seeking to fulfill a larger mission and bolster their finances, fill those spots by calling students off of their waiting lists. Other schools focus on teaching the students who remain, avoiding a potential drop in test scores and the social and academic disruption of adding new students.

The debate over which policy is best has long divided the charter sector, as critics have charged that schools that do not backfill are not serving their share of high-needs students.

Now, the issue is growing in prominence as school leaders try to anticipate how the mayor will deal with charter schools in the years ahead, and especially how the city might charge charter schools rent to operate in public space. Meanwhile, financial pressures on schools already paying rent have made backfilling a necessity for a growing number of schools.

De Blasio’s meeting with a coalition of 34 charter school leaders on Monday — city officials’ second sit-down with them in two weeks — didn’t get into detailed policy discussions, though attendees said the conversation touched on how to use enrollment policy to promote equity. But the charter leaders are now planning regular meetings with city officials and say they expect the backfill issue to resurface.

“I think facilities is probably the bigger one,” Future Is Now founder and coalition member Steve Barr said of the issues on the table. “But they might say, these are some things that we need assurances on.”

Some charter leaders outside the coalition agreed. “It’s definitely more of a public policy issue than it has been in the past,” said Steve Evangelista, co-founder of Harlem Link Charter School.

One of de Blasio’s few points of leverage over charter schools

Charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately managed, sit outside the mayor’s authority. De Blasio does have the power to set the conditions by which charter schools can operate in public space, though. Governor Andrew Cuomo said as much last week when he asked, “The question becomes, what should the criteria for co-location be?”

The city has laid out some criteria for next year’s co-locations, but they were logistical considerations like the ages of the students who would be sharing a building and the proposed school’s size. The mayor has yet to say how he will make decisions about charging charter schools rent, a key campaign promise.

Requiring certain enrollment practices like backfill could make sense, given Fariña’s criticism of charter schools that she says don’t serve similar populations as district schools. Last week, she criticized Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz for implying that there are certain high-needs students “she cannot help, necessarily, because she doesn’t have the resources for them.”

One charter leader described the potential trade-off this way: The city provides space rent-free if the schools commit to more inclusive enrollment tactics. Then the choice becomes the operator’s: do we want to go along, or stick to our model and pay a penalty for it?

For Stacey Gauthier, principal at Renaissance Charter School, the decision to backfill in every grade wasn’t really a decision at all. Like other charter schools, her school has waiting list of students, which many schools cite as evidence of their success and demand.

“It was just natural, just organic,” Gauthier said. “You have a space, there are 2,500 kids on a wait list—why would you not fill the space? It never crossed my mind—’Wow, don’t backfill because you might have to work harder to make that kid a Renaissance kid.'”

“My charter colleagues should really look closely if their enrollment practices don’t look equitable,” she said.

Backfill comes at a cost to schools

Others, including some coalition members, argue that the choice is more complicated. In 2012, the New York City Charter School Center put that ideological divide mildly. “NYC charter school leaders have mixed opinions about backfill enrollment,” its State of the Sector report said.

Backfilling seats that open up can pose steep challenges for schools. Students who enter the school midyear or at one of a school’s higher grade levels can have trouble adjusting to a new school and be academically behind. Midyear entries especially are more likely to have unstable home lives, leading to them leaving the school—meaning that one “backfilled” seat might actually be filled by two or three students over the course of a year.

Research has shown that students who leave charter schools tend to be lower-performing academically, so not replacing them can boost scores overall — a move that benefits charter schools that are eager to prove their value.

“On one hand, why should they?” said Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University. “It’s a real disruption for the classroom teacher. Traditional public schools are plagued with this problem, especially in high-poverty areas where there is lots of student attrition.”

An understanding of those challenges and a desire to maintain a particular school’s culture has led some charter school networks to reject backfilling, especially in the higher grades. Success Academies only backfill through the third grade, and students in all subsequent grades up to high school must have started by that grade.

Success Academy has said that their longer school days and years help students jump so far ahead academically that placing older students in without that background would be unfair to them. Last year, 58 percent of its students were deemed proficient in reading and 80 percent in math on state exams.

“We want all children to feel and be successful. We wouldn’t want the newer children to be at a disadvantage,” a Success spokeswoman said last year.

Actually getting seats filled can also be no easy feat.

Charter schools face the question of whether to hold back incoming students who are behind academically or insert them into the grade they were expecting to attend, knowing that families might not accept a spot for their child if it means he or she is held back a grade.

