By the numbers

For charter schools serving overage or homeless students, typical metrics don’t add up

The evaluation of ROADS II, a charter school in the Bronx, is peppered with compliments about the school’s leaders and their ability to help at-risk students.

Yet ROADS II is also failing by a basic statistical standard: Almost none of its students graduate within four years.

The school is one of a handful of charter schools that serve a subset of New York City’s neediest students, often those who are over-age and under-credited, homeless, or in foster care. Like all charter schools, it is expected to meet strict standards or face closure.

Yet schools like ROADS II present a tough question for the authorizers that oversee them: What happens when serving an important group of students makes it nearly impossible to meet normal benchmarks?

“I think it makes sense they hold the bar high,” said Jemina Bernard, the chief executive officer at ROADS. But, she said, “If it takes them five, six years to [graduate], it’s not anything that we’re ashamed of.”

The city has long grappled with similar questions about how to measure its non-traditional schools. Now, the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute, which oversees more than 100 charter schools in New York City, is facing a deadline to tackle the problem. Three charter schools serving especially high-needs students — Broome Street Academy, ROADS I, and ROADS II — are up for renewal this year and next.

Susan Miller Barker, the institute’s executive director, said that officials there haven’t yet come up with exactly how those schools will be evaluated. But they are working to adjust SUNY’s focus on graduation rates and test scores to determine whether these schools are performing well.

“We think that all kids coming out of high school ought to have a high school degree,” Miller Barker said. “But we’re looking at them and saying, is there something else that would tell us how well the schools are doing?”

The current guidelines set a high bar. Charter schools are generally expected to aim for 75 percent student proficiency on state exams, for 75 percent of their students to graduate in four years, and for 95 percent to graduate within five years.

Those numbers, charter school operators and advocates said, are unreasonable for schools designed to take in students who are older than their peers and have already struggled to make progress in school.

For example, high school students learning at a middle school level might make years of progress, but that growth is invisible if measured only by Regents exams designed for high school students, said Leslie Talbot, an education consultant and a leader of the Pathways to Opportunity Project, which focuses on helping off-track youth.

The benchmarks for credit accumulation and graduation timelines are also troublesome.

At John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy Charter School in lower Manhattan, the majority of students are over 16 and have earned fewer than nine credits, according to principal Ron Tabano. For them, graduating within six years is difficult and within five is nearly impossible, he said.

Instead, Wildcat Academy, which is overseen by the city’s education department and was converted into a charter school in 2000, has historically been compared to the city’s other transfer schools. Its six-year graduation rate, not the four-year rate, is tracked over time.

“There has to be a different set of measures,” Tabano said. If schools like his were punished for not graduating students in four years, he said, “They’d get killed.”

In 2011, the Bloomberg administration adapted its school letter grade system and progress reports for transfer schools, focusing on six-year graduation rates. The de Blasio administration did not release its own school “snapshots” for those schools last year, but the education department is looking to account for factors like student homelessness in its reports for all schools.

Schools like Broome Street, which gives preference to students who are homeless or in foster care, also help the charter sector combat the perception that it doesn’t serve its fair share of the highest-needs students. Chancellor Carmen Fariña has criticized charter schools for serving lower-than-average numbers of special education students and English learners but praised Broome Street — even speaking at its graduation ceremony this year.

SUNY’s challenge now is sticking to the essential bargain offered to New York charter schools — outperform traditional schools or be closed — without discouraging prospective school operators from trying to find new models to serve needy students.

The trick, New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman said, is to engage in “smart accountability,” or finding reasonable standards for schools that need alternatives while ensuring that they don’t become a veiled effort to protect schools from accountability.

“This is not easy to do,” he said.

As SUNY works toward decisions about new measures, it also must decide which schools qualify for them.

States like Colorado, Texas, and Arizona have defined alternative charter schools and created separate accountability standards for them in law, said Jim Griffin, president of Momentum Strategy and Research, an organization that works to improve charter school accountability. New York does not have such a clear formula, he said.

