By the numbers

Charter school demographics coming under fresh scrutiny

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Students and faculty at Success Academy Harlem 5 in 2014.

When Success Academy Upper West comes up for review this year, officials will likely note that its test scores are among the best in New York state. But it might fall short by another metric: its demographics.

About one in three students qualified as low-income last year, and 3 percent were English language learners. But the school’s share of low-income students should be closer to 50 percent and its English learner population closer to 7 percent, according to state calculations devised to nudge charter schools to serve more high-need students.

Such disparities have been flash points in debates about New York City’s charter schools for years. Lawmakers stepped in five years ago, requiring schools to have targets for enrolling students with disabilities, English language learners, and students from low-income families. The idea was that not making efforts to hit those targets would jeopardize a school’s ability to stay open.

This year, for the first time, schools’ progress toward those goals are being scrutinized. But it appears that state regulators plan to treat the targets as guidelines, not requirements.

“We’re not exactly sure how rigidly we’re going to interpret the targets because there may be some challenges that the schools face,” Joseph Belluck, who chairs the committee that governs SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, said last week. If a school can’t show it has tried to meet its targets, SUNY will be stricter, he added.

“We hope that they will not say that they’ve done nothing to meet them,” Belluck said. “That would be a problem.”

The Board of Regents, the state’s other authorizer, is taking only a slightly more aggressive tack. In June, Regent Kathy Cashin challenged a recommendation to allow Community Roots, a charter school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to remain open for another five years because it enrolled relatively few low-income students.

“They weren’t in compliance with the law,” Cashin said. “They have great math scores and great reading scores, which is wonderful, but the number of children in poverty are not there.”

Ultimately, Community Roots was given the go-ahead to stay open for a full five years.

The attention to student demographics has added a new dimension to the renewal process, which New York’s charter schools must go through every few years to stay open. In the past, SUNY and the state have focused almost exclusively on a school’s academic outcomes, finances, and factors like whether its board of trustees is functional during that evaluation process.

Regulators aren’t likely to abandon their focus on test scores and other academic data points in evaluating a school’s performance. But the scrutiny comes as debates over whether the city’s charter schools serve their “fair share” of high-needs students have been amplified by top education department officials, including Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and the city’s teachers union, who say that many schools do not.

The latest data show that the city’s charter schools lag significantly behind district schools in serving English language learners and slightly behind when it comes to students with disabilities. And while the vast majority of charter school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 80 percent of charter schools have fewer poor students than their district average, according to a 2012 analysis by the New York City Charter Center.

Community Roots, for example, served fewer than half as many low-income students (40 percent) as its target (86 percent), and also fell below its target for English language learners, though it served twice as many students with disabilities as its target.

Those numbers matter because in New York, charter schools were designed specifically to offer new options for students who would otherwise be required to attend low-performing neighborhood schools. But some charter schools say those targets don’t account for schools with varying missions, and could even offer perverse incentives not to help students shed their classification as an English learners.

When the State Education Department mulled renewing Community Roots for only three years, board chairs Tracey Strauss and Scott Strasser told officials that the school’s relative diversity was intentional.

“This mission to create an integrated Public School is supported by a body of research that demonstrates the many benefits to students and families attending diverse schools,” they wrote, attaching a two-page summary of the research.

Success Academy Upper West is one of three of Success Academy schools whose enrollment and retention numbers will be examined by SUNY when they are considered for renewal. The network has been expanding into higher-income neighborhoods, and founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz has been an outspoken critic of the law.

In 2012, Moskowitz wrote to state education officials that she was worried that her schools’ ability to more quickly test students out of the English language learner program could end up hurting her chances at renewal.

Meanwhile, Success Academy Bedford-Stuyvesant I will likely fall short of some of its targets this year.

According to the state’s calculator, a charter elementary school with a profile similar to the Bed-Stuy school — serving about 550 students in Brooklyn’s District 14 — would have targets of 18 percent students with disabilities, and 14 percent English learners. At Success, 10 percent of students had disabilities and 2 percent were English learners, according to InsideSchools.