And since state law requires charter schools to admit students by lottery, a school must start at the top of its waiting list and contact families until one accepts to fill a seat that becomes vacant. That process can take time if families have gotten comfortable at the school their child attends, making the choice to fill seats a costly one logistically. In contrast, the city assigns students to district schools, which do not have to use their own resources to fill seats.

It also has ideological and material benefits

Despite the challenges, charter schools have good reasons to fill seats that become vacant.

District schools take students after their entry grades and many accept students mid-year, and not doing so raises questions about whether charter schools are doing enough to educate a fair share of high-needs students. In addition, it complicates performance comparisons between charter and district schools — which the charter sector cites as a justification for growing – if the schools follow different enrollment rules.

Two weeks ago, the chair of Harlem Link Charter School’s board of trustees asked a question of the room during a board meeting: Who thinks it’s in the best interest of the community to continue the school’s backfilling policy?

It was a loaded question. Evangelista, the school’s co-founder, has spoken openly about his school’s policy of accepting new students at every grade and its connection to the school’s relatively lower test scores. Last year, 17 percent of its students cleared the state’s proficiency bar in reading, below the city average, and 29 percent did in math, which is at the city average.

“What is the community? Is it just the school community, when it’s very clear that bringing kids in that don’t know our school and its culture is very clearly detrimental?” Evangelista asked.

He has answered that question with a no, for now, and Harlem Link is choosing to define “community” as the broader neighborhood and school system.

There are financial as well as ideological considerations. A district school that loses a student after Oct. 31 keeps its funding for that student, but a charter school loses funding for a student as soon as the student leaves. Allowing more seats to remain unfilled each year exacts a steeper toll on school budgets.

For many charter schools, especially those in private space that have to pay rent, budgets are so tight that operating at anything but their highest capacity makes the school unsustainable. With prospective charter operators not counting on generous offers of public space from the de Blasio administration, backfilling may become more common.

Judi Kende, who works with prospective charter school operators through the Low Income Investment Fund, an organization that finances charter school facilities, has seen that trend firsthand. When LIIF is assessing a charter school’s financial viability, backfill policy gets special attention, Kende said.

“People are doing more backfilling. They kind of have to if they have real estate space,” Kende said.

For now, a mix of policies

Charter schools must spell out their enrollment policies when they ask for permission to operate. But authorizers have been loath to require charters to adopt one backfill policy or another, seeing it as one way in which the schools exercise the autonomy that defines them as a charter school, and so schools frequently include vague language in their charters.

“In terms of just replacing students, we leave that up to schools,” said Susan Miller Barker, the head of SUNY’s Charter School Institute. (The institute does plan to require more explicit descriptions of enrollment policy from new applicants, it announced in January.)

That leaves the city’s charter schools with a patchwork of policies, and some have changed over time. Democracy Prep and Explore Schools both accept students in all grades, for example, as do Beginning with Children II and Brooklyn Excelsior Charter School, while Harlem Village Academy doesn’t backfill upper grades.

In a Nov. 2009 report in Education Sector, Achievement First CFO Max Polaner said “the dream was to bring in kindergartners only,” given the difficulties of backfilling. The network’s application for the K-8 Achievement First Central Brooklyn, set to open next fall, notes that it will backfill up to the eighth grade.

For now, the coalition of charter schools sitting down with city officials is thinking about a number of policy issues to tackle down the line, with facilities and enrollment at the top of the list, Gauthier said.

“They’ve said, ‘We want this to be two-way, we know these are items that need to be addressed. We hope you can be our thought partners in this,’” she said.

De Blasio could draw inspiration from Massachusetts, which required all charter schools to backfill in some grades beginning in 2010, or from Denver and New Orleans, which use universal enrollment systems to ensure that charter and district schools follow the same policies. But De Blasio has so far not prioritized enrollment policy when discussing charter equity issues, and Evangelista cautioned that there are many possible policy priorities for City Hall.

“The policy debate right now is a sprawling octopus, and his office has the potential to drive attention to one or two things,” Evangelista said. “It could be testing, English Language learners, special ed, recruitment—these are all hot buttons.”

We’ve created a survey to collect information about backfill policies. Have firsthand experiences or knowledge of the process? Fill that out here

This story has been updated to clarify the difference between district and charter school funding over time. 

Overhaul Efforts

The entire staffs at two troubled New York City high schools must reapply for their jobs

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in 2015 with Automotive High School Principal Caterina Lafergola, who later left the school. Automotive is one of eight schools where teachers have had to reapply for their jobs in recent years.Now, teachers at two more schools will have to do the same. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

In a bid to jumpstart stalled turnaround efforts, the entire staffs at two troubled high schools will have to reapply for their jobs — an aggressive intervention that in the past has resulted in major staff shake-ups.

The teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and paraprofessionals at Flushing High School in Queens and DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx will have to re-interview for their positions beginning next spring, education department officials said Thursday, the same day that staffers learned of the plan. Meanwhile, Flushing Principal Tyee Chin, who has clashed bitterly with teachers there, has been ousted; his replacement will take over Friday, officials said. (DeWitt Clinton’s principal will stay on.)

Both schools are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature “Renewal” program for low-performing schools, but have struggled to hit their improvement targets. They are also under state pressure to make significant gains or face consequences, leading to speculation that the rehiring is meant partly to buy the city more time before the state intervenes. (Last year, Flushing was the only school out of two-dozen on a state list of low-achieving city schools not to meet its turnaround goals.)

“Having a strong leader and the right team of teachers is essential to a successful school,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and this re-staffing process is the necessary next step in the work to turnaround these schools.”

The staffing change stems from an agreement between the de Blasio administration and the city teachers union, who have agreed to the same process for eight other schools since 2014. Among the six schools that went through the process last year, nearly half of the staff members left — either because they were not rehired or they chose not to reapply.

As part of the deal, hiring decisions will be made by committees at each school comprised of the principals and an equal number of union and city appointees. Unlike when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to overhaul bottom-ranked schools by replacing their principals and at least half of their teachers, these committees can choose to hire as many or as few of the current teachers as they choose.

In the past, the city has placed teachers who were not retained through the rehiring process in other schools — a move that drew criticism for overriding principals’ authority to choose their own staffs. City officials would not provide details about the arrangement for Flushing or Clinton other than to say that the education department would help teachers who left the schools find new placements.

The education department “will work with each teacher to ensure they have a year-long position at a school next year,” spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email.

Both high schools have already endured a destabilizing amount of turnover: Since 2013, more than half the teachers at both schools have left, according to the teachers union. And Flushing’s incoming principal, Ignazio Accardi, an official in the department’s Renewal office, is the sixth in six years.

The school’s outgoing principal, Tyee Chin, had a brief and troubled tenure.

Last year — his first on the job — he wrote a letter to his staff describing a toxic environment that he called “the Hunger Games for principals,” where he said some teachers keep up a “war cry” for a new leader. Meanwhile, the teachers union lodged a discrimination complaint against Chin with a state board, alleging that he threatened to press “racism and harassment” charges against the school’s union representative simply for carrying out her duties, said United Federation of Teachers Vice President of High Schools Janella Hinds.

“Principal Chin came in with an attitude that wasn’t collaborative or supportive,” Hinds said. “We’re dealing with a school community that has had a long list of principals who were not collaborative.”

In an email, Chin disputed the union representative’s allegations and said many staffers did not want him to leave.

“Only a small number of teachers were unhappy with my leadership because they were held to a higher expectations [sic] and or were investigated for inappropriate actions,” he said. “I have received many emails from staff telling me they are very sorry and that it was a pleasure having me as their principal.”

Chin’s departure comes after DeWitt Clinton’s previous principal, Santiago Taveras, who also sparred with teachers, was removed last year after city investigators found he had changed student grades. He was replaced by Pierre Orbe, who will remain in his position.

The education department will host recruitment events during the spring and summer to bring in teacher applicants, who will be screened by the schools’ staffing committees, officials said.

However, it may be difficult to find seasoned teachers willing to take on such tough assignments.

When the teachers at Brooklyn’s long-struggling Automotive High School were forced to reapply for their jobs in 2015, the majority left. Many of their replacements were rookies, said then-principal Caterina Lafergola.

“Many of the schools that are going through the rehiring have a stigma attached to them,” she said last year. “It’s very hard to recruit strong candidates.”

Not long after, Lafergola left the school, too.

Update: This story has been updated to include a response from the outgoing principal of Flushing High School, Tyee Chin.

Future of Schools

For Indianapolis principals hoping to improve, one program says practice makes perfect

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy.

Mariama Carson has spent 20 years as an educator, first as a teacher and now as principal of Global Prep Academy. But in all that time, she never found training that prepared her as well as what she learned over two weeks last summer.

