End of the line

Before Families for Excellent Schools’ sudden implosion, waning influence and a series of stumbles

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
A pro-charter school rally in Albany that Families for Excellent Schools helped organize in 2015.

Years before its public implosion this week, Families for Excellent Schools stood at the center of New York’s charter-school sector and the rough-and-tumble politics surrounding it.

At its peak in 2014, the pugnacious charter-school advocacy group deployed thousands of parents and teachers to Albany to flex the sector’s political muscle and promote charter-friendly legislation. It launched a multi-million dollar ad campaign slamming New York City’s new charter-skeptical mayor, Bill de Blasio. And it helped secure a major policy victory that provided public space or rent money for the city’s new charter schools.

Now, four years later — and over a period of just a few days — Families for Excellent Schools has come crashing down.

Its demise was hastened by a series of recent blowups, including the organization’s decision last week to fire its founder and CEO, Jeremiah Kittredge, following an investigation into “inappropriate behavior.” That led its closest ally, Success Academy Charter Schools, to cut ties with the organization. And in September, the group’s political arm was forced to pay a record-breaking fine and to reveal its donors, following a disastrous political campaign in Massachusetts.

But well before its sudden collapse, the group’s influence had been waning as it became more politically isolated, observers said — in part because of its combative style and deep ties to Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy’s polarizing leader. As Moskowitz and Families for Excellent Schools kept up their relentless attacks on the de Blasio administration, other charter groups that had adopted a more diplomatic approach questioned its efficacy.

“Did it get the attention of the administration? You bet it did,” said Steven Zimmerman, co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, which brings together independent charters based in New York City. “But in the long run, what does that do?”

When it launched in 2011, the organization’s mission was less controversial: To tap the political power of charter-school families by converting them into advocates, leading get out-the-vote efforts, and coordinating political efforts among the city’s charter-school networks.

But its leaders soon found that training parents on how to organize politically and show up at local community meetings was painstaking work. At the same time, the group was growing closer to Moskowitz: At one point, some Families for Excellent Schools staff members worked out of Success Academy’s offices. Soon, it was attacking de Blasio, who had singled out Moskowitz for criticism during his campaign.

After the mayor blocked three of Moskowitz’s schools from opening or expanding, Families for Excellent Schools helped stage a 2014 rally in Albany that drew 11,000 attendees — among them many families and students from Success, which cancelled classes so they could attend. The rally, which featured fiery pro-charter remarks from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, overshadowed one that de Blasio held at the same time to promote his prekindergarten plans.

In a short span, the group had shifted from parent organizing to the flashier, more combative politics favored by Moskowitz and its pro-charter donors.

“The idea that a small group of parents met with a legislator is just not as sexy as 17,000 parents marching across a bridge,” said Sharhonda Bossier, who co-founded Families for Excellent Schools with Kittredge and now works for an unrelated education non-profit. “There was a ton of pressure from the philanthropic community to behave that way.”

In 2014, Families for Excellent Schools spent $9.6 million on lobbying — more than any other group in the state. With backing from a deep-pocketed board and donors including the Walton Foundation (which also provides funding to Chalkbeat), the group expanded into a $20 million operation by 2016. It also established a political arm outside New York, which helped pour $15 million into the pro-charter Massachusetts ballot measure.

But as it grew, the political combat it specialized in was becoming less in demand. State legislators passed laws to help charter schools expand and operate, and tensions eased between New York City’s charter sector and de Blasio.

“It has been less of an us versus them and more finding opportunity to work together,” said KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini.

Families for Excellent Schools did not join in the detente. Instead, it expanded its assault on de Blasio to include issues not directly related to charter schools. It used controversial state data to paint the city’s district schools as chaotic and violent, and denounced de Blasio’s expensive school-improvement program.

“It had really become about fighting [with] a mayoral administration that most people [in the charter sector] actually agreed with” on a range of other issues, said Bossier, the Families for Excellent Schools co-founder.

In a statement, a Families for Excellent Schools representative said the group advocated on behalf of a “a diverse coalition of public charter schools and families.”

“The accomplishments we’re most proud to be a part of — the landmark school facilities law and a series of increases in per-pupil funding for charter students — benefitted public charter schools that work closely with the de Blasio Administration and those that are more skeptical of the Mayor’s agenda,” said the statement.

Meanwhile, Families for Excellent Schools had developed ambitions outside New York. It expanded to Connecticut and Massachusetts, where it poured resources into the ballot measure in favor of charter expansion. Voters overwhelmingly rejected it.

And echoing their counterparts in New York, some Massachusetts charter groups worried that Families for Excellent Schools’ no-holds-barred tactics hurt the sector’s public image.

“The bipartisan coalition that was strongly in support of charter schools — equally Republican, equally Democrat, equally independent — has been shattered through this campaign and the tactics employed by Families for Excellent Schools,” Marc Kenen, who ran the organization that filed the state’s ballot initiative, told WBUR.

Adding to Families for Excellent Schools’ bruising defeat, the group was slapped with a $426,500 fine for failing to disclose campaign donors and was barred from election-related activity in the state for four years. The high-profile failure, as well as a settlement that forced the disclosure of its donors, created new fundraising challenges, some observers said.

Back in New York, some of the charter networks the organization once courted — such as KIPP — had been developing their own advocacy and parent-mobilizing operations since well before last fall, leaving the group with fewer allies to fall back on.

Those former clients “stopped being willing to pay for [Families for Excellent Schools’] services as parent organizer or trainer,” said one charter school observer, “which meant, also, that Success was increasingly the organization’s only major validator.”

As a result, the group was left reeling last week when Success Academy announced — after Kittredge’s public firing — that it was parting ways with Families for Excellent Schools.

“Success Academy ended its relationship with FES last week, upon learning of the investigation into Jeremiah Kittredge’s actions and his termination,” said Ann Powell, a spokeswoman for the charter network.

A few days later, Families for Excellent Schools said it planned to shut down.

Monica Disare contributed reporting.

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.”