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.

Changes

Far northeast Denver gets campus upgrades, but not the traditional high school some want

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post via Getty Images
A seventh-grade biology class at the Montbello campus in Denver in 2017.

Denver students who return this fall to the five small schools on the Montbello campus will find a refurbished library with a dedicated librarian — something they didn’t have this past year.

New stadium lights will mean high school athletes no longer have their after-school practices cut short by the setting sun. Students at the two high schools on the campus will be able to take elective courses at either school, widening their academic possibilities.

These changes will create something closer to a traditional high school experience for students in far northeast Denver. Some residents have been asking for the return of a comprehensive high school in the region. It hasn’t had one since the school board voted in 2010 to close low-performing Montbello High and replace it with smaller schools that share facilities.

The five schools on the Montbello campus are:
  • DCIS Montbello Middle School
  • DCIS Montbello High School
  • Noel Community Arts Middle School
  • Noel Community Arts High School
  • STRIVE Prep Montbello Middle School

The three middle and two high schools on the Montbello campus served nearly 1,800 students this past school year. Nearly all of them were students of color, and 88 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty.

District officials point to higher test scores and rising graduation rates as proof the small schools are working. But some community members disagree, in part because they say shared campus arrangements have created other academic and social inequities. In the past year, parents, athletic coaches, and students have been increasingly vocal in demanding change.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district heard the feedback “loud and clear.” The library renovation and other changes will “bring some real, tangible, and meaningful benefits to our students in the far northeast,” he said.

Community members said they’re a start.

“We like to say we acknowledge what the DPS has done in response to all of this community agitation,” said Brandon Pryor, a Denver parent and football coach who has emerged as one of the strongest advocates for change. “We want to stay away from thanking them because the things they’re doing are the things they should have been doing already.”

School board member Jennifer Bacon, who represents the area, wants to help the community continue its advocacy. She is working to form a committee of parents, students, teachers, and other residents to come up with a vision for what public education should look like in the far northeast — and, perhaps, a model for future new schools in the region.

“You can’t just dangle low-hanging fruit and believe that’s enough,” Bacon said of the district’s efforts to address the concerns. However, she added, “you have to also start somewhere. The fact that we are means that a point was made, and it was received.”

The changes the district is making for the 2018-19 school year stop well short of reopening a traditional high school. Superintendent Boasberg said that while he hears that desire, “our first priority is to invest in the schools that we have.”

The changes include:

Providing “open access to a high-functioning library” for the schools on the Montbello campus, “including a dedicated librarian, for research and study time,” according to a letter Boasberg sent to families after touring the campus alongside community advocates.

All five schools will share a single library and librarian.

This past school year, one of the schools on the campus, DCIS Montbello, used the library as a math classroom during the fall semester, district officials said. When the library reopened during the spring semester, there was no librarian and no computers there. (Students have access to computers in their classrooms, and some schools issue students their own, officials said.)

The library renovation will add itechnology, and update the paint, flooring, furniture, and book selection, district officials said. It will be funded through a variety of sources, including a tax increase voters approved in 2016. Funding for the librarian position will come out of the district’s central budget, not individual school budgets, officials said.

Adding lights to the athletic fields at the Montbello campus and the nearby Evie Dennis campus, which houses a mix of elementary, middle, and high schools. The district is also aligning bell schedules at all district-run high schools in the far northeast.

That will enable student athletes from the various schools who play as a single team under the banner of the Far Northeast Warriors to start practice earlier. Football coach Tony Lindsay said that this past year, the schools’ bell schedules were all over the place. The school with the earliest dismissal time let students out at 2:45 p.m.; the latest dismissed them at 4:15 p.m.

A bus went from school to school, collecting the athletes, who wouldn’t arrive at the field until 4:45 p.m., he said. That posed a major problem in the fall, when it gets dark by 5:15 p.m.

The district is paying for the lights at the Evie Dennis campus with money from the 2016 tax increase and using reserve funds to pay for the Montbello lights, officials said.

