Newsroom

As recruitment dips, TFA leader says New York training site to close

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Charissa Fernandez, the executive director of Teach for America - New York City.

Teach for America is having trouble recruiting candidates to teach in New York City schools and will close its New York training site in anticipation of declining numbers, the organization’s New York City leader told program alumni on Friday.

“Teach For America is in the midst of a challenging recruitment year,” Charissa Fernandez said in an email, attributing the difficulties in part to “a contentious national dialogue around education and teaching in general, and TFA in particular.”

The nonprofit, which has been sending teachers into New York City schools for 25 years, has already seen its presence in the city shrink recently. In 2008, TFA placed 536 teachers in city schools, a number that dropped to 216 by 2010 thanks to city budget cuts and a lengthy hiring freeze. The organization placed about 400 teachers in the city this year.

The declining numbers don’t come as a surprise. Last month, Fernandez told Chalkbeat that her goal was not getting the program back to its former size but improving its quality and getting teachers to stay in the classroom.

“That means that we’re thinking really carefully about where we place, and we will probably get a little smaller next year,” Fernandez said.

TFA has long faced criticism for putting new teachers into classrooms before they are ready or without an understanding of the cultures of the students they will be teaching. In the past year, the organization’s national leadership has been calling attention to new efforts to keep its teachers in the classrooms after their initial two-year commitments, diversify its recruits, and place teachers in schools and cities where they have personal ties.

But Fernandez’s email indicates that the criticism is now having an effect on local recruitment and training efforts, as enrollment in teacher preparation programs nationwide is trending downward.  The city’s recruits will now be trained in Philadelphia, she said.

charter-district debate

As New Jersey takes a close look at charter schools, here are three big questions in Newark

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Only a handful of people attended a public forum on charter schools in Newark Monday.

Newark residents had a chance this week to sound off on charter schools, which remain a lightning rod in the city even as they educate more than one in three Newark students.

As part of a statewide charter school “listening tour,” the state education department hosted a public forum Monday in Newark, where nearly 18,900 students attend charters — making Newark the charter capital of the state. Yet of 90 registered attendees, only six people showed up.

“I enjoyed this,” said Denise Cole, an advocate for Newark’s traditional schools, near the end of the 80-minute meeting. But, she added, “If we wouldn’t have come, y’all wouldn’t have had nobody here.”

The unusually low turnout soon sparked rumors that some unnamed entity had packed the guest list to block others from attending. Both charter critics and supporters said they were unable to register because the sign-up list quickly reached capacity. (A state spokeswoman said Tuesday that unregistered guests would not have been turned away, though it appears not many people knew that.)

The kerfuffle could be seen as a microcosm of the charter-school debate in Newark, where reliable information can be elusive and deeply held convictions are often paired with deep suspicions.

It also added to the uncertainty surrounding the state’s charter tour. The education department announced the campaign last month as a way to gather feedback on the publicly funded, privately operated schools that educate just over 3 percent of New Jersey students but roughly 35 percent in Newark. The tour has included schools visits, invite-only focus groups, and public forums like the one Monday.

It comes amid a “comprehensive review” of the department’s charter-school policies ordered by Gov. Phil Murphy, who has been far more ambivalent about the schools than his charter-friendly predecessor, Chris Christie. Murphy has floated a pause on approving new charter schools during the review, which prompted fears of a “stealth moratorium” this year after Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet rejected every application to open new charters schools except one. Repollet has denied that a moratorium is in place, but said he plans to “modernize and change” the state’s more than 20-year-old charter rules.

The vague messages out of Trenton have given advocates on both sides of the charter debate hope that their input during the listening tour might help convince the state to take either a friendlier or tougher stance toward the sector. Yet, on Monday, officials were reluctant to say whether the feedback they were gathering would have any impact on their policy review.

“We’re just getting feedback, period,” said Carmen Cusido, director of the education department’s public affairs office. The agency expects to release a report in early 2019 summarizing the responses to its questions about how the state oversees charter schools. The public can also submit comments online.

In addition to Monday’s forum, officials visited People’s Prep Charter School and held focus groups in Newark hosted by the Newark Teachers Union, which has opposed the charter sector, and several groups that represent it, including the New Jersey Charter School Association, the Newark Charter School Fund and North Star Academy Charter School. Those sessions were open only to guests invited by the host organizations.

At the union’s meeting and Monday’s forum, as well as in interviews with advocates, several themes emerged. They point to still-simmering debates about Newark charter schools that are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Expansion — should the charter sector keep growing?

Newark’s charter-school sector has ballooned over the past decade.

