Superintendent Seth Andrew at a 2012 Democracy Prep admissions lottery event.
When the city announced last week that a kindergarten admissions website would link to the charter school application, it took a small first step toward unifying charter and district school applications. But there appears to be little local enthusiasm for a fully unified enrollment process—something that many of the nation's other large school districts are working toward with urgency.
In Denver, parents can apply to every charter and district school through one form and a single process. In New Orleans, the same is possible, with the exception of some of the city's highest-performing charter schools. Newark is well on its way, as is Chicago, and similar discussions are taking place in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
But while there hasn't been any significant movement on that front yet in New York, city officials have indicated it's a long term goal. "Eventually, we plan to streamline the application process to allow parents to apply to many types of public school programs in one place – be they district, charter, gifted and talented, or otherwise," department spokesman Devon Puglia said.
Pushing for an integrated enrollment system could help cement charter schools' place in the city's school system at a time of political uncertainty for the charter sector. But city charter school advocates have indicated that they are focused on other issues.
City Journal editor Brian Anderson speaks at a breakfast panel discussion today about the future of education in New York City hosted by the Manhattan Institute.
Some Democratic mayoral candidates are calling for a moratorium on charter school co-locations and at least two have said they would require charter schools to pay rent. But charter school advocates say they remain not too concerned.
"We should be worried ... [but] I don't think we should be panicked," said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, this morning at a panel discussion about the future of education in New York City hosted by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a right-wing think tank.
Merriman joined Marcus Winters, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and Joe Williams, executive director for Democrats for Education Reform, on the panel.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott also made an appearance to warn against moving away from the Bloomberg administration's school policies, which include helping the charter sector to flourish. Republican mayoral candidate George McDonald and Independent mayoral candidate Adolfo Carrión, who have each expressed support for charter schools, sat in the audience.
The number of families applying to city charter schools through an online system designed to ease the admissions process doubled this year, according to the New York City Charter School Center.
This was the second year that the Common Online Charter Application, which the charter center developed, was open to all charter schools for use. The application deadline was April 1.
The number of individual students who submitted the common application rose from 7,130 last year to 15,805 this year. Together, they submitted 58,117 applications, more than three times as many as last year, meaning that the average applicant applied to more schools this year. A total of 145 schools, up from 110 last year, accepted the common application. (Many schools also had their own applications, so the number of common applicants does not reflect all charter school applicants this year.)
In offering a common application, the charter center is responding to criticism that having to fill out multiple schools' applications discourages all but the most motivated parents and effectively screens out needy students. The common application also enables families to apply easily to multiple schools — a data point the charter sector points to as evidence that the public wants more charter schools.
Charter schools want to piggyback on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to expand pre-kindergarten across the state. But in order to benefit from Cuomo's $25 million in pre-K grants, the schools first must win the right to offer pre-K classes.
Pushing for that right is at the top of charter school supporters' agenda today as they convene in Albany as part of the charter sector's annual advocacy day. The parents will meet in the Albany Convention Center with more than a dozen legislators, then spend the rest of the day visiting their district representatives.
They're not the only ones lobbying lawmakers over pre-K this week. On Monday, police chiefs, principals, and education groups from around the state declared their support for Cuomo's pre-K grants, which represent a fraction of the $385 million that the state spends annually on pre-kindergarten.
The charter sector's lobbying efforts are not so straightforward, because the state's 1998 law authorizing the schools grants them the right to serve students in kindergarten to 12th grade only. Legislators would have to change to the law — last revised in 2010 amid heavy controversy — to allow pre-kindergarten in charter schools.
"It's our job to talk to lawmakers and say to them, 'Hey, does it really makes sense to a have a program where some really good schools don't have the ability to do full-day pre-K?'" said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center.
wallyg via flickr
At the same time as the State Education Department is publicly pressuring school districts to adopt new teacher evaluations by next month, it's also quietly demanding that charter schools turn in their teachers’ ratings from last year.
Charter school advocates are urging most school leaders to ignore the demand, even though state officials have said it's needed in order to fulfill its Race to the Top plan. The advocates say the demand would be hard to fulfill and impinges on charter schools’ autonomy.
The standoff has its roots in the state’s 2010 application for federal Race to the Top funds. In its application to the U.S. Department of Education for funding, New York State said it would require schools to rate teachers according to specific guidelines and would collect ratings for all teachers, even in charter schools.
Some charter schools committed to sharing their teacher ratings at the time in order to receive some of the state’s $700 million in winnings. But two thirds did not — and the state wants their teacher ratings too, according to a series of updated guidance memos that officials have issued over the last 18 months.
City and state charter school advocates have pushed back against the demands throughout that time.
