Challenging charters

Regents signal toughness on charter schools and send Success Academy renewals back to SUNY

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York State Board of Regents

Members of the Board of Regents are striking a firm tone when it comes to charter school oversight — but they have yet to make any dramatic moves that would close a school or deny its expansion request without warning.

That was the takeaway from an hour-and-a-half long discussion the state’s policymaking body had on Monday. Charter school business that could have been routine — including renewals, mergers, and revisions — dissolved into a wide-ranging discussion about how to ensure the schools are enrolling enough high-needs students and what hurdles a charter school should clear to remain open.

Despite the lengthy discussion, the Regents ultimately did not pull the plug on any of the recommendations made by the State Education Department. But several Regents, in some cases, either voted against the proposals or abstained.

The board also sent 10 proposed Success Academy renewals back to SUNY for review, saying the authorizer jumped the gun and gave preliminary approval for the renewals years too soon. State education officials say this is a break from precedent; SUNY officials disagree with that assessment. The move was largely symbolic since SUNY still has final say over the renewals.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Success proposals had been discussed at length before the meeting. “We have taken a great deal of time and effort to have extensive discussions around this issue,” she said. But at the meeting, the Regents did not dwell on Success Academy. They did, however, discuss some of the other charters at length.

One school that garnered much attention was Cultural Arts Academy Charter School at Spring Creek, a Brooklyn charter authorized by the city’s Department of Education, which was up for a short, three-year renewal and a one-year expansion of 45 students for technical reasons.

The school has decent test scores, but enrolls relatively few economically disadvantaged students. Only 32 percent of the school’s students were low-income in the 2015-16 school year in a district where 79 percent are poor.

Several Regents expressed concern about the school’s enrollment and one even suggested these types of practices contribute to school segregation.

“It seems to me that there is something out of sync,” said Regent Lester Young. “How do you have a framework that allows this to happen?”

Regent Judith Johnson made a similar point. “I’m concerned that what we are doing here is continuing to support the segregation of schools,” she said. “I sometimes get emotional about this because I don’t understand why we continue to support programs like this that violate the principles that we stand for in public education.”

Summit Academy, another New York City charter school, was singled out for its relatively poor academic performance. Only about 26 percent of students pass the English exam at the school, while 49 percent do in its district. That school received approval for a two-year renewal.

Transition

She was principal at a struggling Denver charter. Now she teaches at the school that replaced it.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Mary Ann Mahoney helps her preschool students with a cutting and pasting lesson.

Her preschoolers had just finished breakfast, and teacher Mary Ann Mahoney was stooped over a low sink, scooping soggy cereal out of the drain with her bare hand. Even as she plopped the sweet-smelling mush into a nearby trash can, the former school principal smiled and remarked how much she loves being back in a classroom — wet cereal and all.

“This is just such a fun and glorious age,” Mahoney said. Four-year-olds, she said, are “little sponges” with a zest for learning and life. Those are traits shared by Mahoney, who favors Mickey Mouse leggings and jokes that she’s liable to break into song at any moment.

“We have a good time every day,” she said.

What’s unusual about Mahoney’s return to teaching is that she spent the past couple of years as principal of a northwest Denver charter school that the district threatened to close for its chronically low test scores. The school, Cesar Chavez Academy, occupied the same building where Mahoney now spends her days teaching preschool.

Instead of fighting the district to stay open, the leaders of Cesar Chavez Academy decided to do the opposite. They dissolved the stand-alone charter at the end of last school year and sold its coveted building in the Berkeley neighborhood to Rocky Mountain Prep, a homegrown charter network with three other schools that serve the same demographic — predominantly low-income and Latino — and get impressive academic results.

This kind of deal between charters is rare in Denver. In this instance, it allowed Cesar Chavez to spare students and families the trauma of a drawn-out last stand or a hard closure, where the school would be here one day and gone the next with nothing to replace it.

At least one previous example of a struggling stand-alone charter handing off management to an academically successful network has shown positive results. The networks get something out of it, too: Many are eager to expand, and these takeover deals could be a more viable way to do that in a district where enrollment is flat and school buildings are scarce.

In fact, Rocky Mountain Prep is now in talks with another stand-alone charter, Roots Elementary in northeast Denver, to do the same thing. It’s worth noting, however, that not everyone thinks charter network expansion is a good thing. While district officials have embraced it as a way to improve schools, many parents and community members view charters, which are publicly funded but independently run, as unwanted competition.

Cesar Chavez and Rocky Mountain Prep worked together to try to make their transition smooth. For instance, Cesar Chavez allowed Rocky Mountain Prep to set up a mock classroom last year in the network’s style, with daily learning goals and charts posted on the walls tracking fictitious students’ reading and math progress. That allowed real students who were curious about the network to stop by and ask questions. Nearly 80 percent of Cesar Chavez students stayed and enrolled at Rocky Mountain Prep this year, according to school officials.

The mock classroom, and several other steps the two schools took, made all the difference, said Sara Carlson, the principal at what is now called Rocky Mountain Prep Berkeley.

“From the very first time I met with the (Cesar Chavez) team, in the spring of 2017, the way Mary Ann introduced me was, ‘I reached out to Sara, and I’m excited about what Sara and Rocky Mountain Prep do,’” Carlson said. “That changed the narrative.”

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Mary Ann Mahoney gets her preschool classroom ready in August 2018.

In taking over Cesar Chavez, Rocky Mountain Prep drew on lessons it learned from another transition that did not go as smoothly. In 2016, the school board in the neighboring city of Aurora voted to phase out a struggling elementary near the Denver border called Fletcher Community School and replace it, one grade at a time, with Rocky Mountain Prep.

The decision faced fierce pushback from Fletcher teachers. Carlson, who was involved in the takeover, said it also felt “cut and dried” for some families: One day the school was Fletcher and the next it was a charter with new colors, new uniforms, and new teachers.

Even though Rocky Mountain Prep guaranteed an interview to any Fletcher teacher who wanted to work for the network, none applied, Carlson said. When the network extended the same guarantee to the teachers at Cesar Chavez last year, nine took up the offer, she said. Five of them were hired, as was the former Cesar Chavez operations manager.

Arguably the most important steps the network took, though, had to do with students and families. Even before Cesar Chavez announced the transition, Carlson said she met with a group of fifth-graders to ask them what Cesar Chavez could have done better and what they would keep the same. They made it clear that close relationships were important, she said.

“They said, ‘The teachers really love us,’” Carlson said. It was notable how many of them said the staff knew not only their parents, but their cousins and extended family, too, she said.

That conversation made Carlson realize it would be key for her to get to know the community before Rocky Mountain Prep took over. Starting last October, she made a point to be at the school at least once a week, doing lunch duty or helping at dropoff and pickup.

“Mary Ann would introduce me to families who were important stakeholders,” Carlson said. “So when I started sending out invites to coffee hours and tours, there was a face to the name.”

Six weeks into the school year, parents said the transition has gone well, for the most part. There have been some complaints about the new bell schedule, which requires families to drop off and pick up later than before. One mother said she’s frustrated that she now can’t use a parking lot that Rocky Mountain Prep has reserved for staff.

And while the school uniforms have not changed much — blue polo shirts, black shoes — some students have grumbled that they’re no longer allowed to wear jeans on Fridays.

But parents seem pleased with the academics, which mother Tiesha Vigil called “challenging.” Vigil said her kindergartener and second-grader are making progress on their reading, and she’s seen huge changes in her preschool daughter, who has special needs. Before her daughter started school, she struggled with speech, and it was difficult for even her family to understand her, Vigil said. Now, a month and a half later, she’s speaking in full sentences.

“I can see how good it can be already,” Vigil said.

The promise of more rigor and structure is partly what prompted Vigil and her husband to keep their elementary-aged children at Rocky Mountain Prep after Cesar Chavez closed. (Her oldest son had to find a new middle school because unlike Cesar Chavez, which was a K-8, Rocky Mountain Prep only serves students in preschool through fifth grade.)

The promise of trusted and familiar faces — including Mahoney and her former assistant principal, who is now teaching second grade there — was a factor, as well. Parent Benedicta Pacheco, whose three older children attended Cesar Chavez, said knowing her youngest child could have Mahoney as a preschool teacher made her feel comfortable staying.

“She knows us,” Pacheco said. “My kids feel like family.”

The desire to provide continuity played into Mahoney’s decision to stay, too, she said. She’s invested in the success of the takeover, especially since the idea came from her and other Cesar Chavez leaders. She said the first time she visited Rocky Mountain Prep, she thought, “This school is doing what we’re trying to do, but they’re doing it more effectively.”

As a Rocky Mountain Prep teacher, Mahoney said she has come to see why. The network is relentless in training its staff; Mahoney had just two weeks off last summer from the time Cesar Chavez closed until training began at Rocky Mountain Prep. Administrators routinely pop into classrooms, and if they notice several teachers struggling with the same thing, such as giving precise directions, they’ll have everyone practice it in the morning before school, she said.

“I was like, ‘Oh, this is really brilliant. We should have been doing it,’” Mahoney said.

Mahoney said she has also come to see the value of the strict, step-by-step routines Rocky Mountain Prep has the students follow. The routines dictate everything from how to walk in the hallways, to how to sit on the carpet and how students get up from their desk chairs.

Such routines are controversial; critics view them as controlling and oppressive, especially since they are most often used in schools that serve a majority of students of color from low-income families. Mahoney herself was wary, but she said she’s found that the routines cut down on the time it takes to transition from one activity to another, leaving more time for learning.

And some of the ways Rocky Mountain Prep conducts that learning are different than what Mahoney had seen in her 30 years as an educator. She said she was blown away last year when, on a visit to a different Rocky Mountain Prep campus, she watched second-graders debate with each other the best way to calculate the perimeter of an imaginary fence.

“The teacher never said, ‘You’re wrong.’ The teacher said, ‘I see you disagree,’” Mahoney said. Just observing that one lesson, she said, “will change my teaching practice forever.”

“I know I will exit this year a better teacher than [when] I started,” Mahoney said.

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
A preschool student works on a cutting and pasting worksheet in Mary Ann Mahoney’s classroom.

