unchartered territory

In New York City, a new siting process paves the way for more charter schools

The state budget bill’s expected passage includes several dramatic education policy shifts for the city, but perhaps none have been more fiercely debated than new provisions for providing new city charter schools with free or subsidized space.

Now that the dust has settled, the process that those charter schools will go through to get access to that space is under new scrutiny, as lawmakers and advocacy groups work to make sense of the new provisions.

The budget agreement doesn’t dig into the city’s mayoral control law, but it does dictate, quite specifically, what Mayor Bill de Blasio can and can’t do when apportioning public school space.

Here’s what we know about how the process will work. From now on, New York City is required to provide new charter schools with “access to facilities,” which is enshrined in law as either a free co-location plan or a rent subsidy for private space. After 2016, the state will cover some of the private costs.

Under the provision, eligible schools will need to submit a “written request” for public space, which state officials said could be done as part of their charter application. It is then up to the city to respond with an offer of city-owned space or pay a school extra to find its own facility.

But if de Blasio chooses the co-location route, he will be limited in where he can place the schools. The provision states that a school must get space in the district that its charter was approved for, meaning de Blasio could have trouble putting a school approved for the South Bronx in another high-needs area, such as East New York or Brownsville.

The law’s provision makes it clear that the plans also must follow the same rules governing its current co-location process.

For some lawmakers, the outlines weren’t enough of an explanation for how the space-allocation process—a fraught topic in New York City—will play out.

“No one can actually explain how this will actually work,” Manhattan Senator Liz Krueger said on the Senate floor while professing her opposition to the charter school provisions.

Harlem Assembly member Keith Wright, who sponsored a bill to curtail mayoral control because he disagreed with the Bloomberg administration’s handling of its space-sharing authority, said he was more supportive of the deal.

“I don’t know if I’m optimistic,” said Wright, whose district encompasses many of the charter school co-locations that have stoked the most controversy. “I’ll say I’m hopeful that we can at least stop the tension.”

Nevertheless, the law anticipates tension between the city and future charter schools and lays out a process for settling disputes over assigned space. Charter schools have 30 days after receiving the city’s offer to appeal, which can be done with a court lawsuit, a direct appeal to the state education commissioner, or through an independent arbitrator.

The teachers union and parents have often taken such legal action against the city in the past as a way to challenge Bloomberg’s charter school co-locations. Some were initially successful, but few, if any, resulted in reversing any co-locations purely through litigation.

It’s not clear how much these provisions will cost the city, state officials said. But de Blasio won’t have to pay much next year, when most of the new charter schools are already sited for public school space. And the three schools whose co-location plans were nixed by de Blasio in February are likely to get their space back as a result of the state legislation.

The city will incur more significant costs in the 2015-2016 school year and in subsequent years. In addition to the 24 schools approved to open next year and in 2015, the city is permitted to open an additional 52 schools under the state’s charter cap. Most of those schools have already been approved for public space and the de Blasio administration has said the 2015 plans are pending.

Under the new provisions, the city would be allowed to pay whichever is cheaper: the 20 percent extra in per pupil money, or the cost of rent that a private landlord is charging. 

One example of a charter school planning to open in 2015 is Charter High School for Law and Social Justice, which is seeking space in the South Bronx. If it opened in private space, they could be eligible, unless rent is cheaper, for roughly $333,000 from the city. The figure is based on additional per-pupil funding for 2015-2016, $2,775, and the 120 students who are projected to attend the school in its first year.


Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the future site plans for the Charter High School for Law and Social Justice. 

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defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.