space debate

New York City greenlights Success Academy middle school after contentious space fight

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Success Academy has repeatedly fought the city for space. CEO Eva Moskowitz and parents protested at a Harlem school earlier this year.

Less than a year after Success Academy lost a battle to open a new middle school in a building shared by a small Brooklyn elementary school, city officials confirmed Wednesday that they plan to give the charter network the green light to open in that space starting next school year.

Success Academy Lafayette, a middle school that was forced to open in a different building this school year, will now likely move into the P.S. 25 building in Bedford-Stuyvesant — a year later than the charter network had hoped.

The decision is a belated victory for Success Academy, though it must still go through a public hearing process and a vote from the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

But the broader story about Success Academy’s fight for space in the P.S. 25 building is far more complicated and is related to a separate and fraught court battle over whether a district elementary school as small as P.S. 25 should be allowed to remain open. To understand this latest move, it helps to know the complicated backstory behind this single Brooklyn school building.

Why did the city delay Success Academy opening a middle school in the first place?

It’s not uncommon for the city to butt heads with Success Academy over school space, so on some level it’s not surprising that there was a dustup. But in this case, Success had already been operating an elementary school in the building and had decided to move those students elsewhere and replace it with a middle school.

Normally charter schools must go through a public hearing process when they make a significant change like this to the way they use a school building, especially in cases where they share facilities with a district school.

Success assumed there would be no need to go through that process, since it looked as though the school operating in the building, P.S. 25, also known as the Eubie Blake School, would be closed. Then came a lawsuit challenging the city’s decision to close the school — and a judge’s ruling that P.S. 25 should stay open while the case continues to wind its way through court.

That created a problem for the charter network: By the time it became clear the district school would remain open, it was too late for Success to go through the formal public approval process. The network’s CEO Eva Moskowitz and parents called on the city to approve the middle school anyway on an emergency basis, but the education department declined to act. The result: Success wasn’t allowed to open a middle school in the building this school year. Instead, it opened in a building less than a mile away. (The network did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.)

If P.S. 25 closes, another charter school could open in the building

It’s unclear whether the city will be allowed to follow through on its plan to shutter P.S. 25. But if the closure goes through, the education department will likely reserve the space for another charter school, officials said Wednesday.

“We are working with District 16 and Success to meet the needs of our students and families,” education department spokesman Doug Cohen wrote in an email.

NeQuan McLean, president of the District 16 Community Education Council, said that while he does not generally support the growth of charter schools in the district, it is better to allow charter schools to share space with each other instead of with district schools.

“We have agreed as a community and a CEC to make that a charter building,” he said.

What’s up with the court battle over P.S. 25?

The lawsuit to keep P.S. 25 open banks on a complicated argument about how much power local community education councils have in school closure decisions.

Under state law, the councils have the authority to approve any changes to school zones and typically don’t have any power to block school closure decisions. But since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating the neighborhood’s children, forcing students to attend other schools in other districts or to enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

It’s possible that argument will gain traction. A similar lawsuit filed in 2009, and joined by the city’s teachers union, prompted the city to reverse plans to replace three elementary schools with charter schools. (A favorable legal outcome for the P.S. 25 parents could affect the procedure for closing schools in the future, but only if they are also zoned.)

The school’s supporters also argue that the school’s performance makes it an odd choice for closure: its state test scores last year put it among the highest-ranked elementary schools in the city. That stellar performance, however, could partly be the result of natural statistical swings in scores that can occur in schools that serve so few students. (The school’s math scores have shot up from 22 percent of students passing in 2015 to over 70 percent last school year.)

“All those kids will literally be forced to leave an excellent school that has managed to provide small classes and proven itself many times in terms of results,” Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters and a supporter of the lawsuit, wrote in an email.

Just 87 students are currently enrolled in the school, which is projected to spend nearly $50,000 per student this year, roughly double the city average. (That number could fluctuate this year, since more students appeared to have enrolled than the city expected, but final numbers won’t be available until later this fall.)