Since 2008, the share of students who attend charters in Newark has nearly quadrupled — from 9 percent in 2008 to about 35 percent today. By 2023, that number could swell to 44 percent, according to one estimate, as the city’s charters continue to fill seats that were preapproved by the Christie administration.

Sources: NJDOE, NPS, Jesse Margolis/MarGrady Research, Julia Sass Rubin/Rutgers University. Note: Figures exclude pre-K and include non-resident charter students. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

The exodus of students has forced the district to slash services and close schools, even as its enrollment has started to rebound in recent years. Alarmed by the charter sector’s head-spinning expansion, critics point out that charter funding flows out of the district’s budget — but only the state has the authority to allow new charters or close existing ones.

“We ought to keep in mind that the original purpose of charter schools was never to create a parallel public education system that was somehow immune to oversight by local communities,” said Steve Baker, communications director for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

While some NJEA members work in charters, most are not unionized. The NJEA has called for a suspension of approvals for new charters until the state completes its policy review. And Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has called for a more lasting moratorium, saying the sector’s continued growth would “suck the life out of traditional schools.”

The state considers charter schools’ academics, finances, and organization when deciding whether to close them — a step the state has taken in Newark several times in recent years — or let them grow. Schools can ask for additional seats during their re-authorization process every five years, or in a separate expansion request. The deadline to make that request is Dec. 1.

“That’s going to be a really important decision point for the department,” said Harry Lee, interim president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, or NJCSA. “We want to make sure high-quality schools can grow.”

Performance — what have charters achieved?

Newark has one of the top-performing charter sectors in the nation.

An oft-cited 2015 study out of Stanford University found that Newark charter students, on average, made greater annual gains in math and reading than their district-school counterparts — and by a wider margin than charter students in any other major city except Boston.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Participants shared their views on charter schools with state officials at a focus group hosted by the Newark Teachers Union.

The sector continued its streak on this year’s state PARCC exams. About 60 percent of charter students in grades three to eight passed the 2018 reading tests, compared to 35 percent of district students, according to an analysis by NJCSA. In math, 48 percent of charter students were proficient versus 26 percent of district students who were. And for the first time, Newark charter students bested the statewide average in both subjects.

“In the second highest-performing state in the country, that’s insane,” said Ryan Hill, founder and CEO of KIPP New Jersey, which oversees eight Newark charter schools.

However, not all charters excelled. At least five of the city’s 19 charter operators had schools that scored below the district average. And the city’s district-run magnet schools, which admit students based on prior academic achievement, outperformed charter schools on average on the high-school English exam.

Critics are also quick to point out that the district serves slightly more students with disabilities than the charter sector and far more students who are still learning English. In 2017-18, just 1 percent of charter students had limited English proficiency, compared to nearly 13 percent of district students.

“There should be a more level playing field,” said Tina Taylor, president of the union representing principals and other administrators in district schools.

Funding — do charters get too much money or not enough?

The battle over charter schools often boils down to resources. In a state where charter funding comes out of district budgets, a boost for charter schools can feel like a loss for traditional schools.

“Money is the real issue,” said James Harris, president of the New Jersey Association of Black Educators and a graduate of Newark’s former South Side High School.

Last school year, the district expected to transfer about a quarter of its budget, or $237 million, to charter schools — up from just $60 million in the 2008-09 school year. This year, the Murphy administration added $37.5 million to the district’s budget. But that may not be enough to stave off future cuts if more students decamp for charters, carrying their per-pupil dollars with them.

Meanwhile, charter advocates are clamoring for more funding. Because charter schools are ineligible for certain types of state aid, they receive on average just 73 percent of per-pupil dollars rather than the 90 percent they are entitled to under state law, according to the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. Charter schools, unlike traditional districts, also do not get state money to pay for facilities.

However, some large charter operators also raise millions of dollars from private donors. One such operator, North Star Academy, says it uses private money for expanding schools but only public funds after they are fully grown. 

Critics complain that it can be difficult to track the flow of money through charters.

As the charter debate drags on, people on both sides say they are eager for ways to work together. At the end of Monday’s forum, Denise Cole, the traditional-school supporter, suggested forming a consortium where charter and district schools could exchange ideas.

“We can come together and compromise,” she said, “so that, in Newark, we have schools that all of our children are succeeding at.”

Transparency Tracker

‘No secret agreements’: Newarkers demand details of district-charter enrollment deal

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

This week, the Newark school board approved a lengthy legal agreement spelling out the details of the enrollment system that thousands of Newark families will use to apply to schools for the coming year.

Didn’t hear about it? You’re not alone.

The board OK’d the deal at a hastily arranged meeting Monday that few people in the community knew about or attended. State rules require that any changes to the district’s enrollment system “be publicly and transparently articulated before adoption.”

