Over the past four months, Seth Andrew has waged a lonely campaign to get charter schools to sign on to “backfilling,” an enrollment issue previously seen mostly as a quiet rift among the sector’s leaders.
Agreeing to backfill, at least through eighth grade, means schools would have to add new students to fill empty seats created when students leave. For years, schools have stayed away from adding new students, allowing them to avoid the potential for disruption and the lower test scores that might being coming with them.
But critics like Andrew, who stepped down from running his own Harlem-based charter school network two years ago, argue that refusing to backfill casts a shadow over schools’ high test scores by effectively excluding students who didn’t succeed.
Through op-eds, new legislation, and, in one memorable episode, the public scolding of a charter school leader during a panel last month, Andrew has elevated the rift to an amplified — if not harmonious — new level.
“Find a way to do it and find a way to do it today, because this train is coming and you want to get on board,” Andrew said last month.
But as the latest salvo in his campaign was released on Friday, it was clear Andrew’s tactics had failed to inspire much unity, with only one charter school signing onto a related press release.
Andrew’s parent advocacy group, Democracy Builders, put out a report and accompanying enrollment data, finding that charter schools lost more than 2,500 seats in 2014 to student attrition that had not been backfilled. The report argued that such schools are “artificially inflating perceived performance” on state tests, pointing to research that shows students who leave tend to be lower performing than the peers the left behind.
The data is posted online at the Democracy Builders web site in a series of charts, combining a school’s cohort size, in tested grades, with the number of students who scored proficient on those tests. Users can sort information five ways – by year, testing subject, grade level, network, and individual school – though its functionality is at times challenging.
The default landing page highlights the average cohort sizes from 2006 to 2014 and corresponding test score data for the city’s four large charter management organizations: Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, Success Academies and KIPP.
Visually, the chart for Success Academy paints a grim picture of its enrollment practices. No other charter school network, it seemed, shed as many students without replacing them as Success.
But the report neglects some important context. Success’ cohort size averages are skewed because it’s based on third grade data from nine elementary schools, compared to just one school — Harlem Success 1 — for the seventh and eighth grade data.
It also does not prominently display enrollment patterns from recent years, which would have painted Success in a less negative light. In 2014 alone, the average cohort size of Success’s fifth grade classes was 96 students out of a maximum capacity of 97 students, compared to 75 students posted in the eight-year averages, suggesting that it has significantly reduced its attrition rates. (Success’s backfill policy, until this year, was to not accept any new students after third grade.)
“Virtually all of our schools are at 100 percent capacity, and we have 19,000 students on waiting lists,” Success CEO Eva Moskowitz said in a statement. “Accepting more students in higher grades would just force us to admit fewer in the lower grades.”
Some independent charter schools also added few new students when seats opened up. Amber Charter School, a unionized charter school visited by Mayor Bill de Blasio on the first day of school, and whose principal was on the steering committee of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, saw one third grade cohort fall from 72 students in 2012 to 48 student in fifth grade two years later.
Andrew asked some of the large networks highlighted in the data to endorse his report, but none did. The only support the campaign garnered was an unidentified “representative” from the Coalition of Community Charter Schools and one charter school, St. Hope Academy Charter School, whose board of directors includes an executive at Democracy Prep, the charter school network Andrew founded and with which he remains closely involved.
Later, some of the networks, released their own statements.
“Our mission is to provide a high-quality education to as many students as possible, and we believe in backfilling open seats because it allows us to provide opportunities to more kids who need a great education,” said Amanda Pinto, a spokesperson for Achievement First. She added she school’s policy this year has been to replace each student who leaves, and this week accepted 275 new students to replace the students who were leaving at the end of the year.
Andrew’s charter network, Democracy Prep, is one of the very few networks that has historically replaced all of its students and whose schools have seen the total number of students scoring proficient on state exams increase in higher grades. At most schools, as highlighted in the enrollment data, that number has decreased.
Some the schools on Friday made a special effort to emphasize that they lost relatively few students, and hence needed to replace fewer kids.
“We are proud that our student attrition last year was only 4 percent, creating a very limited number of open seats which we fill from our waiting lists,” Uncommon Schools spokesperson Barbara Martinez said. “Each year, we backfill an increasing number of seats, and will continue to do so in the future.”
“I think attrition is more important than backfill,” said KIPP spokesperson Steve Mancini. “We had 3,595 student in the 13-14 school year. We lost 188 kids. That comes out to be 5 percent .”
Andrew declined to speak on the record for this story. But he has succeeded at least at raising awareness around the issue in recent months. And he had a hand in crafting transparency legislation in the City Council that would further force both charter and district schools to open up their books on who is staying and going and who is being replaced.
“I’m getting really strong positive reaction from colleagues across the spectrum,” said Mark Levine, who sponsored the legislation with help from Andrew. “I feel like it’s going to have really broad support.”
Princess Lyles, executive director of Democracy Builders, said the absence of other charter schools from Friday’s report and an accompanying press conference at City Hall was an indicator that the schools weren’t yet fully on board with backfilling and would need more pressure. And she challenged assertions from charter management organizations that they were backfilling, pointing to previous years’ data highlighted in their report.
“The problem with this is that you can only go off self-reported data,” Lyles said. And she said her group wouldn’t be happy until the schools were backfilling all open seats.