space wars

Success CEO Eva Moskowitz rejects building space city offers her schools, calling it inadequate

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz held a press conference at City Hall to call for more school space.

Try again.

That was the message Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz sent longtime foe Mayor Bill de Blasio in a letter Wednesday and a press conference outside City Hall, where she said the city’s offer of building space for her schools fell woefully short.

Moskowitz is seeking space for six middle schools — four new ones, and two that are expanding — located near the network’s elementary schools in parts of Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx. Last week, the city offered just two buildings: one in East Flatbush, Brooklyn and another in the central Bronx. Officials said that will provide enough space for Success’ 734 rising fifth-graders next year, but that they are working to find additional buildings closer to where students live.

However, Moskowitz blasted the offer, saying it would force some families to travel far beyond their neighborhoods and won’t meet the needs of the new middle schools as they grow to full capacity.

“Today, on behalf of all our families, Success Academy rejects this proposal and asks the Department of Education to provide an alternative solution that provides permanent public school space for all six middle schools,” Moskowitz wrote in the letter.

Wednesday’s rejection is the latest in a back-and-forth between Success and the de Blasio administration. The charter network claims that the city is refusing to provide available building space, despite a state law requiring the city to offer charters space or cover their rental costs. The city argues that finding appropriate school space is a complicated process that requires a thorough analysis of the building and the community’s response.

Moskowitz has been particularly aggressive in pushing for space at these six schools. She has personally emailed reporters, held conference calls, and launched an ad campaign blaming de Blasio for “discriminating” against charter school students.

For their part, city officials said their solution will cover the network’s needs.

“As we have made clear, every rising Success Academy middle school student who wants to continue at a Success Academy middle school in the same borough next year can do so,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman said in a statement.

You can Moskowitz’s letter to the mayor here.

money matters

Haven’t heard of participatory budgeting? Voters approved it on Tuesday — and here’s how it can bring millions to New York City schools.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right, sit in the school auditorium, which was renovated with funds won through participatory budgeting.

When a city councilman told Laura Espinoza she could win thousands of dollars for her local schools through a process called participatory budgeting, the mother of four was skeptical it could be true.  

Then she thought about a recent experience volunteering in her daughter’s Sunset Park school, where she watched the deep disappointment of a boy who lost a class project on an outdated laptop that abruptly died.

Espinoza decided to put together a proposal, working with teachers and administrators, to fund technology upgrades for P.S. 24, as well as other schools in the district, including her son’s middle school at the time, Sunset Park Prep. She was amazed when her son’s assistant principal called to say their project had won a share of almost $700,000 to be divided among schools.

“I said, ‘Wow! That’s what we were able to do?’” Espinoza remembers.

More New York City parents could have similar experiences at their schools after voters on Tuesday passed a ballot referendum that calls for participatory budgeting to expand to every council district. It’s a concept many New Yorkers may never have heard of but allows everyday parents and even students to steer millions of dollars to their communities, including their schools.

As it stands now, council members choose to participate in the process, dedicating at least $1 million of their discretionary budgets for the public to spend. Residents gather ideas through a formal process, and the proposals are put to a vote. Children as young as 11, or those who are in at least the sixth grade, can cast ballots — as well as anyone else who lives in the district. Projects with the most votes get funded.

Participatory budgeting has been a lifeline for Sunset Park Prep, a school that serves mostly children from low-income families and is nestled on a few floors of a 100-year old building. Principal Jennifer Spalding estimates the process has pumped $1.8 million into her school over the past five years.

“There’s no single source of money I can think of that would replace that amount,” she said. “It’s allowed us to do projects I never thought would be possible.” 

Since her first foray into the process, Espinoza has dedicated countless hours to drum up ideas and voters to support projects for schools in her community. She’s not alone in council District 38, which is overseen by Councilman Carlos Menchaca. Spanning immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the district last year tallied the most votes for participatory budgeting projects.

Many of those voters are school parents like Espinoza, who have turned to the process to fill resource gaps in their children’s classrooms — raising the kind of money that would be the envy of PTAs in more well-off schools but also challenging stereotypes about how involved immigrant parents and those of more modest means are in their neighborhood schools. Across the city, surveys show that participatory budget voters are more likely to be among the very poor, Hispanic, or come from communities who can’t participate in regular elections.  

