fighting back

Battling closure, Harlem charter school enlisted a high-profile PR firm that once repped Ivanka Trump

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

When New York City tried to shut down Opportunity Charter School’s middle school earlier this year for poor performance, the Harlem charter immediately went on the offensive.

School officials and parents filed a lawsuit, claiming the education department’s decision was too focused on test scores and didn’t take into account that more than half its students have disabilities. The grade 6-12 school explored switching authorizers so that the city — which granted the school its charter and must renew it on a regular basis — would no longer control its fate.

And just weeks after the city moved to shutter its middle school grades, the school brought on a high-profile public relations team whose president has represented members of the Trump family, while also paying a separate firm to lobby city officials on its behalf.

It’s not unusual for charter schools to work with outside public relations firms. But even some charter school advocates suggested that the school’s aggressive attempt to block the city’s sanctions is in tension with a fundamental premise of the city’s charter sector: that in order to justify their existence, charter schools must show that their students are making significant progress.

“It’s not just choice for choice’s sake,” said James Merriman, CEO of New York City’s Charter Center, referring to the city’s charter schools. And while he said there’s nothing inherently wrong with hiring a PR firm, he added: “Mounting a political and public relations campaign” has not helped other schools earn extensions of their charters because New York authorizers have “focused appropriately” on school performance.

The city has repeatedly said that Opportunity Charter School is not up to snuff.

In response to the school’s bid to renew its charter earlier this year, education department officials said it had met few of its academic benchmarks, reaching just four of 22 goals over the previous two years. And few of its middle-school students demonstrated proficiency on state tests, which showed that 9 percent of students were proficient in reading and 3 percent in math — lower than similar students at other schools.

Citing poor performance, the city attempted to close the middle school, granted the high school only a short-term renewal, and rejected the school’s bid to add an elementary school. They also denied the school’s proposal to exclusively serve students with disabilities, instead of its current mix of students with and without special needs. (Five years ago, the city moved to close the school entirely.)

School officials have vehemently disagreed with the city’s assessment.

They argue that evaluators have not adequately accounted for the school’s unique population, which was 55 percent students with disabilities in 2016. Today, only two of the city’s charter schools serve more students with disabilities. In addition, most of its incoming sixth graders had scored at the lowest level on state tests in elementary school, according to the school’s charter-renewal application. The school also notes that its high-school graduation rate among students with disabilities has frequently exceeded the city average.

After the city moved to close its middle school, Opportunity sued, claiming the decision discriminated against students with disabilities. In the meantime, the middle school has been allowed to remain open while a judge considers the case.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing the school, said Opportunity isn’t trying to subvert the accountability system.

School officials’ position “isn’t that they shouldn’t be held accountable,” he said. “It’s that they should be held to a standard they could reasonably meet.”

As they fought to remain open, school officials explored the possibility of switching authorizers to the state education department.

Quinn said the school requested an application to make the state its authorizer, but did not receive one. However, state education officials said they determined that the school did not meet the legal standard to transfer authorizers. A spokeswoman did not say which requirement the school failed to meet, but the law stipulates that schools “in violation of any legal requirement, in probationary status, or slated for closure” cannot change authorizers.

Meanwhile, this March, the school hired Risa Heller Communications to manage media coverage of the city’s efforts to close the middle school and counter the city’s narrative that it is underperforming, according to a six-month contract obtained by Chalkbeat under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. Risa Heller, the firm’s president, once served as a spokeswoman for New York Senator Chuck Schumer and has previously counted Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, as clients.

Meanwhile, as the school’s battle with the city continued to simmer, Opportunity paid about $50,000 to a lobbying firm to make its case to the education department and City Hall, along with other city officials, records show.

The school’s PR firm also continued to press its case to reporters — touting the school’s graduation rates and pitching an op-ed by the school’s CEO, in which he took a swipe at the city’s record on serving students with disabilities.

The firm’s contract was for $9,000 per month. It stipulated that Risa Heller Communications would “manage media around DOE hearing” where the school made its case to stay open, and identifying “media opportunities for raising the profile of OCS.”

Neither Opportunity Charter School nor Risa Heller Communications responded to emailed questions about whether they had extended their agreement beyond the original six-month term, or used public money to finance the contract.

“Opportunity Charter School hired a public relations firm to raise awareness of our unique approach to serving students,” Jason Maymon, the school’s in-house public affairs director, wrote in an email. “As we have limited internal communications staff, we retained a firm to help with this function.”

The latest dustup with the city’s education department isn’t the school’s first public relations crisis.

In 2010, the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigation released a startling report that showed the school did not appropriately respond to allegations that staff members used force against students and verbally abused them. (The school has previously denied the report’s findings.)

In the wake of that report, the school’s legal team hired Mark Alter, a New York University professor, to help conduct an internal review of the school’s climate. Alter went on to become a member of Opportunity’s board, before leaving in 2016.

In an interview, Alter said he was attracted to the school because of its commitment to including students with disabilities alongside their typically developing peers. But the school was “always under the gun” because of its low test scores, which he says was never a fair standard to evaluate the school’s progress.

Asked about the school’s decision to go on the offensive, including hiring a PR firm, Alter said it made sense to him.

“You do what you need to do in order to survive,” he said.

Are Children Learning

Chicago is sending more high schoolers to college — but how to get them to graduate?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Janice Jackson, and other city officials convened at Michele Clark Magnet High School in the Austin neighborhood to announce the latest college enrollment statistics.

Senior Tanariya Thompson, 17, said she and her friends at Michele Clark Magnet High School are constantly asking each other about where they want to go to college. But they’re not just talking, they’re doing their research, too.

