New option

As Upper West Side rezoning debate rages, a private school sells itself as an option for angsty parents

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

If timing is everything, the backers of a new private school on the Upper West Side couldn’t have stumbled on a more opportune moment.

The district has been roiled in a school rezoning dispute for more than a year, with some unhappy parents threatening to go elsewhere if their neighborhood school changes.

Starting next fall, families will have a new alternative to consider: Basis Independent Manhattan, a private school that seems to be capitalizing on parents’ angst, is opening on Columbus Avenue.

“School tension on UWS sends parents searching for new options. Meet Basis Independent Manhattan,” the school proclaims in the subject line of a promotional email.

In an interview, Mark Reford, chief of business development for Basis, pointed out that the school would be opening regardless of the current uproar.

“We play no role in the public policy discussion,” he said.

But he did say the rezoning has come up in interviews with parents and admissions counselors.

“This whole process is really making them think about what are the alternatives, and we offer a pretty amazing alternative for these parents,” Reford said.

With campuses in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn, the school promotes itself as a relatively affordable private school. For $29,000 per year, parents can enroll their children in Mandarin and engineering classes — starting in kindergarten.

According to its advertising materials, Basis offers liberal arts and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The school culture is “joyful.” Younger students benefit from two teachers per classroom in the early grades, and teachers in the upper grades hold PhDs.

Just as the rezoning debate comes to a climax — the city Department of Education is expected to unveil its final rezoning proposal on Wednesday — Basis is holding information sessions ahead of its grand opening.

Reford called it “extraordinarily good timing.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety on the Upper West Side at the moment with the zoning process,” he said. “This whole process is really making them think about what are the alternatives, and we offer a pretty amazing alternative for these parents.”

The new school hopes to enroll 450 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

In addition to its private schools, Basis runs 20 charter schools — mostly in Arizona and Texas. They have been rated among the top charter schools in the country, according to Newsweek rankings. But some of its schools in Arizona have also been criticized for having student bodies that aren’t reflective of the local demographics, according to media reports.

Reford said the charter schools “reflect the communities in which they’re placed, and we don’t target any particular group of people.”

move it

First girls, now boys: A look inside Denver’s newest single-gender, athletic-focused charter school

PHOTO: Travis Bartlett Photography
Students at The Boys School of Denver play a game with a teacher on the first day of school in August 2017.

One of the first things the new sixth-graders at Denver’s new all-boys public school learned last week was the school cheer. And unlike what you might expect on the first day of a school that drew kids from 31 different elementary schools from all corners of the city — kids who were, for the most part, strangers in matching T-shirts — they were not at all timid.

The first time they tried the cheer, their voices boomed as loudly as tween boys’ voices can.

“I am!” school leader Nick Jackson shouted with the enthusiasm of a summer camp counselor.

“We are!” the boys answered in kind.

“I am!” “We are!”

“I am!” “We are!”

Two claps. Loud. “Boys School!”

In the seconds of silence that followed, Jackson held out his arm.

“Feel this! Feel this!” he said. “Those are goosebumps.”

NEW SCHOOLS OPENING 2016-17

The Boys School of Denver is one of five new schools opening this fall in Denver Public Schools (see box). The five schools are opening for a variety of reasons ranging from a need to accommodate a growing number of students in certain neighborhoods to a desire to provide families more high-quality options in a city that prizes school choice.

The school district’s first day was Monday but The Boys School, a charter with autonomy over its schedule as well as other aspects of its program, started a few days early.

On the first morning, 87 sixth-graders showed up to the massive campus of the Riverside Church in northwest Denver, where The Boys School is renting space this year. The school plans to add a grade each year until it eventually serves students in grades 6 through 12.

It’s a replication of sorts of Denver’s successful Girls Athletic Leadership School, an all-girls charter middle and high school. GALS, as it’s called, opened in 2010 with the aim of building girls’ self-esteem and sharpening their focus through physical movement and positive gender messages. That means starting the day with 45 minutes of movement, taking “brain breaks” during lessons, and requiring classes on deconstructing stereotypes in addition to academics.

The Boys School will follow the same model.

“For boys, they’re being pushed into being competitive or having a more assertive way about them,” said Carol Bowar, who is executive director of the organization. “We’re trying to neutralize that a bit to allow kids to develop and grow as who they are.”

A 2014 analysis of 184 studies from around the world found single-gender schools do not educate girls or boys better than co-ed schools. But Bowar points to other research on adolescent development, sex differences and how exercise can sharpen brain function, as well as GALS’s own results.

