Challenging charters

Report: Why the work is hard for Tennessee’s turnaround district and its charter schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Charter schools operating through Tennessee’s 4-year-old school turnaround district have struggled to achieve the initiative’s lofty goals due to a variety of challenges — some unique to the state-run charter program, and some common to all Memphis schools, a new report says.

Tasked with transforming some of Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools through the Achievement School District, or ASD, the charter operators have grappled with “daunting challenges” that include high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition, according to the report released this week by researchers led by George Washington University.

The report, which is based on 140 interviews with leaders of the ASD and nine operators, illuminates some of the reasons why the state-run district has not come close to reaching its targeted goals of moving schools from the state’s bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent within five years.

Researchers also identify practices that charter operators are using to try to overcome the challenges, although they say it’s too soon to say whether the strategies have been effective. Those include instructional adaptations, computer-assisted learning and additional wraparound services.

The ASD’s work is concentrated in Memphis, where it manages 22 charter schools and five district-run schools. Many of the challenges identified by researchers — like high student mobility and lack of parent engagement — are endemic to most Memphis schools, including Shelby County’s Innovation Zone, which has drawn national attention for its academic gains, and which so far has been more effective than the ASD at boosting students’ scores.

But the paper’s authors argue that “ASD operators had to contend with many of the constraints that impede traditional schools, yet without the benefits that a conventional district could provide,” such as centralized special education services, resources that leverage economies of scale, and a long history with the community. And though the district aims to give them the benefits of other charter schools, like a high-level of autonomy, the ASD schools face challenges most charters do not.

The report comes at a time when several states such as North Carolina and Georgia are considering replicating Tennessee’s school turnaround district, which takes control of low-performing schools and assigns them to high-quality charter management organizations to turn around.

The paper provides a candid look at Tennessee’s much-watched effort to employ high-profile charter operators in school turnaround work in an environment that is substantially different from their usual circumstances. While many charters have been successful working with disadvantaged students, they historically have been reluctant to embrace conditions such as turnaround environments — for instance, having to assume control over existing neighborhood schools, rather than operating schools with open choice. But in Tennessee, where federal Race to the Top funding led to the creation its state-run district in 2010, many charter organizations were recruited and incentivized to join the portfolio of schools managed by the ASD and granted broad discretion in hiring, curriculum, instruction and budgeting.

“While charter operators were not naïve about the conditions in the ASD, many did not fully anticipate how much these differences (within turnaround environments) would influence their instructional and organizational designs, expand their mission, and require complex adaptations,” the authors write.

The researchers’ findings will be “a great conversation starter” within the ASD and with Shelby County Schools, said Bobby S. White, chief of external affairs for the state-run district.

“It’s good for people to see and get a feel for the challenges these charters are facing,” White said Wednesday. “It underscores how these operators are adapting in the face of these realities.”

White said the district will use the report to assess what parts of these challenges it can control or influence as charter operators adjust. The report also will help charter applicants to better understand the realities of school turnaround work in Memphis.

Founding superintendent Chris Barbic, who resigned in 2015, put it this way when speaking with researchers: “When I’m talking to people now, I’m like, this is the big leagues. If you want to play the equivalent to basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats where every single game is huge, it’s a circus, you’re under intense scrutiny, the pressure to perform is incredible. … If you think you’re ready for the big leagues, come to Memphis.”

The main challenges faced by charter schools in the ASD, according to the researchers, are:

Student mobility. Like traditional public schools, but unlike most charter schools, ASD schools serve a steady flow of new students throughout the school year, making it harder to hone in on the learning challenges of students and offer tailored instruction. More than one-third of students in ASD schools move in or out of their schools during the school year, an improvement over student mobility at the schools prior to ASD takeover, and comparable to mobility in iZone schools.

One operator told researchers that leaders had expected the school’s third year of operation to be “the dream year” as students finally adjusted to the school’s culture and caught up to grade level. “Instead, it was very similar to our first year because of all the new students who arrived on our campus,” the operator said.

