problem solvers

From buying books to managing the lunchroom: Meet the behind-the-scenes teams that keep Success charters running

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students participate in science class at Success Academy Harlem 1.

Success Academy — New York City’s largest and most controversial charter school network — is best known for its sky-high test scores. Critics chalk up the results to intense test preparation and strict discipline policies that they say force out challenging students, while supporters credit stellar teaching and exacting expectations.

But people within the schools also point to a less flashy but just as crucial secret to the network’s success: “operations” teams embedded in each of the network’s 46 schools that handle a mix of logistical matters — from ordering supplies to managing the lunchroom — and family support. When it comes to families, they help do whatever it takes to get students to class, whether that means getting subway passes for students traveling from homeless shelters or buying alarm clocks for students who are habitually late.

The mission of these behind-the-scenes teams is to attend to the myriad issues that arise inside a school on any given day — clogged toilets, upset parents, sick students — so that the educators and students can concentrate on teaching and learning.

“The way that I like to describe my job is I’m responsible for everything besides teaching kids,” said Ashlee Scott, who as the “business operations manager” leads the troubleshooting team at Success Academy Harlem 1. “We see it as like a customer-service situation.”

To an extent, part of the teams’ work echoes the philosophy behind “community schools,” which provide social and health services for students and their families on the premise that students can’t learn when they’re in distress. That approach has been championed by the city teachers union and their ally Mayor Bill de Blasio, two of Success CEO Eva Moskowitz’s frequent antagonists. But Success has put its own no-nonsense spin on the model, approaching the countless complications that arise from poverty as problems to be solved, like missing textbooks or broken computers — in line with the network’s philosophy that the hardships students endure outside of school should not excuse underachievement in the classroom.

“It’s holding kids accountable, holding yourself accountable, and giving them all the things that they need to be successful,” said Harlem 1 Principal Danique Day-Loving. “One of the things that they don’t need is to get off the hook.”

In each Success Academy school, teams of three to five staff members manage a range of logistical and administrative duties — time-consuming tasks that the principal and other administrators at most district schools often handle themselves. In addition to the school-based operations teams, Success schools also get support from the network, which provides curriculum, finds building space, and helps with hiring. (Some of Success’ work is bankrolled by private money — it expects to raise $43.5 million in private funds during the 2017 fiscal year to go towards opening new schools, according to a federal grant application — though officials say schools’ daily operations are financed with public funds.)

At Harlem 1, the five-person operations team answers phones, partners with the local police precinct around safety issues, makes sure snacks and lunch are served, oversees the nurses and custodians, and plans school events. They also communicate with students’ families, for instance, to figure out why a student has been showing up late or to mediate a disagreement between a parent and teacher. The school’s principal and instructional team also work closely with families, but the operation team’s support frees them up to focus on educational matters.

Whether it’s a logistical or a family issue, the team’s job is to troubleshoot.

For instance, when a Harlem 1 teacher noticed her library was running low on good books, Scott figured out which ones she needed and ordered them. When a fire destroyed a family’s apartment, Scott rounded up new uniforms and gift cards for the students.

When members of a family experience domestic violence, Scott’s team informs building staff who can and cannot enter the school. Recently, she helped a student transfer schools to make sure the abuser did not know where to find the student.

While it’s unclear exactly how this troubleshooting approach contributes to student learning, students at Harlem 1 do exceedingly well on the state exams. More than 90 percent of its students are black or Hispanic, 62 percent live in poverty, and 11 percent are homeless. Yet 80 percent passed the state English tests last year and 92 percent passed math, rates far above the city average and many wealthy school districts.

Success is not alone in attending to students’ out-of-school needs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made that a centerpiece of his education agenda. Under his administration, the city has infused over 200 community schools with a host of additional resources, including health clinics, extra social workers, and even washing machines. Each has a team devoted to boosting student attendance and a full-time director to coordinate the support services.

P.S. 154, a community school that sits a short distance from Success Academy Harlem 1, offers free dental screenings for students and English classes for their parents. P.S. 154’s community school director, Karoline Alexander, said her aim is to prevent student problems as much as respond to them. And yet, her expansive view of her role is very similar to Scott’s, the Success operations manager.

Her job, Alexander said, is to provide “everything kids need to be efficient besides going to school to learn to read and write.”

Despite the overlap between the work of Success’ operations teams and the city’s community schools, Success founder Eva Moskowitz has been critical of community-school proponents.

In her new memoir, she argues that advocates for that approach sometimes use children’s poverty as “an excuse for failing to teach them.” The idea that students can only learn in schools that address their health needs is “nonsense,” she says.

“While health care should undoubtedly be improved for poor children,” she writes, “inadequate health care isn’t a substantial factor in the failures of urban district schools.”

In fact, while many charter school operators — including Moskowitz — may not identify their schools as community schools, many nonetheless offer support services to students and their families, said James Merriman, CEO of New York City’s Charter School Center.

“I think that if you were to talk with folks who have been running [charter] schools, they’d say that this was part of their program from the very beginning,” he said.

“‘Sweating the small stuff’,” he added, referring to a common refrain in the charter sector, “didn’t just mean in schools. It meant working with families.”

Every Student Succeeds Act

Plans for a single Indiana diploma advance with new rules that raise the bar for graduation waivers

In a move that might make it more difficult for some students to graduate, Indiana lawmakers are considering raising the threshold for allowing students to earn a diploma when they have fallen short of some state requirements.

A proposal to change the graduation waiver system is the latest attempt by the state to amend graduation requirements as part of a policy initiative to ensure that students are prepared for life after high school. The change in waiver policy could make it more challenging for students who struggle academically to complete high school.

“I want to make sure we have as few waivers as possible,” said Rep. Bob Behning, Republican chairman of the House Education Committee and author of House Bill 1426, which includes the waiver changes. And if a waiver is necessary, he said, he wants the requirements to be stringent enough to ensure post-graduate success.

The proposed waiver requirements are part of a sweeping effort by the state to align state law with the state’s new graduation pathways system. The bill, which passed its first major hurdle with the approval of the House Education Committee on Tuesday, would combine the state’s four diplomas into one to deal with the effects of a change in federal law that no longer counts the state’s less-rigorous general diploma in the federal graduation rate. With one diploma, Indiana would be more likely to pass muster under the new federal rules, but final approval from the federal government won’t come for several months.

An amendment to the bill proposed on Tuesday will change Indiana’s policy for allowing students to receive a waiver that, while controversial, is widely used. More than 8 percent of the more than 70,000 students who graduated last year received waivers from meeting graduation requirements.

Supporters say waivers provide opportunities to students who might face challenges that affect their ability to meet the basic graduation requirements. But critics say they allow high schools to push through students that lack the kind of skills needed to be successfully employed.

Waiver requirements for students with disabilities would not change under the new proposal.

The current system allows students who repeatedly fail required state tests in English and math to be granted a waiver that lets them graduate if they meet other criteria.

But under the new pathways system, which will affect students now in seventh grade, the state graduation exam will be replaced with one of several new graduation pathways requirements, which could include passing a college-entrance exam, taking career and technical education classes, or passing advanced courses.

Under Behning’s proposal, a waiver would be granted if a student had earned an average GPA of 2.0; maintained 95 percent attendance; or if he or she has been admitted to college, a job training program, the military or has an opportunity to start a career.

The bill allows a school’s principal to approve alternative requirements but doesn’t address how those would be developed. The new rules could also be used by students transferring from schools that are out of state or from private schools not held to graduation pathway rules.

The current criteria to receive a waiver do not call for students to be admitted to college, the military or a job. Students do have to maintain a 95 percent attendance record and a 2.0 grade point average, and also have to complete requirements for a general diploma, take a workforce readiness assessment or earn an industry certification approved by the state board. The standards also require students to obtain letters of recommendation from teachers (with approval of the school principal) and to use class work to show students have mastered the subject despite failing the graduation exam.

It’s not yet clear how many students might be affected by a change to the graduation waiver system. In the months since the Indiana State Board of Education approved the new graduation pathways, educators have raised concerns to state board staff members about the types of students who might not have a clear-cut pathway under the plan — for example, a student headed to college who might not have an exceptional academic record. A waiver outlined by HB 1426 could give them another shot. But for students without definite post-graduation plans, that waiver could be out of reach.

None of the educators or education advocates who testified on the bill spoke out specifically on the waiver changes. Mike Brown, director of legislative affairs for the Indiana Department of Education, said that based on a “cursory look,” the department didn’t have any issues with it.

Aside from the diploma and graduation waiver changes, the bill would also:

  • Make Indiana’s high school test a college-entrance exam, such as the ACT or SAT, instead of end-of-year tests in English and math.
  • Encourage the state board to look into alternatives for Algebra 2, currently a diploma requirement.
  • Ask the state board to establish guidelines for how districts and schools can create “local” graduation pathways and how they would be approved by the state board. It would also add $500,000 to fund development of local pathways that districts and schools could apply for.
  • Eliminate the Accuplacer exam, which schools now use to see if high school students need remediation in English or math before they graduate.

