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.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.