"Despite the ardent commitment of ASD leaders to create the conditions that would enable CMOs and independent operators to take root and flourish in the turnaround space, the inherited rules of the game, the institutional environment in which they were located, and the stresses of an impoverished community presented even the most experienced providers with steep challenges."Consortium report

While most educators in traditional Memphis schools are familiar with high student mobility, most charter operators weren’t. Most charter schools in other states aren’t neighborhood schools; families have to choose them. That makes it easier for charters to create a common school culture and get students and families to subscribe to a set of behavioral expectations — two factors considered key to charter schools’ successes. But Tennessee legislation requires ASD schools to recruit students within the boundaries of the school’s neighborhood attendance areas, or from other low-performing schools, restricting charters’ usual ability to draw from a broad pool of families.

Special education.  ASD operators serve a substantially higher concentration of students with special needs than is typical in other charter schools in Tennessee, one of the “most formidable financial and educational challenges” identified by the report’s authors because of the ASD’s funding model and relatively small size.

While Shelby County Schools and most other districts are able to centralize and share special education services across schools, the ASD is built on the idea of autonomy — meaning each school bears the cost of their special education students’ needs alone. Many ASD operators in Memphis send special education students to programs managed by Shelby County Schools and told the researchers that they suspected they were being overcharged for programs that they also did not deem high quality.

Some operators also told researchers that Shelby County Schools often became a barrier to serving special education students. According to the paper, some operators reported that the local district made it difficult to access students’ individualized education plans, known as IEPs, after the students transitioned to the ASD, which made it difficult for the new ASD schools to identify students’ needs and plan on how to support them.

“There was supposed to be a process in place to transfer all the files to us. And somehow that didn’t necessarily take place,” one operator said. “ So I played find the files. You know, they gave me a key and said the files are in a black filing cabinet. And so I still have the key — I still don’t have the files.”

Local politics. Operators were not prepared for the high level of opposition they would face in Memphis, or the compromises to their models they would have to make to respond to the local district and the community, the report says.

“This has been humbling for me,” said one operator who came to Tennessee from another state. “I’ve learned so much about just how complex education can be in particular landscapes.”

A major compromise has been the political shift requiring operators to take control of entire schools, rather than just a grade at a time. Leaders of Shelby County Schools barred phase-ins in 2014, saying the process was too disruptive for Shelby County students and faculty forced to share a school building with the ASD. While some operators, such as Green Dot Public Schools, always assumed control of whole schools, other operators never had — or planned to.

Researchers suggest that the community opposition to the ASD might have made leaders with Shelby County Schools wary of collaborating with the state-run district.

That being said, the ASD’s White told Chalkbeat that he is optimistic about the relationship between the districts.

“You’re starting to see conversations being had and realizations regarding the need to have these conversations,” White said.

The report was released by George Washington University, the University of Michigan, and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Memphis reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

capital crunch

As New York City’s public housing crumbles, pre-K centers go without crucial repairs

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Yvette Ho, right, taps out a request to NYCHA to fix a leaky roof at CPC Jacob Riis Child Care Center. Meanwhile, a student shows her art project to Mary Cheng, who oversees early childhood programs for the Chinese-American Planning Council, a nonprofit that runs the daycare.

The tables where children would normally play had been dragged to create a makeshift barrier, blocking the 3- and 4-year olds from their favorite centers and from a growing puddle on the floor.

The ceiling at CPC Jacob Riis Child Care Center in the East Village was leaking again.

Center director Yvette Ho rushed to the classroom to survey the damage. On her phone, she tapped out a repair request to the landlord — NYCHA, New York City’s public housing authority.

“This is the perennial leak,” she said. “Just when you think it’s fixed, it comes back again.”

Decades of divestment, neglect, and mismanagement have left NYCHA buildings crumbling, forcing the city to give up some of its control of the housing authority to a federal overseer in an agreement struck last month. The plight of residents has been well documented in media reports and a scathing investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which uncovered out-of-service elevators, faulty heaters, and health hazards like rodent infestations, mold, and lead paint.

