fighting back

Battling closure, Harlem charter school enlisted a high-profile PR firm that once repped Ivanka Trump

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

When New York City tried to shut down Opportunity Charter School’s middle school earlier this year for poor performance, the Harlem charter immediately went on the offensive.

School officials and parents filed a lawsuit, claiming the education department’s decision was too focused on test scores and didn’t take into account that more than half its students have disabilities. The grade 6-12 school explored switching authorizers so that the city — which granted the school its charter and must renew it on a regular basis — would no longer control its fate.

And just weeks after the city moved to shutter its middle school grades, the school brought on a high-profile public relations team whose president has represented members of the Trump family, while also paying a separate firm to lobby city officials on its behalf.

It’s not unusual for charter schools to work with outside public relations firms. But even some charter school advocates suggested that the school’s aggressive attempt to block the city’s sanctions is in tension with a fundamental premise of the city’s charter sector: that in order to justify their existence, charter schools must show that their students are making significant progress.

“It’s not just choice for choice’s sake,” said James Merriman, CEO of New York City’s Charter Center, referring to the city’s charter schools. And while he said there’s nothing inherently wrong with hiring a PR firm, he added: “Mounting a political and public relations campaign” has not helped other schools earn extensions of their charters because New York authorizers have “focused appropriately” on school performance.

The city has repeatedly said that Opportunity Charter School is not up to snuff.

In response to the school’s bid to renew its charter earlier this year, education department officials said it had met few of its academic benchmarks, reaching just four of 22 goals over the previous two years. And few of its middle-school students demonstrated proficiency on state tests, which showed that 9 percent of students were proficient in reading and 3 percent in math — lower than similar students at other schools.

Citing poor performance, the city attempted to close the middle school, granted the high school only a short-term renewal, and rejected the school’s bid to add an elementary school. They also denied the school’s proposal to exclusively serve students with disabilities, instead of its current mix of students with and without special needs. (Five years ago, the city moved to close the school entirely.)

School officials have vehemently disagreed with the city’s assessment.

They argue that evaluators have not adequately accounted for the school’s unique population, which was 55 percent students with disabilities in 2016. Today, only two of the city’s charter schools serve more students with disabilities. In addition, most of its incoming sixth graders had scored at the lowest level on state tests in elementary school, according to the school’s charter-renewal application. The school also notes that its high-school graduation rate among students with disabilities has frequently exceeded the city average.

After the city moved to close its middle school, Opportunity sued, claiming the decision discriminated against students with disabilities. In the meantime, the middle school has been allowed to remain open while a judge considers the case.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing the school, said Opportunity isn’t trying to subvert the accountability system.

School officials’ position “isn’t that they shouldn’t be held accountable,” he said. “It’s that they should be held to a standard they could reasonably meet.”

As they fought to remain open, school officials explored the possibility of switching authorizers to the state education department.

Quinn said the school requested an application to make the state its authorizer, but did not receive one. However, state education officials said they determined that the school did not meet the legal standard to transfer authorizers. A spokeswoman did not say which requirement the school failed to meet, but the law stipulates that schools “in violation of any legal requirement, in probationary status, or slated for closure” cannot change authorizers.

Meanwhile, this March, the school hired Risa Heller Communications to manage media coverage of the city’s efforts to close the middle school and counter the city’s narrative that it is underperforming, according to a six-month contract obtained by Chalkbeat under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. Risa Heller, the firm’s president, once served as a spokeswoman for New York Senator Chuck Schumer and has previously counted Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, as clients.

Meanwhile, as the school’s battle with the city continued to simmer, Opportunity paid about $50,000 to a lobbying firm to make its case to the education department and City Hall, along with other city officials, records show.

The school’s PR firm also continued to press its case to reporters — touting the school’s graduation rates and pitching an op-ed by the school’s CEO, in which he took a swipe at the city’s record on serving students with disabilities.

The firm’s contract was for $9,000 per month. It stipulated that Risa Heller Communications would “manage media around DOE hearing” where the school made its case to stay open, and identifying “media opportunities for raising the profile of OCS.”

Neither Opportunity Charter School nor Risa Heller Communications responded to emailed questions about whether they had extended their agreement beyond the original six-month term, or used public money to finance the contract.

“Opportunity Charter School hired a public relations firm to raise awareness of our unique approach to serving students,” Jason Maymon, the school’s in-house public affairs director, wrote in an email. “As we have limited internal communications staff, we retained a firm to help with this function.”

The latest dustup with the city’s education department isn’t the school’s first public relations crisis.

In 2010, the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigation released a startling report that showed the school did not appropriately respond to allegations that staff members used force against students and verbally abused them. (The school has previously denied the report’s findings.)

In the wake of that report, the school’s legal team hired Mark Alter, a New York University professor, to help conduct an internal review of the school’s climate. Alter went on to become a member of Opportunity’s board, before leaving in 2016.