Because the bill includes a request for state funding, it next heads to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Making ends meet

Detroit teachers who get second jobs to supplement low salaries might soon have to disclose those gigs

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Dawn McFarlin
Dawn McFarlin, shown here wearing a shirt from her T-shirt company, is one of many Michigan teachers with a second job.

Teachers in Detroit’s main school district could soon have to tell their supervisors if they are supplementing their salaries with a side job.

The school board’s policy committee last week approved a new policy that says the district  “expects employees to disclose outside employment” and bars employees from working a second job while on any kind of leave.

The policy, which will get more review, including a minimum of two reads before the full school board, before being adopted and put into practice, comes amid a wholesale overhaul of district rules. The school board is reviewing and implementing a host of new policies as part of the ongoing transition from the old Detroit Public Schools district to the new one, the Detroit Public Schools Community District.  

Frequent changes to district policies under the five emergency managers who ran the Detroit district in recent years means that it’s unclear whether the employment disclosure policy is new, although the rules for outside employment under the current employee code of ethics do not require employees to disclose their second jobs. It’s also unclear how many teachers and district staffers the policy might affect, whether any kinds of second jobs might be prohibited, and how the district might use information about teachers’ side gigs.

What is clear is that educators say intervening in teachers’ outside employment does not make sense, given how hard it is to make ends meet as a Detroit educator right now.

“The bottom line is until you start paying teachers enough money, until then, people have to do what they have to do to make ends meet,” said Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “It’s really none of their business about what teachers do on their off time unless it’s a conflict of interest.”

Such conflicts, in which a teacher’s second job might interfere with his or her ability to fulfill responsibilities to the district, are exactly why the policy is needed, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

“As we’re rebuilding the district, we really want to avoid as many conflict of interests as possible,” Vitti said. “We’ve seen instances where there are conflicts of interest at the district level at the school level with all employees, so we’re just trying to be proactive with the culture of the district.”

Vitti said the step is intended to “prevent some of the ills of the past,” though he did not offer any specific examples.

But the district’s history is littered with costly and embarrassing scandals that might have been averted if closer attention were being paid to employees’ outside jobs. In one extreme example, a district official created tutoring companies, then billed for services she never delivered.

Vitti also pointed out that many other districts require full disclosure of outside employment. His former district, Duval County Public Schools in Florida, is not one of them, according to an employee handbook posted online. There, employees are not expected to disclose their outside employment, nor are they barred from working other jobs while on leave. But they are not allowed to sell anything to other teachers nor to parents of their students.

If implemented, the policy in Detroit could affect large numbers of teachers. About 19 percent of Michigan teachers reported having a second job as of 2014, according to a study from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In Detroit, where teacher pay is especially low, that number could be even higher. Vitti has vowed to increase teacher pay, and a new contract ratified last summer gave teachers their first real raise in several years. But that was not enough to bring teachers back to where they were when they took a 10 percent pay cut in 2011.

Dawn McFarlin, a former Detroit Public Schools teacher, launched her T-shirt company as a side gig as a way make extra money. After years without a pay increase in the city’s schools, she’s now working in another district, but she’s still hawking shirts to her former colleagues. Her top tee says “I Teach in the D” on the front.

So far, she’s sold about 500 shirts at $25 each, mainly to friends and through her Facebook page. She said she uses the profits to pay bills and fund her children’s travel expenses for sports.

“As a teacher, I know how it feels to be in the grocery store, trying to make ends meet,” McFarlin  said. “I was thinking of the struggle teachers go through, and that’s how the shirt came about.”

Here’s the complete policy that the school board is considering. Board members will review the policy next at the full school board meeting in February, where the public can address the board.

“Outside employment is regarded as employment for compensation that is not within the duties and responsibilities of the employee’s regular position with the school system. Employees shall not be prohibited from holding employment outside the District as long as such employment does not result in a conflict of interest nor interfere with assigned duties as determined by the District.

The Board expects employees to disclose outside employment. The Board expects employees to devote maximum effort to the position in which employed. An employee will not perform any duties related to an outside job during regular working hours or for professional employees during the additional time that the responsibilities of the District’s position require; nor will an employee use any District facilities, equipment or materials in performing outside work.

When the periods of work are such that certain evenings, days or vacation periods are duty free, the employee may use such off-duty time for the purposes of non-school employment.

This policy prohibits outside supplemental employment while on any type of leave.”