charter wars

Some Regents ask whether Success video calls for more state oversight

PHOTO: Geoff Decker

A roiling debate about charter school discipline reached New York’s top education officials Monday, as members of the Board of Regents indicated that a video of a Success Academy teacher sharply criticizing a young student calls for greater oversight of the charter sector.

A couple of Regents condemned the video, published by the New York Times, and Regent Judith Chin wondered aloud if it should prompt censure by the state education department. At the end of the discussion, five members abstained from a vote that included the expansion of four New York City charter schools.

“How do we hold SUNY accountable for the well-being of a child?”’ Chin asked, referring to the SUNY Charter Center, which oversees all of Success Academy’s schools. “Is there an obligation on our part as the State Ed. Department to follow up on incidents like this?”

Success Academy officials have called the teacher’s behavior in that video an anomaly. They have also defended their strict discipline policies, which they say helps students stay on task and contribute to impressive academic results. Some other charter schools have moved away from a similar “no excuses” philosophy in recent years, which critics argue can also encourage high-needs students to leave the school.

The charter schools with mergers and expansions before the board on Monday weren’t affiliated with Success Academy. One proposal shifted three Achievement First charter schools from the New York City’s oversight to SUNY’s, and second proposal did the same for one school in the Uncommon Schools network.

Four other New York City expansion proposals were related to independent charter schools.

Though the proposals were all approved, the abstentions by Regent Beverly Ouderkirk, Roger Tilles, Judith Chin, Judith Johnson, and Catherine Collins — four of whom were recently elected — raise questions about whether the board will be tougher on charter schools in the future.

The Regents who abstained said they simply did not have enough information about the schools to OK the expansions and mergers. “I think there were some legitimate questions raised,” said Tilles, “and they didn’t have answers, which sort of surprised me.”

Collins said she wanted more information about the retention policies at the charter schools in question.

“We keep expanding, and I really don’t want kids to start when they’re 11 and then a few years later they’re somewhere else,” she said.

The most recent annual report for The Equity Project Charter School, which won approval to serve 720 more students at an elementary school, says the school beat the state’s targets for retaining high-needs students. DREAM Charter School, which won approval to open a high school, beat the state’s targets for two of the three high-needs groups, including English learners.

But John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School on Staten Island did worse, falling far short of its targets for retaining poor students and students with disabilities. It plans to add an elementary school. Retention information wasn’t available for Mott Haven Academy Charter School, which plans to add middle-school grades.

The Board of Regents has been slow to approve new charter schools this year, but its future treatment of charter schools will be determined by a remade board. Come March, the board will have three new members and a new leader after the departure of Chancellor Merryl Tisch.

Regent Chin, one of the new members, stressed that her abstention did not signal opposition to charter schools.

“It’s not a controversy in the sense of being against any of this happening,” Chin said. “That’s all it is, it’s a lack of information.”

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: