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.

appeals

Will charter schools rebuffed in Chicago find a savior in the state? Why the outlook is iffy.

At Moving Everest Charter School one recent morning, first-grade teacher Alexis Collins gestured proudly at her room of 15 students, all wearing oversize headphones and quietly peering at laptop screens loading a math program that would launch them into elementary computer programming.

“We start them off with coding, so by the time they are in eighth grade, they’ll know what a person with an associate’s degree would know,” Collins said.

The school is so confident that its controversial personalized learning program will help raise up children from struggling neighborhoods that its directors proposed opening a second campus.

But the Chicago school board, perhaps recognizing the shifting political tide, denied the proposal from Everest and two others seeking to open new charters, despite lobbying by supportive parents.

Now Moving Everest is pinning its hopes on an appeal to the Illinois State Charter Commission.

Another charter applicant also plans to appeal: Kemet Leadership Academy, which proposed a middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood. So do the operators of Kwame Nkrumah Academy, which the Chicago district ordered closed at the end of the school year.

Appeal plans are uncertain for two others: charter applicant Intrinsic, which sought to replicate its Level 1-plus campus with another citywide high school, and Urban Prep West, whose school was ordered closed. Neither Instrinsic nor Urban Prep West responded to requests for comment.

The state established the charter agency in 2011 to ensure quality in charter schools, and granted it the power to override local school boards’ rulings. Since then, charter school operators have regarded the state charter commission as a lifeline protecting them from hostile local school boards.

Its history with Chicago is contentious. The commission has overruled Chicago Public Schools  to approve opening two charter schools and to reopen four charters closed by the district — one of which later shut down. The state agency oversees and funds five charter schools now operating in Chicago.

Opponents chafe at the commission’s ability to override local decisions.

But circumstances have changed. The commission’s future is far from certain, meaning that charters rejected this month could have only a small window to win commission support before the administration, and possibly policies, change in Springfield.

Chicago tried to curb the commission’s authority by backing a state bill that would have stripped it of its right to reverse school district decisions. The bill passed, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last spring, and the Illinois Senate failed to override the veto.

But incoming governor J.B. Pritzker has pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion. His position on the charter commission is unclear. He earlier told Chalkbeat that good charter schools are “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

Now legislators have introduced a package of bills to rein in charter schools. Among other things, they would cap charter school expansion in financially struggling districts like Chicago and bar for-profit companies from running charters.

Could Everest win approval in time? Charter operators have 30 days from a denial to file an appeal. Then the commission has 75 days to rule.

The school hasn’t yet filed an appeal. But Michael Rogers, the founder of Moving Everest, said he isn’t ready to give up on expanding his school’s mission.

He’s not deterred by Everest’s Level 2-plus rating, not a stellar rank, from Chicago Public Schools.

He said that the school offers a unique learning environment. It also provides for its students in other ways, including offering dental and eye care.

“How do we interrupt the cycle of children growing up in this neighborhood who have a challenging instructional environment?” Rogers asked, adding he will tell the commission about the importance of investing in a struggling community.

In Austin, one of the city’s most under-invested neighborhoods, the large gray-and-green buildings that house Moving Everest school and its partner after-school “Christ-centered” program, By The Hand, stand our starkly against the nearby empty lots, run-down strip malls, and train tracks.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” Rogers said. “We do believe that we have a strong school academically, financially. Our model is such that the community has spoken very loudly about or school.”

Indiana A-F grades

Indiana looks to ditch two A-F grades. Here’s how the feds would measure schools instead

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
First-grade students on the first day of school this year.

Confused by your school’s two letter grades? Some Indiana education officials are trying to change that.

Officials are proposing that the state scrap one of its two school A-F grades, a move they say will clarify for educators, parents, and community members how a school has performed.

“It was causing a lot of confusion,” said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. “I think schools will be pleased.”

The Indiana Department of Education will instead ask federal officials to approve an updated school rating system under its plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which relies on four categories — exceeds, meets, approaches, and does not meet expectations — rather than letter grades. The state, however, will continue to assign A-F grades to schools as part of its own grading system.

Read: Indiana has a curious plan to sidestep federal rules — give schools two A-F grades next year.

The changes to the grades represent an attempt to get past the limited scope grades offer, McCormick said. It’s also an acknowledgement that Indiana lawmakers and state board of education members have opposed combining the state and federal grading model into one, despite urging from McCormick and other educators and experts.

“I over-assumed and underestimated the desire to take ESSA as seriously as we were,” McCormick said. “Our goal was not to have two (school grades), but we can control that obviously easier on our end.”

While the revisions would mean that schools across the state would get one grade, there would still be two yardsticks against which their test scores and other achievement data will be measured — one that meets federal law, and one that meets state law. The two ratings have different consequences for schools. The state grade would determine where a school falls on the timeline for state intervention, and the federal rating would count under rules for identifying struggling schools and those that govern Title I funding.

An education department spokesman said the state is submitting its revisions to the federal government in January and hopes to hear a response by April or May. If approved, the new model would be used for 2019 ratings, typically released in the fall.

In addition to removing the A-F grade labels, the federal plan would also change the components of the rating. Currently, federal grades are based on data from five areas — six for high schools, which report graduation rate — that still draw mainly from test scores. New to Indiana are factors that measure the fluency of students learning English as a new language and chronic absenteeism. Those aren’t included in state grades, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

The updated version would keep most of the above factors, but remove data on course and credential completion and add a component measuring the share of students who graduate with the state’s Core 40 diploma, as well as another that focuses on test score gaps between students from different backgrounds.

Although the new ratings would still be based mostly on test scores — a requirement of federal law — they would involve more information that educators say offers a better and more fair picture of how schools are doing.

“I absolutely love it,” said Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School. “The letter grades have run their course — they are truly not an accurate description of what’s happening in a school.”

Baker said that unlike grades, the ratings aren’t as punitive and might not emphasize as starkly the disparities between schools in more affluent communities and those that serve more students from low-income families.

Also, different ratings could give parents more insight when choosing schools, he said. Just knowing that an “A” school is rated higher than a “B” school, without understanding what plays into those grades — which stem mainly from test scores and have been criticized for not including enough students or accounting for gaps between students from different backgrounds — isn’t going far enough, he said.

Baker said he hopes lawmakers and state board of education members consider working the ESSA changes into the state’s grading system, which after a delay, is currently under review by the state board of education.

McCormick was less confident other state leaders would lend their support. Although the education department is the state’s liaison with federal officials and doesn’t need approval to make changes to its ESSA plan, it can be helpful to have broader support, she said.

“It’s time for us to start working together,” Baker said. “Not being on the same page does not help the students of Indiana.”