“For me participatory budgeting, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, as someone who feels like she doesn’t have a voice in this country, changed my life,” Espinoza said. “Though we can’t vote, though we can’t give money that families and professionals in Park Slope can, we can give something too — and it’s not a small thing. They are things that change the lives of children.”

Principal Jennifer Spalding speaks fondly of the century-old building that houses Sunset Park Prep middle school, which features long windows and soaring ceilings. But with age comes plenty of capital needs — and not always the kind that are a top priority in a city where the average school building was constructed in 1948.

Rich red curtains hang in the auditorium, where the sound system will soon get a makeover. The gym sports a shiny wood floor and freshly painted walls. In science classrooms, there are brand new cabinets and the sinks now work. A metal cart houses dozens of sleek MacBook Air laptops in a multimedia room stuffed with new tables and a smart board. All were paid for through participatory budgeting.

The process is especially important for schools like Spalding’s, where the parent organization is focused more on building community than raising dollars. The school relies on $3 tickets to dances to help fund field trips, while other nearby schools throw fancy galas and pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A new city council bill will track those disparities by requiring the education department to collect and report PTA fundraising.)

For Spalding, the value of these badly-needed infusions goes beyond dollars. Students get their first taste of civic engagement by participating in voting during a school day. They feel a sense of empowerment when their school benefits. And they see the tangible benefits of their votes — and that they’re worth investing in.

“It adds so much value to our students’ lives,” she said. It sends a message that, “this is a place worth being, and a place of value.”

Not everyone supported expanding the process — at least not in the way the city ballot measure calls for. It creates a commission that would oversee voter initiatives, including a wider roll-out of participatory budgeting. A majority of members will be appointed by the mayor, prompting some to call the initiative an unnecessary expansion of mayoral power. Others have cautioned that participatory budgeting may not be as inclusive as it appears.

After seeing its power in his own district, Menchaca lent his support to the ballot initiative.

Before Menchaca was a city councilman, he worked in the Brooklyn borough president’s office managing capital projects. Though he saw many positive improvements being made, he was confounded by how opaque the process was, and how removed projects often seemed from what people really wanted. Then he became a city councilman.

“Participatory budgeting was like this ‘aha’ moment —  this eureka moment where it shifts the balance of power,” Menchaca said.

He made the process the centerpiece of how he does city business. When Menchaca meets a new constituent, he starts the conversation with participatory budgeting: “Do you have an idea about how to make your community better? Great,” he says.

His open invitation was met by organized and motivated parents who saw deep needs in local schools, but sometimes lacked the ability to give from their own pockets. Through countless public meetings, with steady translation services to reach the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in the district, parents were quickly won over.

“This was the first time parents had an idea for a concept and could fund it themselves,” Menchaca said.

Last year, more people voted for participatory budgeting projects than they did in the district’s primary election. Menchaca dedicated $2.5 million to the process last year — and often ends up spending most of his discretionary budget on other ideas that just missed the cut.

But the process is also a reminder of the scale of need that parents see in their neighborhood schools. It’s a challenge the district will have to overcome if a new school integration plan is to succeed. Approved in September, the plan changes the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 15, which overlaps Menchaca’s district. Advocates say the diversity push will have to go beyond attempts to simply move students around, and also to tackle inequities that continue to exist within individual schools.

While many in his district see participatory budgeting as a game-changer for schools, it can only go so far to fill resource gaps. The process only divvies up money for capital projects like building repairs and park renovations. It can’t pay for programming like an arts class or after-school robotics club or fund salaries for extra helpers in the classroom.

Those are the kinds of holes that Espinoza says will need to be filled if the district is to meet its integration goals. The city is dedicating $500,000 to implement the plan, part of which will go towards new resources for schools. Advocates also called for an analysis of available programming.

“We’ve been alleviated a little with these projects,” Espinoza said. “But more is needed”

unified enrollment

As Memphis parents struggle to find information about schools, one parent group is calling for a simpler enrollment system

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
A Memphis Lift rally in 2017.

Memphis parent Leisa Crawford didn’t have time to look through dozens of websites and zig-zag hundreds of miles around town to find a school for her child.

So she relied on word-of-mouth.

“When you live here in Memphis … you don’t go on the website,” she told members of parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift earlier this year. “We heard about KIPP, Snowden — OK, we’re going there. Or it’s a neighborhood school and we don’t even look past that.”

Parents have found it difficult to get information about schools because there are so many types to choose from compared to 20 years ago. So Crawford and dozens of parents like her are calling for a simpler way to access information about the more than 200 schools in Memphis.