“It’s still a one-size-fits-all, rough-and-ready way to do it,” said James Merriman, the head of the Charter Center. “But it is the law, and I think charter leaders are committed to meeting those targets and certainly making good-faith efforts to meet them.”

vouchers

Lee says ‘parent choice’ education initiative coming soon in Tennessee

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Lee became Tennessee's 50th governor in January and pledged to make K-12 education a priority, including providing parents with more choices.

Gov. Bill Lee hinted that he soon will introduce a legislative initiative to give parents more education options for their children, even as Wednesday’s deadline passed to file bills for lawmakers to consider this year.

“We continue to believe that choice is important and that we want to look at every opportunity for choices for parents,” the Republican governor said.

But whether his proposal will include school vouchers or a similar type of program remains a mystery.

“We haven’t definitively put together the legislation around what that choice looks like, but we will be in the coming days,” Lee said.

The door remains open because of numerous vaguely described education bills known as “caption bills” that met the filing deadline on Wednesday. Any of these could be turned into voucher-like legislation by the bill’s sponsor.

On the campaign trail and in his victory speech, Lee pledged to give parents more education options. But he’s been coy about what that could look like and whether he would champion such a crucial policy shift during his first year in public office — one with the potential to end in a significant legislative defeat. Over the past decade, vouchers have been fended off consistently in the legislature by an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans.

Vouchers would let parents of eligible students use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and fees. But this year, Tennessee’s voucher supporters have talked about taking a different voucher-like approach known as education savings accounts, or ESAs.

Education savings accounts would let parents withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

While a new survey suggests that most Tennesseans support education savings accounts, school boards across the state are on record opposing both approaches. They argue that such programs would drain state funds from traditional public schools and increase student segregation. They’re also concerned that students in those non-public programs would not be held to the same standards and performance measures as students in public schools.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who leads a key panel that all education legislation must clear, said any bills to create an education savings account program would have to include strong accountability measures to get his support.

In Arizona, where lawmakers approved education savings accounts in 2011, the program has been marred by rampant fraud. A recent audit reported that parents who used the program misspent $700,000 from their 2018 accounts on banned items that included cosmetics and clothing.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari said Arizona’s experience should give Tennessee lawmakers pause.

“It would have to be a really tight bill for me to support it,” said the Memphis Democrat. “A lot of folks like the flexibility of an education savings account. But when you’re talking about public dollars, there has to be a measure of accountability.”

The results of a Mason-Dixon survey released this week showed that 78 percent of Tennesseans who were polled recently support passage of legislation to create education savings accounts. The survey was commissioned by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

“During last year’s campaign season, many candidates spoke boldly about parental choice in education,” said Shaka Mitchell, the group’s Tennessee director. “The polling shows that voters were listening and expect those promises to result in laws that are just as bold.”

Lee spoke with reporters Wednesday about his legislative agenda after addressing Tennessee school superintendents meeting in Nashville. A day earlier, he announced his legislative initiative to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students, another promise he campaigned on.

“It will increase the number of kids that are career-ready within a year of leaving high school,” he told members of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Lee said he also wants to strengthen the state’s programs for developing principals and create more opportunities and curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I want to be an educator governor,” he told the superintendents. “I want [Tennessee] to be a state that is an education state.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include results of the Mason-Dixon survey.

tough sell

Rezoning debate highlights gap in opportunities at two Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Under Mark Neal's leadership, Melrose High School has earned its way off the state's "priority" list of low-performing schools.

As Shelby County Schools considers a rezoning that would transfer 260 White Station High School students to Melrose High School, some in the community are calling the proposal a needed correction, while others don’t want to move students from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing, but improving, one.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Jonathan Cross speaks at the rezoning meeting Monday.

