perks of being a charter school

Cuomo’s budget proposal includes perks for New York City charter schools, including lifting the city’s cap

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Thousands of parents and students attended a charter school rally hosted by Families for Excellent Schools in September 2016

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his executive budget proposal last week, New York’s charter school advocates were quick to offer support.

The pro-charter group StudentsFirstNY said the plan reaffirms Cuomo’s belief in the “critical role” of charter schools. New York City’s Charter Center said it sets the stage for “continued growth.”

Why are they excited? The budget proposal includes a few significant perks for charter schools — particularly those in New York City, where more schools would be allowed to open in the coming years.

Here is a breakdown of the changes:

New York City’s charter-school cap eliminated

State law currently allows for just 30 more charter schools to open in New York City — but that number may soon skyrocket.

New York state currently has a statewide charter school cap and a cap specific to New York City. Under Cuomo’s proposal, New York City’s charter cap would be eliminated, leaving just one overall cap on charter schools across the state.

That’s significant because New York City only had those 30 charter slots remaining by November 2016, according to the Charter Center, though there were 126 charters left to issue throughout the state.

The legislature last adjusted the cap in 2015, when it gave the city another 50 slots.

More help paying for private space

As New York City’s charter schools expanded rapidly under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, many were given space in the city’s public school buildings. Some, though, were told they would have to find and pay for space themselves.

Charter advocates won a big victory in 2014 when the state passed a law requiring New York City to help charter schools pay for private space. Under Cuomo’s new proposal, those schools would get a little more help.

Under the 2014 law, new and expanding charter schools that don’t get public space are entitled to either 20 percent of their per-pupil tuition rate or their total rent, whichever is less. Cuomo’s proposal would increase that to 30 percent of per-pupil tuition rate or the school’s “total facility rental cost.”

The problem for charter schools is that moving into a private space often costs more than the the rent or the 20 percent figure, said David Umansky, the CEO of Civic Builders, an organization that helps charter schools find and build spaces. When that happens, schools face tough budgetary choices, he said.

“It’s not about building the Taj Mahal. It’s about just finding a space to teach kids,” Umansky said. “It’s a real stress on schools.”

Under the law, the city is on the hook for up to $40 million in rent. Once it hits that figure — which the Charter Center estimates will happen sometime this year — the costs will be split with the state.

More public space all at once

Another change requires charter schools to be given enough room for a chunk of grades in the space they are offered. For instance, the city could not give a new charter school one year of co-located space for just a first grade when the charter school has approved plans to expand up to fourth grade.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”