By the numbers

For charter schools serving overage or homeless students, typical metrics don’t add up

The evaluation of ROADS II, a charter school in the Bronx, is peppered with compliments about the school’s leaders and their ability to help at-risk students.

Yet ROADS II is also failing by a basic statistical standard: Almost none of its students graduate within four years.

The school is one of a handful of charter schools that serve a subset of New York City’s neediest students, often those who are over-age and under-credited, homeless, or in foster care. Like all charter schools, it is expected to meet strict standards or face closure.

Yet schools like ROADS II present a tough question for the authorizers that oversee them: What happens when serving an important group of students makes it nearly impossible to meet normal benchmarks?

“I think it makes sense they hold the bar high,” said Jemina Bernard, the chief executive officer at ROADS. But, she said, “If it takes them five, six years to [graduate], it’s not anything that we’re ashamed of.”

The city has long grappled with similar questions about how to measure its non-traditional schools. Now, the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute, which oversees more than 100 charter schools in New York City, is facing a deadline to tackle the problem. Three charter schools serving especially high-needs students — Broome Street Academy, ROADS I, and ROADS II — are up for renewal this year and next.

Susan Miller Barker, the institute’s executive director, said that officials there haven’t yet come up with exactly how those schools will be evaluated. But they are working to adjust SUNY’s focus on graduation rates and test scores to determine whether these schools are performing well.

“We think that all kids coming out of high school ought to have a high school degree,” Miller Barker said. “But we’re looking at them and saying, is there something else that would tell us how well the schools are doing?”

The current guidelines set a high bar. Charter schools are generally expected to aim for 75 percent student proficiency on state exams, for 75 percent of their students to graduate in four years, and for 95 percent to graduate within five years.

Those numbers, charter school operators and advocates said, are unreasonable for schools designed to take in students who are older than their peers and have already struggled to make progress in school.

For example, high school students learning at a middle school level might make years of progress, but that growth is invisible if measured only by Regents exams designed for high school students, said Leslie Talbot, an education consultant and a leader of the Pathways to Opportunity Project, which focuses on helping off-track youth.

The benchmarks for credit accumulation and graduation timelines are also troublesome.

At John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy Charter School in lower Manhattan, the majority of students are over 16 and have earned fewer than nine credits, according to principal Ron Tabano. For them, graduating within six years is difficult and within five is nearly impossible, he said.

Instead, Wildcat Academy, which is overseen by the city’s education department and was converted into a charter school in 2000, has historically been compared to the city’s other transfer schools. Its six-year graduation rate, not the four-year rate, is tracked over time.

“There has to be a different set of measures,” Tabano said. If schools like his were punished for not graduating students in four years, he said, “They’d get killed.”

In 2011, the Bloomberg administration adapted its school letter grade system and progress reports for transfer schools, focusing on six-year graduation rates. The de Blasio administration did not release its own school “snapshots” for those schools last year, but the education department is looking to account for factors like student homelessness in its reports for all schools.

Schools like Broome Street, which gives preference to students who are homeless or in foster care, also help the charter sector combat the perception that it doesn’t serve its fair share of the highest-needs students. Chancellor Carmen Fariña has criticized charter schools for serving lower-than-average numbers of special education students and English learners but praised Broome Street — even speaking at its graduation ceremony this year.

SUNY’s challenge now is sticking to the essential bargain offered to New York charter schools — outperform traditional schools or be closed — without discouraging prospective school operators from trying to find new models to serve needy students.

The trick, New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman said, is to engage in “smart accountability,” or finding reasonable standards for schools that need alternatives while ensuring that they don’t become a veiled effort to protect schools from accountability.

“This is not easy to do,” he said.

As SUNY works toward decisions about new measures, it also must decide which schools qualify for them.

States like Colorado, Texas, and Arizona have defined alternative charter schools and created separate accountability standards for them in law, said Jim Griffin, president of Momentum Strategy and Research, an organization that works to improve charter school accountability. New York does not have such a clear formula, he said.

For now, SUNY appears to be looking at schools designed from the start to serve special groups of students. Officials say they may focus on measures like attendance rates, student progress towards graduation, or even the support offered to students who are parents or who are involved in the court system, though graduation rates and state test scores will remain important.

“If you want to run a charter school, you agree to being measured based on how well you prepare students to succeed when they leave you,” Miller Barker said.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. 

what is a good school?

New York policymakers are taking a closer look at how they evaluate charter schools

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in New York, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class.

New York is rethinking how it judges whether charter schools are successful and deserve to remain open — a discussion that comes as some top education policymakers have asked tough questions about the privately managed schools.

The state education department currently decides which of the more than 70 charter schools it oversees can stay open based largely on their test scores and graduation rates, though other factors like family involvement and financial management are also reviewed. A set of changes now being considered could add additional performance measures, such as the share of students who are chronically absent and student survey results.

Policymakers also discussed whether to change how they calculate charter-school student enrollment and retention.

The move — which got its first public discussion Monday during a Board of Regents meeting and is expected to become a formal proposal in December — would bring charter schools in line with a shift underway in how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the board has moved away from using test scores as the main metric for evaluating schools and will begin to track absences and eventually suspensions.

Since the state’s current system for evaluating charter schools was last revised in 2015, the board has added several new members and elected a new leader, Betty Rosa. Several members at a previous board meeting questioned the enrollment practices at a charter school in Brooklyn.

At Monday’s meeting, some suggested the schools attain high test scores partly by serving fewer high-needs students — and that the system for evaluating charters should take this into account.  

For instance, Regent Kathleen Cashin implied at Monday’s meeting that some charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students. Their motivation, she said, “is not pedagogic, I’ll tell you that.” She suggested that, in addition to tracking how well charter schools retain students, the state should survey parents who leave those schools to find out why.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rosa suggested Monday that it’s unfair to compare charter schools that serve few high-needs students to traditional schools.

Charter schools receive autonomy from many rules, but in return they agree to meet certain performance targets — or risk closure if they do not. The state judges charters based on a variety of metrics, everything from their enrollment figures to how they respond to parent concerns. However, test scores and graduation rates are “the most important factor when determining to renew or revoke a school’s charter,” according to state documents.

Even if the state adds new measures that move beyond test scores, those will still hold the most weight, according to state officials.

The state is also considering whether to change how it measures charter schools’ enrollment and retention targets. Currently, schools must set targets for students with disabilities, English learners, and those eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch. If they fail to meet those targets, they must show they are making yearly progress towards meeting that goal.

During the state’s presentation, officials also floated the idea of a “fiscal dashboard,” which would display charter schools’ financial information. They also said they may compare charter high school graduation rates and Regents exam scores with those of the districts where they’re located, instead of using only the state average or their targets as a comparison point.