“Both the New York City Charter School Center and the New York Charter Schools Association believe that this reporting requirement does not properly apply to non-Race to the Top charter schools,” Charter Center CEO James Merriman and NYCSA President Bill Phillips wrote in a strongly worded email to school leaders last month. They added, “Ultimately, it is up to you whether you choose to report this data.”
So far, few school leaders have made that choice. By the original submission deadline Nov. 30, just 30 of 184 charter schools in the state had handed over teacher ratings from last year.
Niomi Plotkin, center, talks to John Harrison and other charter school leaders during the ELF orientation.
For the city's charter sector, the task of building better leaders begins with self-reflection.
The project of understanding what makes a good leader — particularly for charter schools, which have some of the highest principal turnover rates — is what consumes the 20-odd educators who gathered at the New York City Charter School Center this week to kick off the sixth year of its leadership training program.
When they return to their schools later this month, the educators will face diverse challenges. One pair comes from a school that has nearly doubled in size faster than expected due to make up a budget shortfall. Another is from a rare standalone school serving kindergarten through 12th graders, which will be preparing its first cohort of students to graduate and apply to college next year.
But on a recent morning, all of the participants were focused on the same question as Heidi Brooks, a professor from the Yale University School of Management, talked them through a platitude-heavy presentation about identifying leadership qualities.
"How would you describe yourself as a leader? How do you describe a great leader?" Brooks asked the group, then began taking down their answers until ink filled a sheet of poster paper.
"Positive," "self-aware," and "systems-aware" topped the list of traits.
Urban Dove's website features a clock that is counting down to the first day of classes at the nonprofit's new charter school.
For most of this spring, Urban Dove Team Charter School’s story followed a familiar trajectory.
When the Department of Education offered the charter school space in a public school building, the community erupted in opposition. Politicians stepped in, principals went to the press, and parents protested — all with the goal of keeping the charter school out. Then the city signed off on the co-location anyway, and tensions started to die down.
That’s when Urban Dove’s story took an unusual turn. Despite getting free public space — a hotly sought-after commodity — Urban Dove signed a lease this month to spend some of its scarce per-pupil funding on private space. Next month, the transfer high school will open on one floor of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Brooklyn Tabernacle Church.
It was a rare move for a charter school offered a public building. Most charter schools prefer to open in buildings owned by the city to save money and time spent negotiating with landlords, according to James Merriman, director of the New York City Charter School Center. Plus, money for real estate comes from charter schools' operating budget — meaning the more they spend on space, the less they have for teachers, supplies, and programming.
Urban Dove’s founder and principal each declined to share the terms of the lease. But they said undertaking the significant expense made perfect sense for the school, which will serve students who have already fallen behind before they turn 16.
One thing that district and charter schools have in common is a need for strong principals.
That's what James Merriman, a lead advocate for the city's charter sector, told Gov. Andrew Cuomo's education reform commission on Thursday.
"Charter schools understand and public school leaders understand that a successful school culture is ultimately the responsibility first and foremost of a school leader," said Merriman, who leads the New York City Charter School Center.
"But here's the tricky part," he said. "We don't have enough of them. We don't have enough of them in the charter sector; we don't have enough of them in the public schools."
The Bloomberg administration tackled principal preparation in one of its earliest education initiatives, a training program called the Leadership Academy. But the program's graduates have ranged in quality, with some leading successful schools and others being criticized for creating dysfunctional work environments. The program has shrunk over time, and in January, a top Department of Education official told a group of principals who are affiliated with Teachers College's Cahn Fellows program that the city has not succeeded at maintaining uniformly strong principal quality .
The problem of where to find strong school leaders is more acute in the charter sector, where principal turnover is five times higher than in district schools.
Merriman told the commission he had no concrete solutions for boosting principal quality. But he believes that an annual principal training program that his organization runs, which begins next week, could at least begin to chip away at the problem.
A chart from a 2010 analysis that compared charter schools' performance by authorizer.
When a researcher with a penchant for crunching charter school data sat down to compare New York State's charter authorizers in 2010, her impetus wasn't merely academic.
For Jonas Chartock, then the director of one of three authorizers, who requested an analysis, the data was a matter of survival.
“At the time there was a real push by some politicians to eliminate SUNY as an authorizer,” said Chartock, who headed SUNY's Charter School Institute until early 2011.
Chartock asked Macke Raymond, a Stanford researcher who had just wrapped up a broad study of New York City's charter sector, to examine her school performance data based on which office had authorized it. Her comparison showed up as an attachment to one of several hundred Department of Education emails released last week in response to a teachers union's Freedom of Information Law request.
Raymond found that students at SUNY-authorized charter schools improved at a quicker pace than students at schools authorized by the State Education Department and the city Department of Education. At schools authorized by SED, she found, students actually lost ground over time.
Brooklyn Prospect Charter School students listen to a sports writer speak during February's Career Day.
The phone calls are bad, but the visitors are the toughest to reject.
That's how Daniel Rubenstein feels about the admission requests that his charter school, Brooklyn Prospect, gets each summer from families who moved to the neighborhood after the school’s April lottery.
“This is a population that needs to be in a good school,” Rubenstein said. “Our school — which is a small, relationship-driven, intimate environment — would be better for someone that needs a community.”
But by law, Rubenstein must turn the families away. The state's charter school law does not make provisions for schools to reserve seats for students who arrive to the city from far-flung locales after their April admissions lotteries. That means that charter schools, which are charged with serving the city's neediest students, must exclude some of the students with the greatest need.
But after lobbying by Rubenstein and other charter operators, as well as by officials at the city Department of Education, one of the state's charter authorizers is working on an option that would allow charter schools to open their doors in the middle of the year.
Eva Moskowitz and her charter school network are objecting to new targets meant to push charter schools to enroll a fair share of students with disabilities and English language learners.
When they revised the state's charter schools law in 2010, legislators included a requirement that the schools register a "comparable" number of high-needs students. Now the state has proposed a methodology to calculate enrollment targets for charter schools based on how many students attend the school and the overall ratio of high-needs students in each district. Schools that currently enroll too few students with special needs will be required to show at least a "good-faith" effort to enroll more.
But a top official in the Success Academies network said Wednesday that she objected to any such requirement. Setting enrollment targets creates a disincentive for schools to help students get to the point that they no longer need special services, said Emily Kim, general counselor for the Success Academies network.
"For us, our goal is not to hit a number and stay at that number for English language learners," Kim said. "Our goal is that they learn English, that they perform at the highest levels, and that they graduate from high school college ready and are successful in life."
"So if our figures go down, we're proud of that," she added.
UPDATE: A state education official said the proposed targets would not penalize schools schools if their students are declassified as special education or ELL. Through what's being called a "three year lag," schools would get credit for students who had been classified anytime in the last three years. "With the three-year lag, there is little to no chance that there will be a dinging of schools for declassification of a child," said Assistant Commissioner Sally Bachofer, who helped developed the targets.
A chart comparing district and charter schools' principal turnover rates, from today's "State of the Sector" report.
A sweeping look at who attends charter schools in New York City, and how they fare, shows that the sector excels at advancing academic achievement but struggles to enroll high-needs students and to retain staff.
For the past nine months the New York City Charter School Center and a team of charter school founders have collected and crunched data on 35 different topics, including test scores, demographics, attrition, and enrollment. Their findings are laid out in a much-anticipated — and much-delayed — 40-page "State of the Sector" report, released today.
The report represents an inaugural effort to be more transparent about how charter schools in New York City are doing. Coming from a group that more often celebrates charter schools' achievements, the report offers a blunt self-assessment of the sector, illuminating its shortcomings in student enrollment and staff retention while at the same making a case for it to continue to expand.
For instance, the report acknowledges "striking" staff attrition trends — nearly one-third of city charter school teachers leave annually — but points out the sector's ability to achieve high academic results anyway. And while the schools serve low rates of students with special education and English language learners, the report emphasizes that those who do enroll tend to do better than their counterparts in district schools.
The report was originally scheduled to be released nearly two months ago. But the center needed more time to verify the data, then held the report until it could be released along with "dashboards" showing individual schools' statistics, according to CEO James Merriman. Those dashboards were published on the center's website today, although they have withheld some data, including staff attrition.
The Department of Education released a final installment of Teacher Data Reports today, for teachers in charter schools and schools for the most severely disabled students.
Last week, the city released the underlying data from about 53,000 reports for about 18,000 teachers who received them during the project's three-year lifespan. Teachers received the reports between 2008 and 2010 if they taught reading or math in grades 4 through 8.
When the department first announced that it would be releasing the data in response to several news organizations' Freedom of Information Law requests, it indicated that ratings for teachers in charter schools would not be made public. It reversed that decision late last week and today released "value-added" data for 217 charter school teachers.
Participation in the data reports program was optional for charter schools and some schools entered and exited the program in each year that it operated, with eight schools participating in 2007-2008 and 18 participating in 2009-2010. At the time, the city had about 100 charter schools.
The department also released reports for 50 teachers in District 75 schools, which enroll the city's most severely disabled students. The number is small because few District 75 students take regular state math and reading exams. Also, District 75 classes are typically very small, and privacy laws led the city to release data for teachers who had more than 10 students take state tests. District 75 also teachers received reports only in 2008 and 2010; the program was optional in the district's schools in 2009.
Department officials cautioned last week that the reports had high margins of error — 35 percentage points for math teachers and 53 percentage points for reading teachers, on average — and urged caution when interpreting them.
On a recent afternoon, dozens of teachers, social workers, and non-profit administrators, pored over the academic calendars of several charter schools. They were studying how a school can express its mission in the way it builds its calendar.
“There’s a lot to think about: Summer school — would that be mandatory?” asked Simeon Stolzberg, a former charter school authorizer who was leading the exercise. “You could have a year-round school, and maybe every eight weeks there would be a two-week vacation. Think about whether or not there is time in a day for teachers to plan and prep and grade — and eat lunch.”
Some of the teachers laughed, but Stolzberg was completely serious.
“Your calendar is one of the things that will set you a part from a district school,” he told the group, participants in a new program, Apply Right, that is helping prospective charter school leaders by taking them through the most minute details of school planning.
The program and two others, projects of the nonprofit New York City Charter School Center, reflect a growing sense that charter school leaders need more support than they have been getting.
"There were a number of schools that were approved in the last five years that frankly probably should not have been approved,” said James Merriman, the center’s director. “What I think we are seeing is that the bar of entry is being appropriately raised. … We want to see more charter schools, but we’re only really interested in seeing high-quality schools.”
The three schools released from the UFT and NAACP lawsuit this week followed different paths to legal freedom.
The case for one of the schools relied on a broad base of community support, but a single man, Geoffrey Canada, made the case for the other two schools.
Charter school advocates believe Canada's profile as a well-regarded, African-American education reformer made him an unpopular target for the NAACP. They say the decision to drop these schools from the lawsuit, which charges that the co-locations give preferential treatment to charter school students, weren't made on legal merits.
"It makes it pretty clear that it’s not about equity. It's not about the children," said Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II, whose new school in Bedford-Stuyvesant is named in the suit. "This is about politics."
Girls Preparatory Academy was unique from the other 17 schools named in the suit because its co-location plan had already received widespread community support. At the initial public hearing in February, both of the schools' leaders endorsed co-location, as did Lisa Donlan, the district's Community Education Council president and a frequent charter school critic.
“There was not one person who opposed this co-location,” Donlan said.
Charter school heads will visit City Hall tomorrow to present Mayor Bloomberg with an audacious request: They would like him to go over state lawmakers' heads and restore a funding freeze that Albany probably won't.
This year, lawmakers froze charter schools' per-pupil funding levels at last year's level, denying school leaders almost $1,000 per student in an expected increase. Given the rotten budget climate, it's likely the legislature will do the same to next year's budget.
To fight back, charter school leaders tomorrow will meet with Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott — and, they hope, with Bloomberg, too — to suggest two possible solutions. Bloomberg can either "negotiate with Albany to remove the freeze," as Charter School Center head James Merriman wrote in an e-mail last week. Or, Merriman wrote:
he can substitute other funds in the City's own budget.
Spurred by a series of meetings held by Queens' borough president, charter school administrators, parents and students are gathering at The Renaissance Charter School in Queens to dispel “misinformation” about their schools in a discussion on Wednesday night. Queens is far from the center of the city’s charter school debate, which has been raging in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but with the opening of two new charters in as many years, and increased attention to the issue city-wide, some parents and elected officials have voiced their opposition to the schools.
Nicholas Tishuk, the Director of Programs and Accountability at Renaissance and the organizer of the event, said that the discussion is the beginning of an “information campaign” targeted at charter school critics. Principals of two other Queens' charter schools, VOICE and OWN, will participate in the panel.
Tishuk has been attending Queens Borough President Helen Marshall’s monthly Advisory Board meetings, where he said charter schools dominate the conversation. (Marshall said in February she has " fought against charter schools.”) He invited some of the most outspoken critics at Marshall’s meetings to Wednesday’s discussion, hoping to show them that charter schools aren’t “this big bad thing.”
“We're all mom and pop schools here,” Tishuk said. “We're all single-standing schools that are not ‘invading’ communities.” Tishuk wants to address complaints that charter schools take away funding from regular schools, aren’t connected to communities, and counsel out “problem kids”—none of which apply to Queens’ schools, he says.
Queens will have six charter schools next fall, including the city’s biggest, Our World Neighborhood Charter School. VOICE charter school started in 2008, and Growing Up Green, in Long Island City, opens this fall. VOICE is using a Department of Education school location for now, while the borough’s other charter schools occupy their own space. In Brooklyn and Manhattan, charter schools taking over public school space is a hot-button issue, one that has mostly been avoided in Queens.