charter chill

Facing federal funding freeze, Success to nix lottery preference

After becoming one of the state’s first schools to reserve seats for English language learners in its lotteries, Success Academy Charter Schools are now planning to roll back the special treatment. The charter school network is making the revision under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, which has mandated the change as a condition to continue receiving $15 million in grants aimed at helping Success expand its reach.

The concession comes despite an all-out effort to reverse the decision by Success CEO Eva Moskowitz, who made her case in dramatic terms directly to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“[T]he millions of dollars in funding that your Department is threatening to withdraw is a gun pointed at our head,” Moskowitz wrote in a letter to Duncan in April.

The dispute has to do with a disagreement over the interpretation of federal education laws about how a charter school must structure its admissions process. A federal reading of the law is that school lotteries can’t reserve seats for at-risk students, unless their state’s charter school law specifically allows it.

In New York, charter school law requires that admission preferences be given for three student groups: returning students, siblings, and students who live nearby.

But policymakers here say that a 2010 provision in the law, which requires schools to meet quotas for at-risk student groups, meets federal compliance on lottery preferences.

The provision left it up to schools and their authorizer to figure out how to hit enrollment targets. State officials have argued that a lottery preference will end up being the best way, making it effectively required.

“For these charter schools, we believe it is, practically speaking, necessary for them to implement [an at-risk] lottery preference to comply with the NY Education Law,” Susan Miller Barker, executive director of SUNY Charter Schools Institute, which authorizes charter schools, wrote to a federal education official earlier this year.

Update: In a statement, Commissioner John King said, “We are optimistic the USED will reconsider their legal interpretation. We are certain the USED shares our commitment to ensuring equal access for high needs students to a high quality education, whether that is in a district school or a charter school.”

Success’ 20 charter schools are the state’s first to be affected by the U.S. DOE’s interpretation. But the change will eventually force many schools into the same dilemma: Eliminate their at-risk lottery preference or forfeit grants seen as crucial during the start-up years.

“It’s to the detriment of charters and the students we want to serve,” said New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman.

Many charter schools already reserve seats for at-risk students. Some offer seats to poor students and, increasingly, new charter schools are opening with preferences for specialized groups of high-need student populations.

For instance, the Children’s Aid Society’s charter school allots seats for students from single-parent households. The Neighborhood Charter School of Harlem leaves open 15 percent of its seats for students with autism spectrum disorders. And Mott Haven Academy provides two-thirds of its seats to students who are a part of the child welfare system.

But these types of new schools would have to eliminate their lottery rules to qualify for some of the $113 million in start-up grants that New York was awarded in 2011.

“These funds are just critical,” Merriman said. “They hire the people who put together the school.”

The federal grants, called the Charter Schools Program, have also been awarded to charter networks such as Success. Since 2010, Duncan has awarded the Success network two grants totaling more than $15 million to open or expand 24 schools by 2016.

U.S. DOE spokesman said that grant guidelines have been consistent and disputed the notion that any changes have been made.

“The Department of Education has not offered new rules nor have we made changes to any existing rules,” said the spokesman, Cameron French.

Despite their objections, authorizers have taken the federal grant guidelines seriously as they prepare to review a new slew of charter applications. In a memo sent last month, a SUNY CSI official warned new charter applicants that they would be ineligible for federal grants if they include admissions preferences as part of their school’s development.

Merriman said that threatening to withhold federal funding sent a message that would discourage schools from finding ways to serve at-risk students.

“It’s a fundamentally misguided policy,” he said.

A frequent criticism lodged at charter schools is that they don’t do enough to serve as many high-need students as district schools. In the case of Success, the criticism was renewed last week in a series of Daily News articles about families whose students attended Success schools.

Spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis disputed the criticism that Success schools didn’t do enough to serve its special education population. She said that 15 percent of the Success student population — 1,000 students — are classified a special education, near the city average.

Success schools don’t give preferential seating for poor or special education students, which Sedlis said were not under enrolled at the network’s schools. A legal memo sent by Success lawyers to the U.S. DOE argued that an ELL lottery preference is necessary because its schools struggle to attract families who aren’t proficient in English to apply. At Cobble Hill Success, for instance, just 4.1 percent of first-year students were ELLs, 19 percentage points lower than what was set aside in its lottery, according to the memo.

Success managed to convince the U.S. DOE to reverse the funding threat for this year. But yesterday, the city sent out public notices about revisions to the Success charters, which would affect lotteries for next year’s admissions.

“We have worked with Success Academy regularly over the last few months for them to remain eligible for the grant program,” French said.

In a statement, however, Moskowitz suggested she wasn’t done fighting.

“We were the second school in New York state to offer this preference because of our strong commitment to serving English Language Learners and we are fighting to reinstate it.”

Eva Moskowitz letter to Arne Duncan

Success Academy Legal Memorandum to U.S. DOE

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.