Still, no matter what happens in court, it is unlikely P.S. 25 will remain open. Even if the lawsuit forces the education department to abide by a vote from the local education council, its members want the school to close, its president said.

“If the question is would we be willing to change the zone lines so that the DOE would be able to close the school? The answer is absolutely,” said McLean, the community education council president.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that spending per student at P.S. 25 is based on a city projection. 

School choice

Denver judge blocks school transportation provision added to Colorado law

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sam Boswell, 7, all bundled up in his winter clothes, splashes his way to the school bus on May 12, 2010.

A Denver judge struck down a provision of a bill related to the education of youth in foster care that would have removed barriers to transportation for all students.

The transportation provision was an amendment added by Republican lawmakers late in the 2018 session. Soon after the bill was signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, several Colorado school districts and the associations that represent them filed a lawsuit to block it.

In a ruling issued Friday, Denver District Court Judge David Goldberg found that the amendment violated rules in the Colorado constitution that require every bill to have a clear title that explains what the bill is about and to deal only with one subject.

The bill’s title was “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth,” and it seeks to improve graduation rates for foster youth by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers.

The tacked-on language was added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session. It said that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also struck language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bused.

The amendment language came straight from a separate bill about expanding school choice that had been killed by Democrats in the House the day before.

Many school districts opposed the transportation provision because they feared it would open the door for better-off districts to poach students and undermine the meaning of school district boundaries. Advocates for school choice argued the provision was good policy that would allow more students, especially those from low-income families, take advantage of opportunities. They also argued, apparently unconvincingly, that it was required for implementation of the foster youth portions of the bill.

The Donnell-Kay Foundation intervened in the case in defense of the law. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation is a funder of Chalkbeat. You can read our ethics policy here.)

In his ruling, Goldberg said this specific issue has never been litigated in Colorado before, and he relied in part on rulings from other states with similar requirements. Bills with broad titles, he wrote, can be construed broadly and encompass a range of issues as long as they have some connection to the title. But bills with narrow titles must be construed narrowly — and this amendment didn’t make the cut.

“The subject of House Bill 18-1306 is out-of-home placed students and efforts to ensure educational stability,” Goldberg wrote, while the amendment’s subject “is all students, with no qualifiers, conditions, restrictions, or reference to out-of-home placed students. … House Bill 18-1306 seriously modifies transportation for all students and is hidden under a title relating exclusively to out-of-home placed students.”

Goldberg ruled that the amendment is “disconnected” from the rest of the bill, and neither lawmakers nor the public had enough notice about its inclusion before passage.

That leaves the rest of the foster youth bill intact and advocates for expanded school choice facing an uphill battle in a legislature in which Democrats, who are more likely to give priority to school district concerns, now control both chambers.

This isn’t an abstract issue. In 2015, more than 150 students who lived in the Pueblo 60 district but attended school in higher-performing Pueblo 70 lost access to transportation when the city-based district ordered its neighbor to stop running bus routes through its territory.

Online Shopping

Jeffco launches universal enrollment site to make school choice easy

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat
Students in a social studies class at Bear Creek High School in Jeffco Public Schools read about Genghis Khan.

Starting Monday, parents in Colorado’s second-largest district will be able to shop online for schools and, once enrollment opens in January, apply to as many as they like.

The launch of Enroll Jeffco, following the path paved by Denver Public Schools, means some 86,000 students and their parents won’t have to go to individual schools during the work day and fill out paper forms if they want to apply somewhere other than their neighborhood school.

The online system cost about $600,000 to develop and operate for this school year. The district expects it to cost about half of that annually going forward.

Universal enrollment systems allow parents to compare and apply to traditional district-run schools, district schools with specialized programming or models, known in Jeffco as options schools, and charter schools with a single application on the same website. Universal enrollment systems are a key component of what some call the “portfolio model,” in which districts oversee a range of school types and parents vote with their feet. They’ve been controversial in places, especially when coupled with aggressive school accountability policies that lead to school closures.