“In a lot of our seminar classes I see more kids on the computers applying for colleges instead of just sitting there looking or saying, ‘I ain’t going to college,’” she said. “We’re serious: We want to go to a college so we can become somebody. Next week, I will have my top three.”

Chicago Public Schools released data today showing that more students than ever before are enrolling in college. The mayor and district officials announced the encouraging figures on the West Side, at Michele Clark High School, where students said they’ve seen more energy, excitement and urgency among their peers around the idea of enrolling at college.

The data shows that 1,000 more Chicago Public School graduates from the Class of 2017 enrolled in college compared with 2016, a 4.8 percent increase and the biggest one-year jump in nearly a decade.

Chicago still has a problem with public school graduates staying in and completing college. In 2016, just 18 percent of ninth graders were projected to attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation, and four-year college graduation rates have remained pretty stagnant since 2009, according to a fall 2017 report by the UChicago Consortium on School Research. (The report didn’t calculate two-year degree attainment).

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the latest enrollment data “an incredible statement about where Chicago Public School students are,” adding that nearly 90 percent of high school freshmen were on track for graduation.

“Every time they walk around and say, ‘not those kids, not from that school, not that background, not that ZIP code, not that family’ — you come here to Michele Clark and you tell these kids that,” Emanuel said, knocking on the wooden podium before him for emphasis.  “You guys have proved them wrong every step of the way.”

From 2010 to 2017, the college enrollment rate increased from 53.7 percent to 64.6 percent, according to the school district.  Officials credited everything from partnerships with OneGoal and other organizations focused on getting kids to and through college, to a summer text messaging campaign to nudge graduates toward completing action items along the enrollment path, and scholarships to city colleges for students who attain a B average or higher.

They also noted a shift in perspective.

“I think it’s because people have become more serious,” said Michele Clark Principal Charles Anderson. “I’ve seen it in action with people doing more college trips, people getting out to scholarship fairs, students having a different mindset.”

From 2016 to 2017, college enrollment rates for African-American and Latino students improved by 2.3 percentage points and 7.2 percentage points, respectively, according to the school district. The African-American college enrollment rate increased from 55.4 percent in 2016 to 57.7 in 2017, and the Hispanic college enrollment rate leaped from 59 percent in 2016 to 66.2 percent in 2017, according to district data.

Flanked by Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson and City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado, Emanuel said, “it used to be as a system, we were done just getting you to high school graduation, and our responsibility was over,” but now it’s different. The mayor added, “the biggest transformation is the mindset not just of our kids, but of the system.”

“It’s why we’re also making sure we set a goal that by 2019, every child has a plan for what comes next,” Emanuel said, alluding to a new CPS graduation requirement that demands every student “has a meaningful planning conversation with an adult, and graduates with a plan to map out their future.”

The data indicate more students are enrolling at City College of Chicago.

The district said 5.8 percent more students enrolled at city colleges in 2017 compared with the previous year. Of district graduates who attended two-year colleges in 2017, 84.5 percent enrolled at city colleges compared with 78.7 the previous year, according to the district. City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado praised the mayor and schools chief’s leadership, saying CPS’ gains were strong steps toward officials’ goals of “a more inclusive economy,” in Chicago.

“We also want to make sure that each of you has in a role in this economy, whether it’s downtown, or in our health-care centers, or at a logistics company, or engineering or manufacturing company or a tech company,” Salgado told the students. “This city will have a place for you.”

Officials said the climbing college enrollment rate mirrored the increasing number of district students earning high school diplomas, and also reflected district students’ overall strong academic progress. Yet the percent of students who enrolled in college in 2015 and were still enrolled the following year, 72.3 percent of graduates, is actually down slightly compared with 2010, when it was 72.8 percent.

That — and the low rates of Chicago Public School students who eventually graduate with a two- or four-year degree — are worrisome figures.

Furthermore, African-American and Latino students and students with disabilities still graduate from high school, enroll in and graduate from college at lower rates than the general population. It’s a sobering reminder of inequities in the school system.

Officials acknowledged that work remains to get more students to and through college.

That point that wasn’t lost on Michele Clark senior Naquanis Hughes, 17, who wants to study business in college but is still undecided on where. Hughes said staff, students, and even alumni offer this encouragement about getting through the hard knocks that some students encounter in higher education:

“If you come to a hard place, don’t just fall down, don’t just give up, keep pushing yourself.”

#GovTest

Where Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker stand on key education issues, from charters to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: (Rauner) Alex Wong/Staff/Getty Images; (Pritzker) Joshua Lott/Getty Images
Our conversations with Gov. Bruce Rauner (left) and challenger J.B. Pritzker will be aired on Oct. 3 on WBEZ 91.5 FM.

The race for Illinois governor is shaping up to be one of the most expensive in U.S. history, and anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock has probably seen or heard one of the barrage of ads for the candidates. There have been puppies, toilets, and plenty of barbs over wealth and taxes — and the back-and-forth has drowned out the discussion over where the candidates stand on education, arguably one of the most crucial policy areas facing the state.

To dig deeper, Chalkbeat Chicago is teaming up with the education team at WBEZ 91.5 Chicago for a WBEZ/Chalkbeat 2018 Election Special: Testing the Candidates. Republican incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker each have agreed to join us for a conversation about where they stand on everything from boosting the state’s profile in early childhood education to stemming the exodus of undergraduates from Illinois.

The interviews will be separate, but will be broadcast back-to-back on WBEZ 91.5 FM on Oct. 3 starting at 8 a.m.  

In advance of the discussion, Chalkbeat and WBEZ asked each candidate for his position on five questions, and we’ve reprinted their answers in their entirety. We’re also soliciting interview suggestions from our readers and listeners. Use this form to submit a question to us, and follow along with the discussion on Oct. 3 using #GovTest.