chartering territory

SUNY green-lights 17 more city charter schools, 14 for Success Academy

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Families for Excellent Schools organized a rally in Foley Square in Manhattan that drew thousands of charter school students and parents last week.

The city’s charter school sector, and its largest charter-school network, got a big boost Wednesday.

A State University of New York committee unanimously approved 17 additional charter schools to open over the next two years, with 14 of the charters going to Success Academy, the city’s largest and most controversial network. The other three charters went to Achievement First, a Brooklyn-based network of schools.

Together, the schools are projected to serve more than 11,700 students, according to proposals for both networks — growth that will have major implications for the de Blasio administration, which is facing new budget and space pressures. Under a new state law, the city is required to find the new schools space inside its own buildings or pay the schools a rent subsidy.

The city hasn’t yet decided where it will place any of the planned schools, and the administration has its own plans that will require space in city schools: pre-kindergarten programs and its community schools initiative, which will add health and career services to some struggling schools. Denying the new charter schools public space would mean spending millions on private space under the new law, which was partially spurred by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision in March to block three Success Academy schools from moving into public buildings.

There are hundreds of district school buildings where existing vacancies would make co-location a cost-effective option for siting new schools,” a Success spokesperson said in a statement.

The 17 newly-approved charter schools come after SUNY and the state’s Board of Regents, the state’s other charter authorizer, approved 13 additional charter schools earlier this year. That means just one more charter school can be authorized by SUNY to open in the city under state law. The Board of Regents still has 27 city charters left to approve.

While mostly effusive in their brief remarks about the charter proposals, SUNY officials expressed some concern about the size and oversight of charter management organizations, which now serve similar numbers of students as small school districts. Success Academy’s 14 new schools will add to the 32 that Success currently operates to bring the network to 50 schools—roughly the size of the Savannah, Ga. school district, for example.

SUNY Charter School Institute Executive Director Susan Miller Barker, SUNY trustee Joseph Belluck, and general counsel Ralph Rossi as the authorizer approved 17 city charter schools on Wednesday.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
SUNY Charter School Institute Executive Director Susan Miller Barker, SUNY trustee Joseph Belluck, and general counsel Ralph Rossi as the authorizer approved 17 city charter schools on Wednesday.

“We need to start thinking about how we authorize and monitor and review networks that are this large,” said Joseph Belluck, chair of SUNY’s charter schools committee.

Belluck directed Susan Miller Barker, the director of SUNY’s Charter School Institute, to look into ways SUNY could monitor how charter networks were serving their high-needs students, work more collaboratively with nearby district schools, and replacing students who leave the school—a contested policy known as “backfilling.”

Belluck also took some credit for Success Academy’s recent offer to host a professional development day for district-school principals. Another idea Belluck floated was for networks to share special-education teachers and resources across schools in the same way that districts do. Such a change would require revisions to the state’s charter school law and had encountered opposition from teachers unions in the past.

Miller Barker said that some changes were already underway. She said Success Academy officials told her that they planned to begin replacing students who leave the school at all grades, which would be a dramatic shift from the network’s current policy of only replacing students who leave through third grade.

Critics of Success often cite the network’s backfilling policy as a contributor to its impressive state test scores, since the policy means its elementary schools serve fewer students as they reach tested grades—and many of the students who leave for various reasons might have struggled.

Noah Gotbaum, a member of the District 3 Community Education Council, speaks to press outside Tweed Courthouse, protesting SUNY's decision to approve more charter schools.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Noah Gotbaum, a member of the District 3 Community Education Council, speaks to press outside Tweed Courthouse, protesting SUNY’s decision to approve more charter schools.

A Success spokesperson confirmed the network was changing its enrollment policies, but would only say that it would be filling empty seats up to fourth grade, up from its current cutoff of third grade, in the 2015-16 year. (A spokesman for SUNY later clarified that Miller Barker misspoke about Success backilling in every grade).

Meanwhile, in an illustration of how divisive charter schools remain in the city, and how divisive Success Academy is in particular, parents and City Councilmembers stood outside the Department of Education headquarters on Wednesday to protest SUNY’s approvals. There is too little oversight of how charter schools spend their money, they said, and traditional public schools that are co-located with charter schools remain underfunded, with arts programs cut, occupational therapy sessions held in hallways, and science labs scaled down. They also pointed to enrollment data from SUNY showing that 13 existing Success Academy schools were under-enrolled last October, including three by more than 27 percent. (The Brooklyn parents group, WAGPOPS, compared charter enrollment targets obtained from SUNY via a FOIA request with enrollment figures from education department space-sharing documents.)

“We have a right to say what happens with taxpayer dollars,” said Tesa Wilson, a parent who heads District 14’s Community Education Council.

“This is about oversight. This is about accountability,” said Daniel Dromm, chair of the City Council’s education committee. “This is about creating better public schools in New York City.”

Jessica Glazer contributed reporting. 

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the approvals will bring Success Academy to 50 schools. 

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.