In Jeffco Public Schools, which is more affluent than many Denver metro area districts, officials see the move to a single, online enrollment system as a valuable service for parents.

“Regardless of how people feel about it, we operate in a competitive school choice environment, both inside the district and outside the district,” Superintendent Jason Glass said. “That compels us to make thinking about that transaction, making people aware of the options and enrolling in our schools, as frictionless and easy as possible.”

Colorado law requires schools in any district to admit any student for whom they have room and for whom the district can provide adequate services, after giving priority to students who live in the district. But many districts still require paper applications at individual schools, and schools in the same district might not have the same deadlines. A recent report by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found that parents who use school choice are more likely to be white, middle- or upper-class, and English-speaking than the state’s student population. The authors argue that districts should streamline the enrollment process and consider providing transportation to make choice more accessible.

Jeffco isn’t rolling out new transportation options yet, but it might use data from the enrollment process, including a parent survey that is built into the website, to see if that’s desired or feasible. And officials believe strongly that the new online enrollment system will open up more opportunities for low-income parents and those who don’t speak English.

The website will provide information in the district’s six most commonly spoken languages and should be optimized for use on mobile phones. All parents will be required to use the system to express their preferences, including the majority of parents who want to stay in their neighborhood school, and the district is planning significant outreach and in-person technical assistance.

We believe that if all parents are participating, it improves equity,” Glass said. “One of the things we struggle with is that upwardly mobile and affluent parents tend to be the ones who take advantage of school choice. We want all of our schools to be available to all of our families. We think being able to search through and make the enrollment process as easy as possible is an equity issue.”

But critics of universal enrollment systems worry that the ease of application will encourage parents to give up on neighborhood schools rather than invest in them.

Rhiannon Wenning, a teacher at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, said the link between charter schools and open enrollment systems makes her distrustful, even as many of her students are using the choice process to stay at the school after rising home prices pushed them into other parts of the metro area.

“I understand parents want what is best for their child, but part of that as a citizen and a community member is to make your neighborhood school the school that you want it to be,” she said, calling the universal enrollment system an attack on public schools.

Joel Newton of the Edgewater Collective, which provides community support for lower-income schools in the eastern part of the district, said Enroll Jeffco will give the district much better data on which to base decisions, but he worries that Title I schools, which serve large numbers of students from low-income families, won’t be able to compete.

“With an online system like this, it really needs to be a level playing field,” he said. “And in my area, I’d much rather have resources going to curriculum and instructional aides to catch kids up than going into marketing support. But other areas can do that and they have these big, well-funded PTAs.”

Until now, parents have had to seek out information on each school’s website. The online portal starts by asking parents to enter their address and the grade in which they’re enrolling a student. It then displays the parents’ neighborhood school, with an option to explore alternatives. Each school page has extensive information, including a short narrative, descriptions of special programs like math, arts, or expeditionary learning, the school mascot, and the racial and economic breakdown of the student population. The intent, district spokesperson Diana Wilson said, is to let schools “tell their own story.”

Parents can select as many schools as they want when enrollment opens Jan. 22, and they’ll learn in mid- to late February where they got in. However, they have to commit within five days to one school, ending a practice by which parents in the know kept their options open through the summer months. District officials say this will help them plan and budget better.

Kristen Harkness, assistant director for special education in Jeffco, served on the steering committee that developed the system, and she’s also a parent in the district. Even as a district employee who thought she knew the process inside and out, she managed to miss a deadline for her son to be considered at another middle school.

She said that choosing between schools isn’t a matter of which schools are better but which are a better fit for a particular student. In her case, her son could have stayed at a K-8 or transferred to a combined middle and high school, with each option presenting a different kind of middle school experience. He’s happy at the K-8 where he stayed, she said, but parents and students should have the chance to make those decisions.

The new universal enrollment system is poised to give more families that chance. In the course of the rollout, though, there may be a few glitches.

“We’re doing all we can to look into the future and foresee any technical problems and design solutions to that proactively,” Glass said. “That said, this is our first time, and we ask for people’s patience.”