rally time

Charter advocates descend on Albany but could see fewer battles in 2018

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Charter-school students perform at a rally in Albany in 2015.

With few explosive issues on the horizon and a leading advocacy group in tatters, supporters of charter schools nevertheless gathered in Albany on Tuesday to drum up political support that they hope will result in more funding.

Though some top legislative leaders were not present, nearly 1,000 parents, students and educators continued their annual tradition of descending on Albany to keep charters in the legislative spotlight, according to the event’s organizers.

In some ways, charters are in a secure space because the sector isn’t fighting potentially harmful legislation or pushing for a controversial law that provides financial help for charter schools moving into private space. And with many lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo laser-focused on fighting Washington, D.C., there is less energy in general this year for education policy.

Yet the relative quiet this year also means that, so far, no serious threats to charter schools have been proposed by lawmakers, said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network, which co-hosted the event with the New York City Charter School Center.

“I think that the charter community generally responds when it needs to if it’s under attack,” Rogers said.

The annual advocacy day is typically a more low-key event than the large-scale rallies drawing thousands of teachers, parents and students, supported by Families for Excellent Schools, an advocacy organization that announced its abrupt closure on Monday. But both have drawn top politicians and policy leaders in the past, including State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Cuomo.

This year top lawmakers said they missed because of scheduling conflicts. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Independent Democratic Conference Leader Senator Jeff Klein were on the agenda to attend, according to the event’s materials, but did not make it.

“Senator Flanagan regrets that he couldn’t attend and speak to the success charter schools have had in ensuring every child  in New York receives a first-class education,” said Flanagan’s spokesman, Scott Reif, in an email. “He was on the Senate floor at the time, participating in our annual Fort Drum ceremony, which ran late.”

A Klein spokesperson said the Senator had a scheduling conflict but met with charter leaders later in the day.

Charter school advocates have managed to accomplish several funding and policy goals in the last few years. After a fight that dragged out past the state’s budget deadline, charter schools, with the help of Senate Republicans, last year saw a funding boost and the promise of future increases. The year before, a last-minute deal doubled the funding increase originally proposed by the governor over the objection of the teachers union. Before that, charter supporters won the ability to open more schools and a law that allows them to receive financial help if they open schools in private space.

Still, there are some issues charter advocates say remain unsettled. Despite receiving extra cash in recent years, advocates argue they still receive less public per pupil funding than district schools and are hoping to change that. Additionally, they want to eliminate the charter school cap, which allows an additional 45 charter schools to open in New York City and 102 charters left outside of the city, according to the latest numbers posted by the New York City Charter School Center.

“Regardless of what the headlines say about charters this session, the truth is that about 1,000 parents, educators, and students — from Brooklyn to Buffalo — trekked up to Albany on a very cold Tuesday in February because they’re tired of being underfunded compared to their district school peers,” said Mitch Schwartz, a spokesman for the charter center.

Future of Schools

Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, fired after misconduct investigation

PHOTO: Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images

Mike Feinberg, the co-founder of the KIPP charter network, has been fired after an investigation into sexual misconduct, its leaders announced Thursday.

KIPP found “credible evidence” connected to allegations that Feinberg abused a student in the late 1990s, according to a letter sent to students and staff. Feinberg denies the allegations.

“We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation,” the letter says.

It’s a stunning move at one of the country’s best-known charter school organizations — and one where Feinberg has been in a leadership role for more than two decades. Feinberg started KIPP along with Dave Levin in Houston in 1994, and Levin brought the model to New York City the next year. The network became known for its “no excuses” model of strict discipline and attention to academic performance.

KIPP says it first heard the allegation last spring. The network eventually hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an external investigation, which found evidence that Feinberg had sexually harassed two adults, both alums of the school who were then employed by KIPP in Houston, the network said.

“In light of the nature of the allegations and the passage of time, critical facts about these events may never be conclusively determined. What is clear, however, is that, at a minimum, Mr. Feinberg put himself into situations where his conduct could be seriously misconstrued,” KIPP wrote in the letter, signed by CEO Richard Barth and KIPP’s Houston leader, Sehba Ali.

Feinberg’s lawyer, Chris Tritico, told the Houston Chronicle that Feinberg had not been fully informed about the allegations against him.

“The treatment he received today from the board that he put in place is wrong, and it’s not what someone who has made the contributions he’s made deserves,” Tritico said.

Read KIPP’s full letter here.

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”