As happy as families are that Mahoney is back, she is even more thrilled to be in a classroom again. In a way, teaching preschool is coming full circle for her; it’s where she started her education career. “My favorite ages in life are 2- to 5-year-olds,” Mahoney said. “I just think they’re funny, and they say exactly what they want.”

That trait was on full display on a recent morning in Mahoney’s class. As her 4-year-olds choppily maneuvered blunt-tipped scissors to cut out pictures of animals and paste them in the correct habitat — land or water — Mahoney multitasked, helping the students write their names in crayon at the top of their papers, checking to see if they washed their hands after going to the bathroom, and complimenting them when they shared the glue.

At one point, she called a little boy by the wrong name.

“I’m sorry, Nathan,” she said. “I lost my brain. I lost my brain!”

Another boy looked at her seriously.

“I think it went to Las Vegas,” he said.

Mahoney threw back her head of curls and laughed.

bus breakdown

Facing his first crisis, Carranza fired a top official. But can he fix New York City’s yellow bus system?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza rode a school bus to P.S. 377 in Ozone Park, Queens, on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year.

Just days after responding to the city’s school bus crisis by firing a top official and reassigning another, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza put his staff on notice that when things go wrong they better act quickly — or he will find someone who will.

“When things don’t go right I expect a sense of urgency to serve our community,” Carranza said in an interview with Chalkbeat Monday. “And if we can’t make it happen, then we’ll make sure that there are people in place that will make it happen. It’s really that simple.”

Problems with the city’s school bus services are not unusual, especially at the start of the school year. But since the start of classes, the city’s school transportation hotline has seen a 17 percent increase in calls over the same period last year. And revelations about drivers who were not properly vetted, buses arriving late, students trapped on hours-long routes crisscrossing the city, or buses simply not arriving at all have dominated the opening weeks of Carranza’s first full school year, splashing across the front page of the Daily News.

Last week, after deeming the situation “unacceptable,” Carranza fired Eric Goldstein, the CEO of school support services responsible for transportation, school food, and the public school sports league. Carranza also reassigned Elizabeth Rose, who had been CEO of school operations and a top deputy under former Chancellor Carmen Fariña, to focus solely on transportation contracts.

Carranza said Monday that a broader shakeup to the $1.2 billion-per-year bus system, which serves roughly 150,000 students, two-thirds of whom have disabilities, could be coming.

“As we understand more fully how [the Office of Pupil Transportation] in particular operates, I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t some more changes,” he said. Leading that effort will be Kevin Moran, a former borough field support director who will now serve as a senior advisor to Carranza on transportation — while the city searches for a permanent leader.

The busing problems are the first significant test of Carranza’s leadership during a crisis since taking the helm of the nation’s largest school system last April. So far, Carranza’s response has echoed his reaction to much larger issues such as school segregation — that he’s interested in systemic fixes and doesn’t want to excuse the issue just because it has bedeviled past chancellors. Under changes made by Carranza’s administration, school bus drivers will undergo the same background checks and have investigations handled by the same education department unit as other schools staffers.

But so far, his response to the crisis has drawn mixed reactions from some advocates, observers, and education department insiders.

Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, said busing issues often linger through much of the school year. In the past, the education department has reacted defensively, fixing bus issues in individual cases when advocacy groups get involved but rarely pledging to overhaul the system, she said.

“We get a lot of students at this time of year who have not been to school yet because they don’t have a bus,” Moroff said. “It’s exciting to hear the chancellor say, ‘it’s unacceptable and we’re going to do something about it.’”

But overhauling the bus system will be a massive undertaking, partly owing to the technical complexity of ferrying students to schools with different schedules, shifting rosters of students necessitating new routes — but also because the system is dependent on a rough-and-tumble web of private bus companies. (Goldstein, the support services CEO who Carranza fired, reportedly faced down the CEO of a bus company who confronted him with a loaded pistol during contract negotiations in 2010.)

Eric Nadelstern, a top education department deputy during the Bloomberg administration, said Carranza may be underestimating the bus system’s complexity and the value of keeping leaders with deep knowledge of it.

“Goldstein at the very least understood where the pitfalls were,” Nadelstern said, adding that removing a leader in the middle of a crisis may prove unwise. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in the system who has that knowledge or capacity.”

The Bloomberg administration attempted an overhaul of the bus system in 2007, hiring private consultants in an attempt to make it more efficient. That effort turned out to be a flop, the New York Times reported, “leaving shivering students waiting for buses in the cold and thousands of parents hollering about disrupted routines.” Klein eventually apologized but largely defended the reorganization at the time, saying, “I never think that the pain is worth it. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any good time to make these changes.”

Others, including one current education department administrator who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they worried that Carranza wanted to show he was taking charge of the situation by making heads roll without immediately addressing the underlying problems.

But while Carranza admitted he does not yet have a full explanation of why the school bus system has repeatedly fallen short, he said he is committed to a longer-term solution.

“My understanding is this goes back at least decades,” Carranza told Chalkbeat. “There are some systemic issues that I don’t want to put a band-aid on, I want to actually find the root cause and fix.”