diversity of opinion

State law keeps charters from helping to reduce New York school segregation, report says

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Aspire students work on a project in March 2015. The four Aspire Memphis schools will transition to a new, independent charter organization.

A new report points to charter schools as a potential avenue for fighting school segregation, but cautions that New York State law could make promoting diversity difficult in the Empire State.

In theory, charter schools are well positioned to achieve racial integration because they do not admit students based on their home address, writes researcher Halley Potter in “Charters Without Borders.” That makes them more like magnet schools, which can enroll students from all over a city, than like many elementary and middle schools in New York City, which admit students based on where they live.

But in New York, where state law requires charter schools to fill seats with students who live within the local district before offering seats to those who live outside it, that benefit is limited. New York is one of seven states with such a law.

New York City’s 32 school districts include some with racially and socioeconomically diverse populations. But many, including in parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn where the charter sector is strongest, do not have many residents who are white or middle-class.

Potter argues that the state’s enrollment rules limit chances to mix students of different backgrounds, which she said results in students attending racially isolated charter schools.

“It’s such a missed opportunity to restrict charter schools to in-district enrollment,” said Potter, who is a fellow at The Century Foundation and co-author of “A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education.” “If this were allowed for charter schools it would be a huge tool.”

The report comes as segregation in New York City schools is attracting more attention. A UCLA report issued last year found that New York Schools are among the most segregated in the country. The same report found that in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, nearly all charter schools were intensely segregated in 2010, with less than 10 percent white enrollment. The mayor and schools chancellor responded to a recent Chalkbeat story about stalled school diversity plans. The state has offered millions in new grants to city school districts and individual schools with plans to boost their diversity.

In crucial ways, racial segregation in charter schools stems not only from the letter of New York’s law, but from its spirit, too.

Some states permit charter schools simply as alternatives to local schools, opening them to middle-class families that prefer a different instructional approach or a focus on the arts, for example. In New York, the schools were created specifically to offer options to families whose children would otherwise be required to attend low-performing neighborhood schools.

That ethos has led charter operators to focus on enrolling local students, rather than engineering diverse student bodies.

“Our belief is that every community deserves great schools,” said Eve Colavito, the head of school for DREAM Charter School in East Harlem. “We do everything in our power to make sure that our scholars are from the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Potter said Colavito’s approach should not be treated as the only way forward.

“The public narrative around charter schools focuses on one particular kind of school,” Potter said. “That doesn’t take into account that some charter schools use their flexibility precisely to integrate.”

Indeed, some city charter operators have sought to use charter school enrollment rules, which require that students be admitted by lottery, to achieve diverse student populations. They include Daniel Kikuji Rubinstein, who runs Brooklyn Prospect Charter School and helped start the National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools, as well as Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who argued in an op-ed earlier this month that charter school admissions lotteries could be used as tools to create diverse schools.

But New York City charter schools that enroll diverse populations are in racially and socioeconomically diverse districts. Moskowitz pointed to her schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill as evidence that residential diversity can translate into school diversity, but she did not note that her network’s Bronx and eastern Brooklyn schools are far less diverse.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said charter operators chose early on to employ strategies other than integration to boost students’ skills.

The attitude was: “I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to persuade white folks to go to school with black folks … I’m going to do what I can control,” Merriman said.

Though Merriman and Potter both believe charter schools can help foster school diversity, neither said they are the sole solution to school segregation.

“I don’t think [charter schools are] uniquely qualified,” Merriman said. “I think they are one part of the answer.”

study says...

Can charter operators turn around district schools? In Atlanta, two are trying and finding extra challenges

A UNICEF Kid Power Event at Charles R. Drew Charter School in Atlanta, Georgia in 2016. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for UNICEF)

When Atlanta Public Schools decided to hand over control of one of its struggling elementary schools, the leaders of a small charter network raised their hands.

In its application to run the school, Kindezi leaders said it had posted strong results at its two charter schools and was ready to spread its model. But the job proved much more difficult than they expected.

The students at the turnaround school were far behind academically, and many were entering and exiting the school, making it tough to establish a new school culture.

“One of the things that we weren’t really prepared for was the level of trauma for a lot of our student population,” said Danielle Washington, the Kindezi turnaround principal. “Knowing superficially — looking at the demographics — what the environment was like [and] actually being in it is very different.”

“Frankly, organizationally, we weren’t ready to do it,” said Dean Leeper, Kindezi’s founder.

A new study on Atlanta’s turnaround efforts shows that Kindezi’s results were uneven, as were results at a few other Atlanta schools taken over by an outside operator.

The Kindezi school had some clear successes: large gains on math tests, as well as moderate improvements in reading. But students’ already-low science and social studies scores dropped sharply, and suspension rates spiked, too.

At three other schools run by another external operator, math scores also jumped — but so did suspensions, and scores in other subjects were flat.

The results come from just one or two years of data, and most agree that a successful turnaround takes more time. The same study also showed tepid results for an improvement strategy that kept the schools under district control.

Still, the mix of findings and reported struggles in Atlanta underscore the challenges of exporting charter models to new environments, especially existing schools. This charter takeover approach has taken root in a growing number of cities, including Camden, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and San Antonio.

“If you’re going to use charters, you have to realize that even those that are experienced and seasoned are not going to enter into this [turnaround] work totally prepared,” said Joshua Glazer, a professor at George Washington University who has studied charter takeovers in Tennessee. “There is going to be a significant learning curve.”

The challenge: Two external groups, four struggling schools

Two local groups won Atlanta’s competitive application process to take over five schools the district considered low performing: Kindezi and Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit connected to the Drew charter school.