The community meeting Monday was the first of 10 such gatherings to discuss the district’s plan to rezone a portion of 19 schools with the goal of moving 3,200 students to schools closer to home. Students currently living in those areas can choose to stay at their current school, but parents, not the district, would then be responsible for transportation. (For an overview of all proposed rezonings, read our story from last week.)

This particular meeting was focused on the proposal involving White Station and Melrose.

“The kids already have a fantastic option for education,” at White Station High School, said Jonathan Cross, who owns a house in the proposed area that would no longer be zoned for the East Memphis high school.

If the school board approves the plan, rising ninth graders in the area would be zoned to Melrose this fall. The neighborhood, Sherwood Forest, was rezoned to White Station, from Melrose, at least 20 years ago. Neighborhood advocates in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound say that decades-old change has contributed to the enrollment decline at Melrose.

The rezoning would help level the enrollment at the two schools where Melrose had declining enrollment and White Station was crowded. Under the rezoning, enrollment at Melrose could increase by 44 percent and decrease at White Station by 12 percent. Currently 586 students attend Melrose, while 2,142 attend White Station.

“We’re just reclaiming what was taken from Orange Mound,” Claudette Boyd, a neighborhood advocate, said.

The fight for students in the square-mile that the rezoning plan addresses highlights Shelby County Schools’ struggle to ensure high school students have similar opportunities wherever they go in the district.

“All of our schools need to be high-quality options that offer comprehensive work to our students,” acknowledged Angela Whitelaw, the district’s chief of schools.

Melrose, which has the highest concentration of high school students from low-income families in the city, recently earned its way off the state’s “priority list” of low-performing schools; still fewer than one-quarter of students score at grade level in any subject.

The rezoning could boost Melrose’s enrollment to what the district considers acceptable, meaning that students fill at least 60 percent of the building’s capacity — up from 52 percent capacity this year.

White Station High School, which conversely has the second-lowest concentration of poor students, routinely performs above the district average in all subjects, but in the last three years has seen academic achievement decline.

State of Education in Orange Mound

    • Parents, students and community stakeholders are invited to a community discussion about:
    • Attendance zone for Melrose High
    • Opening of charter schools
    • School closures
    • Status of Aspire Hanley
    • Childhood trauma (ACEs)

The event is sponsored by Committee of Melrose Alumni, Orange Mound Development Corporation, and Orange Mound Community Parade Committee. Grand prize drawing for a 39-inch television. Must be present to win.

  • When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
  • Where: Orange Mound Community Center, 2572 Park Ave. Memphis, TN 38114

Making sure that Orange Mound students have preferred admission to their neighborhood school has been a priority for Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who was elected to the Shelby County Schools board in August.

“This may be new to some of you, but this is not new,” she told meeting attendees, referring to neighborhood residents attending Melrose, which she said “used to have high enrollment.”

At Monday’s meeting, Whitelaw outlined the sports teams and clubs Melrose offers, as well as course offerings that can count for college credit and industry certification.

But some parents are wary of the Shelby County Schools claims — saying that if Melrose was as academically strong as the district claims, most of the students slated for rezoning would already be attending that school, which is closer to where they live.

“If the kids my child hangs out with don’t go to Melrose, we don’t have a strong neighborhood school,” said Michelle Ficklen, who has lived in the proposed rezoned area for about 20 years.

In a district report last year, Melrose High had few options for advanced coursework that could prepare students for the rigor of college classes. There were no Advanced Placement classes, three dual enrollment, and 21 honors. Next year, Melrose is slated to get some Advanced Placement classes, eight dual enrollment classes, but will offer six fewer honors classes, according to Linda Sklar, the district’s optional school coordinator.

By contrast, White Station High already has the highest number of Advanced Placement and honors courses, and the second highest number of dual enrollment classes in the district.

School board member Stephanie Love, who was present at Monday’s meeting, said district staff should see “what classes [White Station students] were in and mirror some of them at Melrose.”

“What’s going to happen if they choose somewhere else?” she said after the meeting.

The school board will likely vote on the rezoning plans in late February or early March, district officials said.