Carson, along with 23 other Indianapolis school leaders, was chosen to be a fellow in a principal training program through the Relay Graduate School of Education. Almost immediately, she noticed a big difference from previous coaching she’d had: They practiced everything.

How do you teach kids the right way to walk in the hallway? They practiced it. How do you let a teacher know she’s struggling? They practiced it. What are the precise words to use in an evaluation? More practice.

“The commitment to practice is what has been so different,” Carson said. “Whatever we learn in Relay … it’s not just something someone has told you about. You’ve practiced it. You’ve lived it.”

Relay, a six-year-old New York-based organization, was founded by a cadre of leaders from high-performing charter school networks. Practice, role-playing and applied learning are at the center of their work with educators, which for five years has included a year-long principal fellowship.

In the 2016-17 school year, Relay trained about 400 school leaders in the United States. Fellows from Indianapolis were chosen and sponsored by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit. Joe White, who directs The Mind Trust’s school support initiatives, said he was happy with the response during the last round of applications. The next cohort, whose members will be announced this month, will be larger and contain more Indianapolis Public School educators, as well as charter school principals, he said.

The Mind Trust wants to make the training “available to as many new operators as possible to continue expanding this work across the city,” White said. “We think that this is the way that we create sustainable schools that will provide high-quality results and outcomes for kids for a very long time.”

Two principals in the midst of the program told Chalkbeat that the fellowship is already changing the culture and efficiency of their schools. The principals spent the fellowship’s two-week summer training session in Denver learning how to best collect and analyze student data, give feedback to teachers and create a school building that runs smoothly.

“The practice and critical feedback we got was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” said Mariama Carson, a principal at Global Prep Academy, which is housed in the IPS Riverside 44 building. “Usually as a principal, you don’t get that kind of feedback.”

But Relay, which also has teacher training programs, has its share of critics. Kenneth Zeichner, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, analyzed non-university-affiliated teacher training programs, including Relay’s. Although he hasn’t looked into the principal program specifically, he said he is troubled that the teacher training curriculum emphasizes using test scores to gauge results at the expense of a more well-rounded assessment of students, who many times are coming from families living in poverty.

He also worries Relay as a whole is too focused on fast growth, rather than on proving its methods work. There have been no independent studies done on whether Relay produces better teachers than other alternative or university programs, Zeichner said, although one is underway.

“My concern about Relay is not that they exist,” Zeichner said. “If you’re going to measure the quality of a teacher education program — of any program — the independent vetting, or review, of claims about evidence (is) a baseline minimum condition.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Carson and Bakari Posey, principal at IPS School 43. The two just completed their second of several training sessions, which will continue through the rest of the school year.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to be part of the fellowship?

Carson: The job of a principal is so lonely. To have the opportunity to work with high-quality, hard-working principals across the country is always inviting.

Posey: I wanted to make sure that I was able to appropriately and efficiently and effectively develop the people on our team. That’s what really drew me in. It’s shaped my thinking and sharpened my lens as a leader and what I’m looking for in classrooms.

What have you learned so far that you’re implementing in your school?

Carson: It’s been transformative in how our building is run just on the cultural side. Relay has really helped us understand that especially with adult learners, you have to start with the “why.” And then we model, and the teachers (in my school) play the position as students. We go into full acting mode, and then the teachers execute that practice. For two weeks before the kids even showed up, that’s what our teachers were doing. Normally, I’d hand my teachers a packet of procedures and expectations, but we never practiced.

Posey: We’ve started to implement already … around coaching teachers — how we give that feedback and give teachers bite-sized action steps to work on instead of making a list of 12 things to do at once. If you do one thing better every single day, then you get better overall. Something else that’s big for me is student work exemplars — actually having an example of excellence for student work that the teacher creates and uses to guide feedback. Overall it’s just kind of helped to organize my thinking as a school leader and really kind of give you a little bit of a road map towards student growth and overall school success. It’s the best professional development I’ve ever been a part of.

How have teachers back in your schools responded to the changes you have introduced, including suggestions on improving instruction, evaluations, etc.?

Carson: Teachers have been responding well, and they’re getting used to this culture, a culture of practice. Even in our feedback sessions where we’re coaching teachers, it’s “OK, execute the lesson — I’ll be the student, you be the teacher.”

Posey: They’ve been receptive. It’s not coming from a place of “gotcha” or I’m trying to make you look really bad. It’s really coming from a place of really getting better for our students to really give them the best, which is what they deserve.