For now, SUNY appears to be looking at schools designed from the start to serve special groups of students. Officials say they may focus on measures like attendance rates, student progress towards graduation, or even the support offered to students who are parents or who are involved in the court system, though graduation rates and state test scores will remain important.

“If you want to run a charter school, you agree to being measured based on how well you prepare students to succeed when they leave you,” Miller Barker said.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.


Up next for the PEP: Five mergers, one missing member, and a snow delay

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Teacher Aixa Rodriguez speaks at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting in 2016.

As a winter storm bears down on New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has canceled school — which means the city’s oversight panel’s meeting slated for Wednesday is off, too.

The Panel for Educational Policy’s meeting hasn’t been rescheduled, but when its members do meet, they will have to decide whether to OK a new set of school mergers. It’s likely to be less contentious than last month’s meeting, when the Panel for Educational Policy voted down two of the education department’s school closure proposals and delayed a third in a rare rebuke.

This time around, there are no school closures on the agenda. But there may still be reverberations from last month’s meeting.

Soon after that meeting, T. Elzora Cleveland, a mayoral appointee to the panel and who cast a deciding vote to block two of the closures, resigned. And there are still open questions about how the panel will approach future education department proposals. Here’s what we’ll be watching for.

Who will serve on the oversight board going forward?

After casting a deciding vote blocking two of the education department’s closure proposals, Cleveland resigned from the board. Her resignation raised questions about whether City Hall had lost patience with her dissent and urged her to step down, but it also leaves the 13-person panel with one fewer member.

On Tuesday, City Hall spokeswoman Olivia Lapeyrolerie said the mayor had not yet chosen a replacement. “We are actively working to appoint a new panel member,” she wrote in an email.

Lapeyrolerie declined to comment on when the mayor would make an appointment, which will give the administration a smaller margin of error until the seat is filled

Will the panel continue to push back against the administration’s proposals?

Since eight of the board’s 13 members are appointed by de Blasio, the panel has generally approved proposals submitted by the education department, which the mayor also controls. Last month was a notable exception. Though the panel approved 10 school closures at that meeting — the largest single wave since de Blasio took office — it blocked three others after more than eight hours of impassioned testimony from lawmakers and families.

With a smaller number of mayoral appointees currently seated on the board, it could be slightly easier to block the education department’s proposals. Without Cleveland, the panel currently has just 12 members— so just one dissenting mayoral appointee could block a proposal if the other five panel members vote as a bloc.

But now that the largest wave of closures this year has passed, it’s unlikely that the panel will face as many contentious votes before the mayor appoints a new member to the oversight panel.

Could the current slate of school mergers generate similar backlash?

The education department’s plans include five mergers, where one school’s teachers and students are absorbed into another. Two of the plans involve schools in the mayor’s controversial and expensive Renewal turnaround program for struggling schools. In many of those cases, city officials have argued mergers are needed where schools have become too small to sustain enough teachers and programming to provide students a rich experience, as funding is allocated partly based on enrollment.

Though less contentious than closures, mergers can still spark fierce resistance from school communities. And the education department’s plan to merge Longwood Preparatory Academy and Holcombe L. Rucker School of Community Research and add a Success Academy charter middle school to the building has already prompted outcry from some advocates, educators, and students.

“Hundreds of parents, students and teachers protested the new wave of school closings at the February 28 PEP meeting,” Bronx Power, an organization that has criticized school closures, wrote in a statement announcing a protest of the Longwood Prep merger. “Although most of the schools were closed as proposed, momentum is building to stop this new de Blasio policy.”

Whatever the outcome, the upcoming meeting won’t offer members of the public an opportunity to address schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who is expected to step down April 2. Before the meeting was canceled, Senior Deputy Chancellor Dorita Gibson was set to attend in Fariña’s place.

You can find the full list of the education department’s proposals here.