It’s unclear whether any changes were made — which would have triggered the transparency rules — because the board did not publicly discuss the details of the deal before voting, and the district has not made the agreement public.

Deborah Smith-Gregory, the president of the Newark NAACP, who attended Monday’s meeting, said she was disappointed that the board did not reveal any specifics about this year’s enrollment deal. Now that the district is back under local control after decades of state rule, she said, the elected board must commit to greater transparency.

“They have to do things differently,” she said. “They have to keep in mind that they’re a public entity — and they’re accountable to the community.”

The agreement describes in minute detail the inner workings of the five-year-old enrollment system, called Newark Enrolls, which allows families apply to most district and charter schools using a single application. The district and charter schools that opt into the system must sign the agreement each year.

The Newark Board of Education ratified the deal during a special meeting Monday — when schools and the district’s central office were closed. The meeting was scheduled to accommodate a charter school whose own board planned to vote on the agreement Tuesday. The timeline is tight because the citywide period for applying to schools begins Dec. 3.

The public agenda for Monday’s meeting, which mostly consisted of the board and Superintendent Roger León talking behind closed doors, did not mention the agreement. Just four community members were present for the public portion, when León and a couple board members made general comments about the controversial system, which critics contend funnels students into charter schools.

Then, without any public discussion of the agreement’s details — including a proposed change that León and charter leaders had debated in private — a majority of board members voted to approve it.

John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union and a fierce critic of charter schools, said both the district and its charter-school partners should disclose the terms of the deal.

“There should be absolute transparency,” he said.

The district’s current leadership is not the first to keep details of the enrollment system under wraps.

León, who began July 1, inherited it from his state-appointed predecessors, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf. One of only a handful of systems nationwide that combine district and charter admissions, proponents say it eases the enrollment process for families while helping to more evenly spread high-needs students across schools. Critics say it was designed to steer students and resources into the charter sector.

The system is dictated by the annual agreement between Newark Public Schools and participating charter schools. Apart from the news website NJ Spotlight, which published the agreement when it was first announced in 2013, it does not appear to have been released to the public since then — even as it has doubled in length, filling 20 pages last year.

In 2015, after Anderson touted the agreement at a state legislative hearing, saying it had created “greater equity and consistency” in admissions, several lawmakers asked to see it.

“No one seems to know about it,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo during the hearing.

After Anderson resigned, Cerf’s administration continued to renew the agreement each year. In an email, Cerf, who stepped down in February, said, “The document was always publicly available and was frequently discussed publicly.”

But community activists who have long scrutinized the enrollment system said they do not recall the district ever publicizing the agreement.

“I do not remember ever seeing this document, ever seeing it published anywhere, ever seeing it on the [district] website where we could find it, ever even discussing it in a thorough manner,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime activist and critic of the enrollment system. She added that the new administration and school board should release the latest document to the public.

“No secret agreements,” she said. “You voted on it. If you’re discussing it, then why can’t we have a say in it?”

Absent the agreement, families have other ways to learn about Newark Enrolls. The district publishes a thick enrollment guidebook each year with information about every school, and hosts an annual admissions fair. It also maintains an enrollment website featuring a family-friendly video that illustrates how the system works.

But the agreement offers a uniquely detailed look under the system’s hood — and describes features that are not widely known, according to a copy of last year’s agreement that Chalkbeat obtained.

For instance, it alludes to a “third party” that programs the algorithm used to match students with schools based on the terms set forth in the agreement. The district plays “no active role” in the actual assignment of students to schools, the document says.

It also stipulates that the district must send charter schools as many students as they request. In return, charters must admit all students assigned to them — even if that pushes their enrollment above the limit set by the state, according to the 2017 document.

That practice of assigning schools more students than they currently have space for, called “overmatching,” is done to offset attrition that happens as some families inevitably leave the district before the next school year starts. It became a sticking point in recent closed-door negotiations between León’s administration and charter schools.

León wanted to end the practice, despite charter leaders who said it was critical for filling their seats. People in the charter sector said the final agreement still allows overmatching, though León told Chalkbeat that he believes the practice is unnecessary because charters can pull students from their waitlists to replace those who leave.

In an interview after Monday’s vote, León said no major changes were made to this year’s agreement.

Board chair Josephine Garcia, who made no public comments about enrollment during Monday’s meeting, declined to be interviewed immediately afterwards and did not respond to emails later in the week. However, she was overheard saying after the meeting that the district would eventually “rebrand” the enrollment system.

Chalkbeat contacted the district several times after the meeting to request a copy of the agreement. On Thursday evening, an official provided a public-records request form, which Chalkbeat submitted.

As of Friday, the district had not released the document.