Hiring an athletic liaison to help students meet the academic eligibility requirements to play sports for Denver Public Schools and qualify for college scholarships.

When Lindsay coached football at a traditional high school in south Denver, he required his players to attend a 45-minute study hall before practice so they could keep up with their homework. But the disparate bell schedules and lack of field lights didn’t allow him to do the same in the far northeast. As a result, he said, some athletes fell behind. Others left for larger, more traditional high schools in other parts of Denver and in surrounding districts.

“They didn’t want this mess,” Lindsay said. “I don’t blame them, but I’m hurt by it. I live out there. That’s my community.”

The liaison will connect student athletes with tutoring and other academic support, officials said. The position will be funded by the district, not the schools.

Expanding the number of available electives for some students. High school students at DCIS Montbello and Noel Community Arts School will be able to take elective courses at either school. According to district officials, those could include Advanced Placement, college-level, and foreign language courses, as well as band, orchestra, dance, and theater.

Many of the changes for next year are related to athletics. That’s because some of the strongest advocacy has come from the football coaches and their players, who showed up at school board meetings this year to speak publicly about the needs in the far northeast.

Lindsay, Pryor and others also participated in a series of community meetings run by Denver Public Schools over the past year and a half. The meetings started as an effort to ask residents in the region what they want in their schools. They ended in a heated debate about whether to reopen a traditional high school. The idea prompted backlash from leaders of the small schools that replaced Montbello High, as they initially saw it as a threat to their existence.

That conflict seems to have cooled, but those who want a traditional high school aren’t relenting. Narcy Jackson, who also participated in the meetings and runs a mentoring program for student athletes, said the changes the district is making don’t go far enough to address inequities.

“They give, like, a crumb,” Jackson said. “That’s supposed to suffice.”

District officials argue that students in the far northeast are getting a better education now than they did before the phase-out of Montbello High, which began in 2011 and ended in 2014 when the last class graduated. In addition to the two small high schools on the Montbello campus, there are six other small high schools and three alternative high schools in the region. They are a mix of district-run and charter schools, and all but one have fewer than 600 students.

Average ACT scores in the far northeast increased from 15.7 point out of 36 in 2011 to 17.7 in 2016, district data shows. That number does not include scores from the alternative schools.

The five-year graduation rate rose from 69 percent to nearly 88 percent. The district prefers to use a five-year graduation rate, rather than a four-year rate, because officials believe in allowing students to stay longer to take free college courses or do apprenticeships.

In addition, high school enrollment in far northeast schools has nearly doubled, from 2,056 students in 2010 to 4,069 students in 2017, district data shows. Officials see that as a sign families are increasingly satisfied with their local schools.

Pryor, the parent and football coach, sees things differently. Test scores are increasing, but he said they’re still not where they should be. ACT scores lag behind the district average. At DCIS Montbello, only 11 percent of 9th graders met expectations on last year’s state literacy test. As for the graduation rate, “that’s not an indication of kids doing better,” Pryor said.

“They’re just passing them through,” he said, “creating an illusion that they’re serving our kids better, but they’re not.”

He’d like to work with other community members to design a brand-new high school. He hopes to start by visiting schools around the country that have been successful in educating black and Latino students. He said he appreciates that Bacon, the school board member, wants to keep the conversation going beyond the changes the district is making next year.

“We’ve identified problems,” Pryor said. Now, he added, “it’s time to work on solutions.”

Incentives

Aurora’s school district is testing out a stipend for hard to staff positions

Math teacher Kelly Hutchings, in her class at Boston K-8 school in Aurora on March 3, 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school district may experiment with paying some teachers and staff about $3,000, to see if the district can attract more candidates, fill more vacancies, and retain more employees.

The pilot plan has $1.8 million set aside for next school year to to attract and retain as many as 400 employees in hard-to-staff jobs. But in the long run, Superintendent Rico Munn said, the stipends could save Aurora money.