Memphis Lift third annual parent summit
  • What: Parents in the Memphis area and beyond will gather to talk about education issues including unified enrollment. Panel discussions will include local district leaders as well as parents from Indianapolis, Chicago, Denver, and Washington, D.C. to share their ideas.
  • When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27
  • Where: Perea Elementary School, 1250 Vollintine Avenue

They hope a process called “unified enrollment” will help them make sense of their choices and get their children into their favorite school. In unified enrollment, each family across the city would fill out a common application listing their top choices. They would then submit those choices electronically by a deadline that is the same for every parent. Often, information about schools is included on the application website.

Memphis schools have been segregated for decades. Currently, parents who are white, well-connected, and affluent have a better chance of getting into the best schools. They have more time to research, and so are more informed about school offerings, quality, and application deadlines.

But parents from low-income families, who are mostly people of color, often have less flexible schedules because lower paying jobs do not offer many opportunities for parents to take off from work to look for schools. This means they often miss school application deadlines — and better schools tend to fill up long before then.

“Over the years, we’ve talked with parents and grandparents who are frustrated with their neighborhood schools and are drowning in the process to enroll their children in high-performing schools,” said Sarah Carpenter, Memphis Lift’s executive director.

“They know their babies are not getting the education they deserve, but parents can’t always find a solution,” she continued. “The truth is, when parents can’t get access to quality schools, then real school choice doesn’t exist.”

A handful of cities see unified enrollment as a way to solve that problem, including Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C. The program in Detroit never happened because of a toxic political environment, poor planning, and bad timing. Newark’s got off to a rocky start, but enjoys almost unanimous support from parents who use it.

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Tents line the grounds outside of Shelby County Schools’ central office in 2016 in Memphis, where parents have camped out every January in recent years to apply for select optional schools. The application process moved completely online in 2018.

Simplifying how parents enroll their children in Memphis schools is already in progress. Shelby County Schools now allows parents to apply and transfer to schools online — including its sought-after optional schools that require students to score well on tests. The district enrolls about 80 percent of Memphis public school students; the other 20 percent are charter schools or schools run by the state.

Unified enrollment has been floated twice before in Memphis — once in a 2015 report commissioned by the Achievement School District, and again during meetings last year , between Shelby County Schools and its charter sector. But talks haven’t gone far.

The 2015 report by the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice included interviews with school leaders, education advocates, parents, and philanthropists, and said the city is ripe for unified enrollment.

National philanthropies have widely supported unified enrollment because they want traditional districts and charter sectors to collaborate on the process, and not compete with each other for students. To avoid claims of bias, some cities have brought in a third-party to manage the system.

Critics say unified enrollment unfairly helps the charter schools that otherwise wouldn’t have as big a platform to advertise their programs. Supporters say the benefits of unified enrollment outweigh the issues. Though many policymakers have called for changes in their unified enrollment systems, few have called to scrap them entirely.

Shelby County Schools’ application process would be combined with charter and state-run schools, which is a tough sell because the district sees those schools as competitors. School board members said as recently as this summer that charter schools are a significant financial burden that state lawmakers should help alleviate.

Still, district leaders’ interest has grown in recent years.

One of Shelby County Schools’ own, Sharon Griffin, has taken the reins at the state-run district. Griffin is known for her collaborative leadership. Her new role could help bring more cooperation between the state-run district and the local district and make unified enrollment more likely. But this is just one of many thorny issues for the two districts to sift through, including sharing student information, and managing crumbling facilities.

Last year, Shelby County Schools was more open to unified enrollment as part of a larger effort to educate parents on their choices, and even sent out a survey to charter operators to gauge interest.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Natalia Powers

“There is some interest,” said Natalia Powers, who oversees community engagement for the district, during a meeting last year on the issue. “Of course there are some questions about who would manage it, the funding, and all the logistic implications that go along with that. There is interest on both ends to have conversations about what that could look like.”

Ultimately, she said the parent’s interest should be top of mind as leaders consider a unified enrollment system.

“It’s not about the school leader,” she said. “It’s about ease and accessibility to parents.”

The change could help school operators too, said Carpenter, the parent advocate. Schools could track parent preferences more easily and give operators a better idea of how many students they will enroll. But the real winners would be parents, she said.

“Access and choice are different,” she said. “We have choice but we don’t have access to choice.”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.