state of the sector

Report: Charter schools replace students, but do so less after third grade

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A pro-charter school rally in Albany that Families for Excellent Schools helped organize in 2015.

New York City charter schools replace students who leave between kindergarten and third grade, according to new data from the Independent Budget Office, though seats that open up in older grades sometimes go unfilled.

A new report from the city’s education-data watchdog offers the clearest look yet at how the charter schools “backfill” their seats, an issue that has become a focus of debates about whether those schools serve the city’s neediest students. It also includes a trove of other statistics about charter schools at a moment of rapid growth for the charter sector, whose enrollment jumped 364 percent between 2007 and 2014.

The report reaffirms that New York City charter schools still lag behind district schools in serving both English language learners and students with disabilities, although they continue to serve larger shares of black and Hispanic students. It also includes rankings of charter school networks based on their state test scores for each tested grade in 2014 in math and English.

The numbers will add new detail to debates about where and how students are educated in the nation’s largest public school system. But they are unlikely to settle long-simmering disagreements about the role that charter schools — which are privately managed but receive public funds — play in the city, where most students still attend traditional district schools.

Less than 7 percent of the city’s 1,084,955 students attended a charter school in 2013-14, according to the report. Mayor Bill de Blasio often refers to those numbers when responding to questions about charter schools, saying he is focusing attention and resources on schools serving the vast majority of city students.

But the IBO numbers show that charter schools are much more dominant in some parts of the city. Thirty-seven percent of students attending school anywhere in Harlem’s District 5 were in a charter school in 2013-14. In another four districts — 4, 7, 16, and 23 — at least one in five students attended a charter school.

Charter schools continue to serve a smaller share of English language learners, especially in elementary schools, where 17.5 percent of district school students are English learners, compared to less than 7 percent of charter school students. Charter schools are also less likely to serve students born in another country or who speak another language at home.

The gap is narrower when it comes to special education, although charter schools still serve fewer students with disabilities overall. That includes students with learning disabilities and who are emotionally disturbed, and with a couple of notable exceptions, charter schools don’t serve students with autism. The city’s few charter high schools serve a slightly higher percentage of special-education students, though.

Debates about who charter schools serve have recently focused on what happens when a student leaves a charter school. Charter schools aren’t required to replace that student with another, and some choose not to — a practice that some observers, including the city teachers union, say is a reason why their student populations are less needy and why some charter schools achieve better academic results than nearby district schools. (Charter schools that don’t backfill say it avoids academic and social disruption, and ensures that all of their students can keep up.)

The report tracks more than 3,000 students who started kindergarten at a charter school in 2008 through their fifth grade year, an analysis that included 53 charter elementary schools. The schools included those belonging to the city’s largest networks, including Success Academy, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First.

The data shows that the schools filled all of the seats that opened up in their early grades, and even added extra students during those years. But their average backfill rate fell to 80 percent after third grade, the first year that standardized state testing begins for math and English.

After third grade, 23 of the 53 schools backfilled all or almost all of their open seats. Twelve schools filled fewer than one in three open seats, and five admitted just one or zero new students to their fourth and fifth grades.

Ray Domanico, the IBO’s director of education research, cautioned against drawing broad conclusions from the analysis, noting that the group of schools he looked at was relatively small and did not count the 137 schools that have opened since 2008.

“As time passes it will get easier to study this,” Domanico said in an email.

The report did not look at backfill in middle schools, though some schools — most prominently, the Success Academy network — have come under fire for not adding students who didn’t start at the network in younger grades. The data shows one outcome of Success’ approach: just 32 students took the eighth-grade exams in 2014, part of the network’s first cohort of students, and their average raw score was higher than every other charter network’s in reading and math.

The report is a first for the IBO, which is required by state law to research and report on city education data. The IBO has released three comprehensive reports on the city’s traditional public schools, but had not published similar data on the demographics and performance of charter schools.

The report also compared charter networks by their students’ average raw scale scores on the state tests in English and math. Such comparisons are rarer than comparisons of proficiency rates, which don’t show whether most students just missed — or just surpassed — the state’s proficiency bar.

Success Academy, the city’s largest and fastest-growing network, had the highest average test scores in 2014 for both English and math in every tested grade. The Icahn, Uncommon Schools, and Public Preparatory networks had the number-two spots for various grades and subjects.

Bronx-based Lighthouse Academies, Kunskapsskolan Education, which manages a school that closed this year, Harlem Village Academies, and National Heritage Academies were among the lowest-scoring networks.

A spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers highlighted the finding that district schools continued to serve more high-needs students.

“The IBO report makes clear many of the inconvenient facts that charter cheerleaders keep managing to ignore — charters enroll fewer than half as many English Language Learners as regular public schools and far fewer high-needs special ed students, even as many charters leave seats empty when children leave,” the spokesman, Dick Riley, said.

Charter school supporters, however, said the sector’s growth was evidence of charter schools’ popularity, while the backfill rates showed that most charters were replacing most students who leave.

“This independent report confirms that charter schools are an increasingly popular choice among New York City parents and why they should be supported in their continued growth,” said James Merriman, head of the New York City Charter School Center.

Read the complete report here:

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”