But few realize that nestled within those buildings are about 100 child care centers that serve infants and toddlers even while critically needed repairs stack up. Mostly run by nonprofits that rent space from NYCHA, those programs offer a lifeline for families, often earning high marks from the city’s reviewers while also providing subsidized or free care for almost 5,000 children.

The programs face citations for facilities issues more often than programs in buildings leased from private landlords, a survey by the Day Care Council of New York found recently. Though it’s not always clear who is responsible for making repairs, operators can face burdensome fines.

Providers “have to dig into their own pockets,” said Mai Miksic, a research analyst for the Day Care Council. “They’re paying fines for problems that aren’t theirs.”

Groups representing nonprofit providers operating out of NYCHA community centers have begun to join together to advocate for changes, and they say officials have shown interest in taking action. They also say they know that their needs represent only a sliver of the pressing facilities problems facing the country’s largest public housing agency and its residents. Remediation of lead paint in agency apartments where children live is behind schedule, and the city estimates that NYCHA needs a total of more than $30 billion in repairs and upgrades.

Day care centers alone require $130 million in fixes, according to NYCHA. That figure likely does not include problems that affect the entire buildings where the centers are located, such as boilers that need replacing.

The Jacob Riis houses, which were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, needs almost $94 million in renovations over the next five years, including heating upgrades and drainage work, according to city figures.

The Chinese-American Planning Council, a 54-year-old social services organization that runs daycares and community programs in Lower Manhattan and Queens, has cared for small children in the complex for decades. It currently uses three classrooms in the basement of one of the towers, including one — the one with the persistent leak — that is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s heralded Pre-K for All program.

Staff and children at the center have a front-row seat to the building’s problems. A steam pipe in the main hallway frequently bursts. With every explosion, waterlogged ceiling tiles come crashing down and the center’s only bathroom for children becomes off-limits due to dripping, scalding-hot water. NYCHA has encased the temperamental pipe in a makeshift closet.

At times, the facility’s troubles have seemed too disruptive for the Chinese-American Planning Council to justify keeping its center in the building. All the garbage for the tower piles into a compactor room in the middle of the center. The only way to empty it, twice a day, is to haul the trash past classrooms and out an open door.

But Mary Cheng, the director of childhood services for the planning council, said they’ve resolved to stay because closing isn’t a good option, either — not for kids of such a young age, who thrive on stability, and not for parents who rely on the center’s longer hours so they can work to support their families.

We had to think: Are we being a service to the community or a disservice?” Cheng asked. “You’re faced with the issue of constant facility issues.”

Operators say they stay because NYCHA centers are usually where their services can have the most impact, and because the more affordable rent allows them to stretch their dollars even further.

“These buildings were built with community spaces for a reason. Neighborhoods need places for people to gather,” said Melissa Aase, the executive director of University Settlement, a nonprofit that runs programs for seniors and after-school care in NYCHA buildings. “If we’re crumbling, it sends a really powerful message to the residents about their worth.”

NYCHA says it takes just over 10 days for the authority to respond to repair requests in community centers — a much shorter turnaround of more than a month across the system. Still, it’s a long window that advocates say has sometimes forced programs to shut their doors or even have their licenses yanked.

The nonprofit Union Settlement runs five early childhood centers in NYCHA buildings across East Harlem. Sometimes, they’ve had to turn parents away who come to drop off their children in the morning because the classrooms are unbearably cold in the winter. The group is usually able to make space at another facility when an emergency forces one to close, but the sudden change can pose a “huge hardship” for families who need to get to work on time, said David Nocenti, the executive director.

“The same problems that the residents have, the nonprofits have as we’re trying to serve those residents,” Nocenti said. “Just like boilers go out in residential buildings and there’s no heat, the same boiler generally affects the community centers as well.”

