it's a deal

Mayor de Blasio strikes a charter deal, making it easier for schools to expand, pay for space

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has agreed to a series of changes that will benefit New York City charter schools, a group he’s publicly battled in the past.

It comes shortly after a big win for de Blasio: a two-year extension of his control of the city’s schools. City officials indicated the deal, outlined Thursday, came out of that bargaining process, which pitted the pro-charter State Senate against the more anti-charter Assembly.

The deal includes several items that have been on charter leaders’ wish lists for years — indicating that, for de Blasio, avoiding another mayoral-control fight next year was worth compromise.

One is a streamlined process for schools asking the city for space in public buildings, or help paying rent in private space. The city is promising to respond to requests for rent within five business days. (A 2014 law that requires the city to provide one or the other for new or expanding charter schools.)

The de Blasio administration said it will speed up rent reimbursements and reply to requests for upgrades in co-located space within 45 days, pledging to grant the requests unless “demonstrably unreasonable.”

That’s important for charter advocates who have long argued that the de Blasio administration makes it more difficult than necessary for schools to access space and funds they’re entitled to under the law. Until now, the de Blasio administration has defended its process, saying space in public buildings is more limited than charter advocates claim.

The city also indicated it would not fight back if state officials reissue charters for New York City charter schools that have closed (sometimes called “zombie charters”). Only 23 charters were still officially available for schools in the city. The change would make it clear that an additional 22 can open.

“The charter sector is an important partner in our mission to deliver an excellent education to every child in New York City,” said City Hall spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein. “Through the debate over mayoral control, we identified a few common-sense areas where we could better work together to ensure all 1.1 million school children have a chance to succeed.”

The city also said it will provide MetroCards for charter school students whose schools begin before busing starts, at a cost of about $3 million per year, and will work to avoid splitting single charter schools across two locations.

Under the 2014 law, new and expanding charter schools that do not get public space are entitled to the total rent of the private space or 20 percent of their per-pupil tuition rate, whichever is less. That increased to 30 percent this legislative session, and the city pledged to apply that increase immediately.

With the session over for the year, the provisions appear possible for de Blasio — who exerts no control over how new charters are issued by the state education department or SUNY — to implement on his own.

Officials provided few additional details about the changes, though during the legislative session Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie reportedly rejected a proposal to reissue “zombie” charters. Assembly spokeswoman Kerri Biche said Heastie was not an “active participant” in this series of charter school negotiations.

“He said from the beginning the Assembly majority would not trade anything regarding charter schools for mayoral control,” Biche said. “Mayor de Blasio and the city’s Department of Education have the right to make decisions of their choosing in regards to the administration of charter schools that do not require any legislative action.”

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan hailed the deal as “an important step forward.”

The pro-charter group StudentsFirstNY also applauded the deal, calling it “good for all public school kids.”

“Parents will have access to more school options and charter operators will get significant relief,” executive director Jenny Sedlis said in a statement.

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: