existential crisis

Opened to prove a point, UFT's charter school could be closed

The UFT Charter School’s secondary grades are housed at East New York’s J.H.S. 166. Both schools could face closure this year.

The city teachers union could face a school closure this year that hits uncomfortably close to home.

A decade ago, the early success of some charter schools became a case in point for a larger argument: The absence of a union contract in the schools enabled them to succeed with high-need students, proving that the presence of unions was holding other schools back, charter school advocates said.

Randi Weingarten, then the president of the United Federation of Teachers, opened the UFT Charter School in 2005 to pierce that argument. By posting higher scores, the school would “dispel the misguided and simplistic notion that the union contract is an impediment to success,” she said at the time.

The school got hefty grants from the Broad Foundation, space in two Department of Education school buildings, and a flood of applications from teachers and students alike.

But seven years into its existence, the nation’s first union-run school is one of the lowest-performing schools in the city. Fewer than a third of students are reading on grade level, and the math proficiency rate among eighth-graders is less than half the city average.

On the school’s most recent progress report, released last week, the Department of Education gave it a D and ranked it even lower than one of its co-located neighbors, J.H.S. 166, which the city tried to close last year and now has shortlisted again for possible closure.

The latest bad news comes as the school’s legal right to operate is nearing expiration. This year, the school’s charter authorizer, SUNY’s Board of Trustees, must decide whether to allow the school to remain open.

The renewal process started today with the first of a multi-day visit by reviewers from SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, which makes renewal recommendations to the trustees.

The last time SUNY CSI considered the UFT Charter School, it issued only a three-year charter renewal instead of the regular five years, citing an “ambiguous or mixed record of achievement.”

Test scores have plummeted since then, the school has cycled through multiple principals, and enrollment is down to just 70 percent of capacity. But union officials say they are optimistic that the school will weather the renewal process.

“I go to that school and I’m very, very happy with what we see,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said last week. “The parents are great, the teachers are doing a good job. We are very happy.”

A document that SUNY CSI submitted to its board last week offered a far bleaker assessment: Of the 13 schools with elementary and middle school grades authorized by the institute up for renewal this year, the UFT Charter School has the worst track record, according to the report.

In fact, according to the report, the UFT Charter School is the only school up for renewal actually performing worse than its district, District 19, as a whole, even though its students are, on average, less needy.

That statistic could doom its chances. Charter schools receive the right to operate free from city bureaucracy in exchange for promising to give students a better shot at academic success than they would otherwise have had. Advocates say a crucial metric is whether students outperform their peers in neighboring schools.

“Where schools don’t meet the standards as established by their authorizers and don’t meet them by a wide margin, it’s clear that in the charter sector the result should be closure,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Schools Center. Merriman was also SUNY CSI’s executive director when the UFT Charter School first received its charter.

This chart, produced by SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, ranks charter schools by their performance relative to their local districts. The UFT Charter School is the blue line closest to the bottom of the chart.

If SUNY CSI decides to close the school, it would mark the embarrassing end of Weingarten’s high-stakes bet that teachers can run a school as well, or better, than the Department of Education or other charter school operators, as long as no one is telling them what to do.

But it would be incorrect to conclude that the school foundered because the union contract is too constricting, sources close to the school said.

“You can look across the city and find talented principals working within the four corners of the contract and they have great schools,” said a source familiar with the project who asked to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing ongoing professional relationships.

“It’s not the contract. It’s the quality of the leadership and the management that picked them,” the source said.

In keeping with the school’s philosophy, the union drew principals from its own ranks, giving them the title of “teacher leaders.” To open the elementary school, Weingarten chose Rita Danis, who had been working at the union’s teacher support office. The next year, the union picked Drew Goodman, an assistant principal, to run the secondary school. Neither had led a school before, and within three years, each had resigned amid public clashes with teachers and families.

The union appointed Michelle Bodden, once seen as a possible successor to Weingarten, to replace Danis at the elementary school, where she has remained since 2008. But the secondary school has run through four different principals since 2009.

Its current leader, Martin Weinstein, is a former Department of Education superintendent who resigned after being accused of sexual harassment, according to a lawsuit he filed against the city last year.

“There are other people who we thought should be principal, but nobody wants to take over the job,” said a teacher who left the school last year after working under Weinstein for several months. He said many other teachers also left because they thought the school was in decline.

Even Shelia Evans-Tranumn, a former State Education Department official whom the union hired to supervise the charter school in 2010, said leadership changes had hamstrung the school.

“The number one reason why schools fail is rotation of leadership,” she said. “When you have leaders coming in and out, they’re not able to really get their vision across. It certainly impacted our school.”

Weingarten and Leo Casey, a former UFT vice president who was heavily involved with the development of the secondary school, each declined to comment on the school’s current state. They both said their involvement with the schools had ended years ago, for Weingarten shortly after she resigned as union president in 2009 and for Casey when he left the school’s board in 2011.

But during a panel discussion on a different topic in May, Casey said he was hopeful that the school could get better in the future.

“We’ve had our struggles,” he said. “There is a somewhat mixed academic record that we’re working on and that we think we’re in a position to improve.”

The school’s board seems to be pinning its renewal hopes on the improvement plans, according to a statement from chair Evelyn DeJesus.

“As part of the renewal process, we will be meeting with the SUNY Charter School staff [sic] to discuss the situation at the school, and to talk about the new programs we are instituting — including Saturday remediation and a College Bound program — designed to improve student performance, particularly in the middle school grades,” she said.

Evans-Tranumn said she is “a realist” about the school’s chances of renewal. But she said there are real signs of improvement already. For several years, she said, not a single fifth-grader stayed in the school for sixth grade. This year, 35 students made the transition to the secondary school, which is housed in a different location from the elementary school. And union officials noted that the school is considered “in good standing” with the state after multiple years on a list of schools needing improvement.

“I understand what is before us in terms of the analysis that SUNY will make, but they dont have the whole story,” Evans-Tranumn said, “We plan to do whatever we need to do to tell our story.”

The fact that the school is finishing a three-year renewal could work against it.

“The idea when we established short-term renewals was that thereafter it was a full five years or nothing,” said Merriman. He added, “Further … another full-term renewal wouldn’t be granted where schools simply had plans in place to improve in the future.”

SUNY CSI’s current executive director, Susan Miller Barker, said she could not comment about any individual school because her office is responsible for making renewal evaluations.

But, she said, “we do adhere pretty strictly to our renewal protocol.” The protocol involves examining the school’s performance data and comparing it with the achievement promises it made three years ago, as well as considering the information gleaned from the site visit, she said.

But SUNY CSI has allowed other struggling charter schools to stay open in dramatically different forms. In 2004, it ordered Albany’s New Covenant Charter School to stop serving middle school grades; the school stayed open until 2010. Agreeing to close the secondary school could be one option for the UFT Charter School, whose elementary grades post stronger results.

But Evans-Tranumn said she was optimistic about the middle school’s prognosis. In addition to the higher student retention this year, the union is still working on securing a single space that could house the entire school. Last year, the City Council gave the union $2 million to plan for a potential private space.

Another possibility is to hand the reins over to a different charter operator, similar to what Harlem Day Charter School did in 2011 when it was facing closure. But no formal process exists to make such a transition happen, and even if it did, convincing someone to take over the school would be a hard sell.

“We believe we need the freedoms of a charter to do effective turnaround work,” said Morty Ballen, CEO of Explore Schools, a charter network that this year absorbed the students from a Brownsville elementary school that was closing. Those freedoms, he said, are dependent on not having a collective bargaining agreement like the one the UFT Charter School currently has in place.

And yet another is to play politics, a move that the UFT Charter School is uniquely positioned within the charter sector to make. SUNY’s Board of Trustees is appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose major education initiative, overhauling teacher evaluations, can only happen with the UFT’s cooperation.

Under a timeline that Miller Barker sketched out, the UFT Charter School would find out its renewal recommendation at the same time that Cuomo has set as a deadline for districts and their unions to agree on new evaluation systems. If the union appeals to Cuomo for helping securing a charter renewal, the governor could conceivably consider it expedient to accede.

Whatever the outcome of SUNY CSI’s deliberation, the UFT Charter School is already out of favor with the union’s top brass when they cite examples of successful teacher empowerment.

Weingarten said this week that Green Dot New York Charter School in the Bronx, which opened with a unique union partnership and a “thin contract” that gives teachers some of the rights they would get in a district school, is thriving. Virtually all of the members in its first cohort graduated in four years, she said. She also said the union was participating in school improvement efforts in New Haven, Newark, and Boston.

“We are continuing to see progress and innovation at many teacher-led schools,” she wrote in an email.

And even the teacher who left the UFT Charter School in June said he had not given up on its original mission.

“This school was supposed to be run by the teachers, but it obviously didn’t work out that way,” he said. “If you have the right leadership it could work.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”