In an interview, Alter said he was attracted to the school because of its commitment to including students with disabilities alongside their typically developing peers. But the school was “always under the gun” because of its low test scores, which he says was never a fair standard to evaluate the school’s progress.

Asked about the school’s decision to go on the offensive, including hiring a PR firm, Alter said it made sense to him.

“You do what you need to do in order to survive,” he said.

Superintendent search

Newark superintendent finalists make their pitches to the public

Clockwise from top left: Sito Narcisse, Andres Alonso, A. Robert Gregory, and Roger Leon.

The four candidates vying to become Newark’s next superintendent each claimed to be the best person for the job during a much-anticipated forum on Friday.

The two-hour event at Science Park High School was the public’s first opportunity to hear from the finalists — who include two Newark natives and two outsiders — and its last before the city school board is expected to vote for their choice on Tuesday. Whoever is chosen will become the first full superintendent to lead the system since it was returned to local control this year after a decades-long state takeover.

The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee. They were selected by a seven-person search committee who considered candidates from across the country.

Each finalist was given 30 minutes on Friday evening to introduce himself and describe his qualifications for the high-profile position. Unlike some districts, the school board did not interview the candidates during the public event. (Instead, they were scheduled to hold closed-door interviews on Saturday.) And the roughly 200 audience members were not allowed to ask questions.

Denise Crawford, a parent who attended the forum, said that community members should have been part of the search committee, which included three school board members and four people appointed by the mayor and the state education commissioner. But Tafshier Cosby, whose son attends a Newark charter school, said Friday’s event offered the public a chance to hear each candidate’s vision for the 35,000-student Newark Public Schools system.

“Whoever has the best plan for moving NPS forward,” she said, “that is who I’m rooting for.”

Below are highlights from each candidate’s remarks in the order that they spoke on Friday.

Sito Narcisse

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Sito Narcisse

As an outsider, Narcisse promised to become part of the community if he is hired.

“My wife and I will be living in the city,” he said, adding that he would shop at the local grocery stores and attend a local church. “So I’ll have a vested interest.”

Narcisse, who is the son of Haitian immigrants, has overseen schools in five different districts in four states. He was a principal in the Pittsburgh and Boston school systems, and a top official in two large Maryland school districts.

In 2016, he became the second-highest-ranking official chief in the Metro Nashville system, which includes 169 schools serving 88,000 students. He recently applied to become superintendent of a Florida district, but was not selected.

If he led Newark, he said he would push to pay teachers and classroom aides more and would be open with the public about how he allocates funding. He also vowed to hire Newark residents for positions within his administration.

“I will not be doing things to you,” he said. “I will be doing things with you.”

Andres Alonso

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Andres Alonso

Before he became a New York City school official and later the chief of Baltimore City Public Schools, Alonso spent 12 years teaching in Newark schools.

Now, he wants to return to where he started.

“This is the job I always wanted,” he told the crowd. (He was recently in the running to become Los Angeles’ superintendent, but said he withdrew when the Newark position became available.)

A Cuban immigrant, Alonso said he arrived at school in Union City, New Jersey when he was 12 not knowing how to speak English. He went on to study at Columbia University and Harvard, where he is now a professor in the Graduate School of Education.

From 1987 to 1998, he taught in Newark at a school for emotionally disturbed students and at Peshine Avenue Elementary School. During that period, he gained legal custody of one of his students.

In 2007, he became CEO of the Baltimore city school system, where he closed many low-performing schools, oversaw the expansion of the charter-school sector, and tied teacher pay to their performance. During his six years as schools chief, he said he had “an extraordinary relationship” with the teachers union and with parents.

On Friday, he said that former Mayor Cory Booker and former state education commissioner Christopher Cerf had asked him in 2012 to run Newark’s school system. He turned down the job, he said, because he did not want to carry out a premade “blueprint” for the district. (Instead, Cerf became superintendent.)

Now that the district is back under local control, Alonso said he is ready to lead it.

“I want to come full circle,” he said. “I think I could help the system immensely.”

A. Robert Gregory

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A. Robert Gregory at the unveiling of a new science-education center this month.

Gregory attended Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Newark before his family moved to Pennsylvania, where he eventually went to college and majored in education. At his college graduation, his grandmother urged him to return to his hometown.

“She whispered to me, ‘Come back home, the kids need you,’” said Gregory, whose father was a longtime Newark principal.

Gregory taught at Harold Wilson and Camden middle schools in Newark before founding American History High School, a well-regarded magnet school. In 2015, he was promoted to assistant superintendent of high schools and, last June, Cerf named him deputy superintendent. When Cerf stepped down in February, Gregory became interim superintendent.