Facilities breakdowns can leave operators vulnerable to fines from the city health department, which can reach thousands of dollars. Most programs operating in NYCHA centers are subsidized by city, state, and federal funds, but typically public money can’t be used to cover the citations. At Jacob Riis, the staff has resorted to “simple fundraisers” like bake sales to pay the fines, Cheng said. 

Centers take more than just a budgetary hit, as resolving the citations usually requires managers or other high-ranking officials spending hours at a city hearing.

“It’s also a loss of the staff and a loss of the expertise at that time as well,” Nocenti said. “If the department of health comes and you have no heat, you get fined for no heat, even though we don’t control the boiler and can’t make repairs to the boiler.”

Aase said her organization has sometimes dug into its own budget to make repairs to keep its after-school and senior programs open. One University Settlement center has paid deep cleanings after 17 sewage floods in the course 12 months, she said, while another center with a rodent infestation has closed 10 times over the span of a year and required spending on extermination services.

A record of citations could pose problems for operators vying for city contracts, so it’s better to pay for fixes than risk your reputation, Aase said.

“When you have violations, it shows up as you’re being vetted,” she said. “We spend our own money because we know either that NYCHA doesn’t have the funds or doesn’t have the personnel to address the issue quickly enough, and community members want to come back.”

Calling themselves the NYCHA Community Space Coalition, service providers that run more than 200 programs within public housing facilities have drawn up an action plan for addressing what they say is an emergency situation. They are calling for state money to help pay for repairs, and reimbursement from the city when operators tap their own budgets for fixes. They are also asking for agreements that plainly spell out NYCHA’s responsibilities and a clear delineation of who is responsible for which fines.

There have been encouraging signs, said J.T. Falcone, a policy analyst with United Neighborhood Houses, one of the organizations behind the coalition. NYCHA is meeting weekly with other city agencies to help speed up repairs, and Falcone said the authority has designated specific people to oversee work on pressing issues.

Locally, there have been small changes that can make a notable difference in the day-to-day operation of a center. At Jacob Riis, the trash is now taken out once before students arrive in the morning, and a lock has been placed on the door to the compactor room which had previously been left open and posed a potential risk to children.

While providers have found willing partners, a NYCHA official suggested there’s only so much that can be done when faced with such deep needs across the housing authority.

“These centers are valuable assets to our communities that deserve to be preserved. But given NYCHA’s dire financial position and more than $30 billion in capital needs, it is difficult to accommodate both the repairs needed to secure our residents’ homes as well as the fixes for our centers,” a NYCHA spokesman wrote in an email. “We continue to work with our partners to clearly lay out roles and responsibilities for each party to determine the best strategy for financing existing repair needs within the context of NYCHA’s larger capital needs.”

These thorny problems will soon fall also to the city’s education department to help resolve.

Currently, contracts for publicly subsidized child-care centers are overseen by the Administration for Children’s Services. But that oversight is set to shift to the education department beginning this summer, part of a high-stakes effort to streamline services for the city’s children from birth through high school. Already, the education department has joined NYCHA’s regular meetings with other city agencies.

We’ll continue to work closely with our providers in NYCHA facilities and support them through this transition,” education department spokeswoman Isabelle Boundy wrote in an email.

For now, parents are left to keep their fingers crossed as they make use of programs that the mayor says could transform their children’s lives — and the city’s future.

Dexter Fauntleroy drops off his son at Jacob Riis most mornings. Three-year-old Kenai has gone to daycare there for most of his short life. Fauntleroy and his wife have kept their youngest son enrolled at the center, just down the street from their apartment in the Lillian Wald houses, because they’re impressed with how much Kenai has learned and the dedication they see from the staff.

Of course, Fauntleroy has noticed the persistent leaks and patch-job repairs. The thought that the roof could come crashing down on students someday has crossed his mind.

“Does that have to happen before it’s taken seriously?” he asked. “There has to be some accountability.”

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In her State of the State address, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.