Last year, more GALS middle schoolers scored at grade level in English and math on state standardized tests than the districtwide averages. They also showed high academic growth; for instance, GALS middle schoolers scored better, on average, than 63 percent of Colorado students who had similar test scores the year before in math.

Leaders decided to open an all-boys school to offer the same opportunities to boys, Bowar said. Plus, she said, families with both sons and daughters repeatedly asked for one.

“We started hearing from year one, ‘I am so in love with your school for my daughter but I want it for my son,’” said Bowar, who herself has a sixth-grade son in the first class.

In a district where many schools are segregated by race, GALS has a more diverse student population than most. Last year, 55 percent of the 280 students at GALS middle school were students of color; 49 percent qualified for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty; 20 percent were English language learners; and 11 percent received special education.

Not all of those metrics are available yet for The Boys School. But Bowar provided some details: 57 percent of the sixth-graders registered before the first day of school were white, 28 percent were Latino, 11 percent were black, and 2 percent were Asian.

That’s fewer students of color than in the district as a whole. Overall, about 77 percent of DPS’s 92,000 students last year were students of color. About 23 percent were white.

GALS is also expanding outside Denver. A GALS middle school opened last year in Los Angeles, having been recruited there by a group of educators and community members. Educators in the Bay Area and Tucson are also interested in starting GALS schools, Bowar said. And the Los Angeles group plans to apply for a charter for a boys school, she said.

The Boys School is not Denver’s first-ever all-boys charter school. A previous all-boys charter with a different model, Sims-Fayola International Academy, closed in 2015 due to financial, logistical, and academic challenges.

After the assembly where they learned the school cheer, the inaugural Boys School sixth-grade class walked a couple blocks to a nearby city park blanketed by long grass that was still wet with morning dew. Jackson, who spent the previous three years at GALS, explained to them the rules of a game called Mighty Mighty Scoop Noodle Challenge.

Popular at the girls school, the game is similar to capture the flag. But instead of a single flag, players must steal several objects from the opposing team, including a foam pool noodle.

The boys split into two teams and lined up on opposite sides of a wide open field. When Jackson gave the signal, they ran toward each other with pre-adolescent abandon.

The first day of school was short on academics and packed with activities meant to help build a sense of belonging and brotherhood among the students, Jackson said, and to make the boys feel “well-held, comfortable, safe and like they’re a part of something.”

Too many kids, he said, are quick to abandon who they are in an attempt to fit in.

“We’re trying to change that,” Jackson said.

closures ahead

Mayor de Blasio: More Renewal schools will face closure this year

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

New York City will announce new closures and mergers of schools in its Renewal turnaround program this fall, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday, though it’s unclear how many schools will meet that fate.

“Some schools have done really, really well and I think are well on their way to no longer being Renewal schools,” de Blasio said at a press conference on state test score results. “There are going to be some when we go through the whole process, I’m certain, some will be slated for closure.”

The mayor indicated that the city’s plan will be revealed in November after a more complete review of each school’s performance, adding that schools that have become “too small to be effective” could also be shuttered.

Those comments come as the Renewal program is about to finish the third year of what the mayor initially called a three-year program, and has previously said schools that didn’t measure up could be closed. But de Blasio made clear that his signature turnaround effort would extend beyond that timeframe, saying schools that were showing “momentum” could stay in the program for one or two more years.

So far, the city has spent $383 million on Renewal — which infuses schools with extra social services and academic support — and has already budgeted $372 million over the next two years, according to figures from the Independent Budget Office. Due to previous mergers and closures (five Renewal schools closed this year) the program will cover 78 schools this fall, down from an original 94.

Designed to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools instead of following former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s practice of closing them, the Renewal program has produced mixed results so far.

On Tuesday, the city released test score data showing that elementary and middle schools in the program posted larger increases in English and math pass rates than the citywide average. Overall, Renewal schools saw a 3.2 percentage point increase in English proficiency, compared to 2.6 percent citywide. And Renewal schools improved by 1.5 percentage points in math, slightly more than the 1.2 citywide increase.

But the schools still score far below city averages, and 60 percent of them posted neutral or negative gains in math proficiency; 18 percent made no progress in English. Academic experts have also reached different conclusions about whether the program is generating positive academic results.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña emphasized Tuesday that some Renewal schools would see changes in leadership this September (education officials could not say how many schools would get new principals). Fariña also said “we’re going to be looking at our Renewal team, and we already started restructuring what some of the support will look like.”

It was also unclear how many schools could leave the Renewal program, and whether they will keep their nonprofit partnerships and extra academic support.

“We have to work out the details,” de Blasio said, “but we’re not going to leave a school in the lurch.”

Update: This story has been updated with a quote from Chancellor Carmen Fariña.