In that role, he has increased spending on bilingual and special education and negotiated a contract that raises the wages of school cafeteria workers, security guards, and custodians, he said during his presentation. He also supported students who joined in a national school walkout to call for stricter gun laws, and he is planning a conference next month where teachers will be able to share classroom ideas.

“I am the educator,” he said, “who vows to work toward restoring trust while galvanizing this city around one common goal: high-quality education for all.”

Roger León

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Roger León

León began by emphasizing his deep Newark roots and ties to each section of the city.

He said he was born in the Central Ward, lived in the South Ward, grew up in the East Ward, visited his godparents in the North Ward, and met his first good friends in the West Ward.

“The journey of Newark has been my journey,” said León, whose parents were Cuban immigrants.

A Science Park High School graduate, León went on to coach the magnet school’s renowned debate team for eight years. He later taught middle-school algebra before becoming principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and then University High School of the Humanities.

He has been an assistant superintendent for 10 years. If he becomes schools chief, León said he would invest in attendance counselors and mental-health services for students. He also said he would encourage students to travel abroad, and would make sure that parents have different types of schools to choose from.

His past accomplishments are evidence “of how high we will go, how fast we will get there,” he said, and “of how we will learn and do it together.”

concurrent enrollment

New state law forces Denver to change course on its ‘early colleges’

PHOTO: Denver Post file

A change in state law meant to rein in the cost of Colorado high schools that allow students to stay longer to earn college credit has forced the Denver district to slow down its expansion of the model.

District officials were proposing adding another “early college,” as the schools are known, to the seven that already exist in Denver Public Schools. But on Thursday, Antonio Esquibel, the district’s executive director of early college who submitted the application to open the school, confirmed he was withdrawing it.

“With the change in statute, it will force us to have to rethink what early college is and what it should look like in Denver Public Schools,” Esquibel said.

Denver’s seven early colleges are:

  • Southwest Early College (charter)
  • CEC Early College
  • West Early College
  • Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College
  • High Tech Early College
  • Manual High School

The school board was scheduled to vote on whether to approve the school, temporarily called Denver Early College High School, at a meeting Thursday night. It could have opened as soon as 2019, either as a brand new school or a replacement for a low-performing school. The application said it would “provide all students the option to enroll for an additional one to two years to obtain credits leading toward or culminating in an associate’s degree.”

But the change in state law essentially prohibits early college students from staying in high school for a fifth or sixth year for the sole purpose of taking free college courses.

A bill lawmakers approved earlier this month defines early colleges as schools where students earn an associate’s degree or at least 60 college credits alongside their high school diploma. The bill specifies that the curriculum “must be designed to be completed in four years.”

Lawmakers in the Colorado House and Senate passed the bill, but it has not yet been signed into law by the governor. Denver district officials did not testify against it publicly.

Lawmakers wanted to change the law because they feared the early college model would become too expensive. Currently, the state pays for early college students who stay in high school for a fifth or sixth year at the regular per-pupil rate, which varies by district. In the case of Denver Public Schools, it’s $7,939 per student this year, according to state budget analysts.

There are currently 20 early colleges in Colorado, up from five in 2009. While only 315 students this year were in their fifth or sixth year, trends indicated that number would grow. Last year, there were 224 students in a fifth or sixth year. In 2013, there were only 84.

Denver’s proposed early college was based on a six-year model. At a presentation to the school board last week, Esquibel said most Denver students would likely earn just 12 college credits during their first four years of high school, and then stay for a fifth and sixth year earning 24 credits each year to get them to a total of 60, which is typically how many credits a student needs to earn an associate’s degree.

Most students in Denver’s early colleges are students of color from low-income families who are on track to be the first in their families to go to college, Esquibel said.

“Unfortunately, our students of color don’t have as much access or opportunity to take college courses or, for that matter, enroll in a college,” he told the board. “So the concept of an early college was created specifically for that reason: to buck the trend.”

School board members praised the idea.

“We have these age-old timelines that, for some reason, this is how we believe young people should go through school,” said board president Anne Rowe. “What you’ve been able to do is really push the model. … That out-of-the-box thinking is so important.”

Given the impending change in state law, Esquibel said he and other district officials will spend the next several months figuring out how to make the early college model work in four years instead of six. The leaders of other Colorado early colleges have said most of their students complete the requirements in that time, and Esquibel said Denver officials have been studying early colleges in Texas whose students do it in four years.

“It’s a little daunting, but we’ve seen schools across the country doing it,” he said.

Esquibel said he hopes to re-submit the application for a new early college in the fall.

The district will have to reconfigure its six existing early colleges, as well, he said. (The seventh early college is a charter school.) However, high school juniors and seniors currently enrolled and planning to stay for a fifth or sixth year won’t be affected by the bill. It allows districts to receive full state per-pupil funding for those students in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years.