They won backing from national philanthropy. Two of the schools got $325,000 start-up grants from the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation. (Walton is a funder of Chalkbeat.) The two turnaround groups also got money from RedefinED, a local nonprofit that recently received funding from the City Fund. Walton also paid $900,000 for the research firm Mathematica to study Atlanta’s turnaround strategies.

The four schools the researchers examined saw big changes after the external groups took over. Their teachers were no longer employed by the district, for one, and those who wanted to remain had to reapply for their jobs.

The schools, though, continued to enroll students from the neighborhood, keeping attendance boundaries intact — unlike the enrollment setup for most charter schools.

The results were all over the place.

After one year, Kindezi-school students in grades three through five jumped from the 29th percentile in the district in math to roughly the 43rd percentile — a big improvement. There was also an uptick in English scores.

But results on science and social studies exams (only administered to fifth-graders) fell precipitously compared to similar schools — dropping from the 24th to the 13th percentile in social studies, for instance.

Washington, the Kindezi principal, said that may be a result of her school’s choice to emphasize basic math and reading skills after realizing how far behind students were.

“We had to make some tough decisions on what to prioritize,” she said. “We definitely paid for it on the science and social studies end, but we were able to make some dents [in] reading.”

The Kindezi school also saw a sharp increase in suspension rates, though some staff members suggested that that might be because suspensions had previously been under-reported.

The three other schools — which followed the Drew charter model, with extra learning time and nonacademic support — also had mixed results. In year one, math scores increased and chronic absenteeism declined, compared to similar schools. There were no clear effects in three other subjects, though, and suspension rates jumped 8 percentage points.

In the first school taken over, math scores continued to improve in year two, but there were still no gains in other subjects. And, alarmingly, chronic absenteeism increased by 8 percentage points.

Turnaround leaders say challenges are greater than in charter schools

Barbara Preuss, who oversees principals at Purpose Built Schools, said her network had found that the students at turnaround schools were much different than the students they had previously served.

“Our children live in an environment where they experience a lot more trauma than children that are attending Drew charter,” she said. “We also are dealing with a high transiency rate, which the charter school does not have.”

In response, Preuss said the schools have brought therapists and social workers to schools; connected families to pro bono housing lawyers; and begun offering after school programs, providing dinners, and stocking food pantries. The schools have even directly employed two dozen parents to help with things like attendance and family events.

Preuss said the schools had seen attendance rates grow and student turnover and suspensions decline this year.

Washington said the Kindezi school had adapted as well, adding time for science and social studies in the second half of this year.

Leeper said the experience offers a lesson to other charter leaders.

“I do think some of the charter world … we underestimate the challenges that are faced in the traditional public schools,” he said. “It definitely is humbling.”

That sentiment, Glazer said, mirrored what he heard from charter leaders who had attempted takeovers in Tennessee. “That could be right off the pages of our transcripts from Memphis,” he said.

Atlanta’s district-focused turnaround strategy also didn’t produce major improvements

Having charter school operators take over struggling district schools has succeeded at raising test scores in New Orleans and in Boston. In Memphis, though, the strategy had no effect, even after five years.

Meanwhile, school turnarounds have proven difficult with or without charter schools.

Atlanta’s other turnaround strategy, beginning in the 2016-17 school year, flooded 13 district schools with additional support, including math and reading specialists, an extended school day or year, and coordinators to connect students with out-of-school support.

Results were uneven at those schools, too, the Mathematica study found, with bumps in math scores in year two but no other clear improvements.

“You can find examples of places that have successfully turned schools around other district management and you can find examples of places that have successfully turned around using charters,” said Brian Gill, one of the Mathematica researchers. “It’s not as if there is any clear indication that one of these approaches is superior to the other.”

Code of conduct

Tennessee’s ‘parent dress code’ bill clears first legislative hurdle

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

Every Tennessee school district would have to develop a code of conduct for parents and other school visitors under a bill that narrowly advanced out of a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

The measure aims to tamp down on problems that arise when visitors show up to school wearing inappropriate attire, using inappropriate language, playing loud music, or bringing other unwelcome behaviors on campus.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson

“We’re telling school districts to come up with a baseline level of behavior for any person who steps on campus,” whether it’s a parent, vendor, or guest, said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who is sponsoring the proposal along with Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville.

“It’s all about contributing to an enhanced or better learning environment,” Parkinson said.

Parkinson has gotten national attention with his so-called “parent dress code” bill, which he filed after getting complaints from parents about sexually suggestive or gang-inspired clothing that other parents were wearing to school.

The bill passed 4-3, but not before several lawmakers questioned the proposed mandate, especially when school districts already can create a code of conduct for visitors if they see a need.

Rep. Jerry Sexton, a Republican from Bean Station, called the measure “overreach” by state government, and Rep. Ryan Williams, a Republican from Cookeville, agreed.

“I don’t like us telling locals to do something they can do anyway,” Williams said.

Parkinson emphasized the importance of having a process in place so that parents and other visitors understand what’s appropriate attire or behavior when they enter a school building.

The problem “is pervasive because nobody has told people what is expected. What we’re doing is more of an awareness campaign,” Parkinson said.

Rep. Mark White, who chairs the full House Education Committee where the bill is now headed, said he supports the idea.

“When I visit schools, it’s a shame that you have to address this because parents should know better,” White said, citing inappropriate clothing as the biggest problem. “I’ve seen too much of it, and it’s not a pretty sight.”

Rep. David Byrd added that the policy might also cut down on fights at sporting events on school campuses, even as others expressed concern that the proposal could open up school districts to even more problems.

“The reason we don’t have such a code of conduct is because the enforcement is questionable,” said Chuck Cagle, an attorney who represents the state superintendents group.

Tennessee law already requires school districts to develop a code of conduct for students.