“This is a force multiplier,” Munn said. “If we can fill those positions ourselves, we can decrease our overall expenditures.”

Aurora’s stipends:
  • Nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists are eligible district-wide.
  • Special education teachers, secondary math teachers, or secondary science teachers are eligible at any of 20 targeted schools.
  • For employees who made an early commitment to return this fall: $3,000
  • For returning employees who don’t make an early commitment to return: $2,500
  • For new employees: $2,5000

Right now, when the district can’t fill certain critical positions, Munn said it must rely on contracting with agencies that help fill those jobs. There is an added cost paid to the agency.

The district’s school board is voting on the proposed budget on Tuesday. Officials say the money for the pilot program was set aside from a one-time increase of revenue the district received in the spring.

“We are really trying to be more strategic around how we recruit, retain, and develop our staff,” Munn said.

Over the past year, Aurora officials have focused on improving recruitment and retention. For instance, the next year’s budget proposal includes a request for about half a million dollars to send more principals through a University of Virginia training program.

This pilot, which the union opposed, would offer a stipend to all district nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists. Special education teachers, secondary math teachers, or secondary science teachers would be eligible if they work at any of 20 targeted schools.

The district selected schools that had higher turnover rates for these teachers than the district’s three-year average of 29 percent.

The stipend would be the same among jobs, but would vary if someone is a returning employee, or a new employee to the district.

In reviewing eligible positions, Munn said the district considered the number and length of existing vacancies, the number of applicants for those jobs, and how often the district had to seek help from an outside agency to fill them.

The district did not release detailed data on vacancies.

But in the case of nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists, Aurora officials said they resorted to an outside agency to fill 27 vacancies in the 2017-18 school year. That’s out of approximately 160 employees serving in those jobs that year.

Munn said that the district will track data on fill rates, number of applicants, and vacancies to see if the stipends make a difference.

“I think we’ll certainly have the data come August,” Munn said. “If it’s not successful then we stop talking about it. If it, is then we start looking at in what circumstances.”

Several other school districts in Colorado and across the country provide stipends for hard-to-staff positions. Denver schools, for instance, offer incentives and bonuses for various duties, including working in a hard-to-serve school through their ProComp model. Research findings on the model have been mixed.

National research has found that hard-to-staff and performance bonuses can attract more candidates and increase retention, but knowing whether quality candidates are the ones staying is harder to say.

Julia Wigert, president of the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, said stipends could be one way to attract more candidates, especially if they reward those who have additional credentials, but said there are other important factor that might help.

“We believe the most effective way… is to offer a competitive salary along with supporting a comprehensive role for school psychologists,” Wigert said.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union, said he is concerned that the program creates inequities “for people who do the same jobs in different buildings.” He added that union leadership has done surveys of teachers and staff in the past and has found that money is not one of the top considerations for choosing to take a job.

In the case of Aurora, the results of the pilot, if successful, could be one consideration in the district decision on whether to ask for a tax increase this fall, or could also affect district negotiations with the union to create a new plan for paying teachers.

While Munn said he isn’t planning to advocate for basing salaries on performance or positions, he added that nothing is off the table.

Wilcox had said he seeks a more consistent way for teachers to get raises based on years of service and increases in education.

The list of 20 schools where some teachers will be eligible for stipends:

  • Aurora Central High School
  • Aurora Hills Middle School
  • Aurora West College Preparatory Academy
  • Boston P-8 School
  • Clyde Miller P-8 School
  • Columbia Middle School
  • Dalton Elementary School
  • Iowa Elementary School
  • Jamaica Child Development Center
  • Jewell Elementary School
  • Kenton Elementary School
  • Lyn Knoll Elementary School
  • Meadowood Child Development Center
  • North Middle School Health Sciences & Technology Campus
  • Paris Elementary School
  • Sixth Avenue Elementary School
  • Tollgate Elementary School
  • Vaughn Elementary School
  • Vista PEAK Preparatory
  • Wheeling Elementary School