Future of Schools

Low-performing Memphis charter schools get second chance

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Chancellor R. Lemoyne Robinson stands outside the charter school he founded in 2004. The school will remain open next school year.

The same month they were slated to close their doors forever due to low academic performance, three Memphis charter operators received notice from Shelby County Schools that their schools will remain open for the upcoming school year.

City University School Boys Preparatory, Southern Avenue Middle School, and Omni Prep Academy Lower and Middle Schools are on the priority list of the state’s 5 percent of worst performing schools, making their closure mandatory this summer under a 2014 state law. However, a new law passed this year by the legislature gave districts discretion in deciding whether the schools should remain open for now.

“In light of the recent change in legislation that amended [the 2014 law], this letter is to notify you that district will not be pursuing the closure of your schools this year,” said Bradley Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and innovation, in a May 7 letter to school administrators.

The news was cause for jubilation for the Memphis schools, which lost students and faculty following the district’s confirmation in December that it would comply with the 2014 law.

“Regardless of the prior [loss] of faculty, staff and scholars due to the district’s announcement of closure earlier this year, I am excited that we will be afforded an opportunity to continue to move the academic needle amongst our scholars at City University School Boys Preparatory,” said founder and Chancellor R. Lemoyne Robinson.

Under the new law, district-authorized charter schools now have until 2017 to get off the state’s priority list before state-ordered shutdown. However, local school boards still have authority to close a charter for poor performance before 2017.

Omni founder Cary Booker, who lobbied for the revised legislation, said the policy change should be seen as a necessary clarification, not a second chance for the beleaguered schools. “I see it as the law is now aligned with its original legislative intent,” Booker told Chalkbeat.

The reversal does not please everyone, however.

“Our perspective is that schools that are not performing don’t need to continue operating, but this decision is ultimately the decision of the authorizer.” said Emily Lilley, director of policy at the Tennessee Charter School Center, an advocacy group based in Nashville.

On TCAP tests in 2013-14, less than 15 percent of students earned proficient reading language scores at City University; under 27 percent at Omni Middle; 11 percent at Omni Lower; and about 23 percent at Southern Avenue Middle.

The schools now have opportunity to improve their performance before the state releases its next priority list in 2017.

“This will give you additional time to address identified weaknesses and make any necessary revisions to your academic programs,” Leon said in his letter.

Administrators say they are responding proactively.

At City University, students have all been assigned summer reading and homework, and the school will remain open during break for students needing assistance. Parents also have become more involved in their children’s education after learning the school was scheduled for closure. “The effects were grave, so it did not go unnoticed,” Robinson said.

Leon said the district will monitor the schools’ performance and is developing new tools to evaluate and hold charters accountable in the future. “Having these standard performance metrics will both highlight our top-performing charter schools and inform accountability measures when charters are not meeting expectations,” he told Chalkbeat.

Administrators from Southern Avenue Middle School did not immediately respond to Chalkbeat’s request for comment.

You can read a copy of Leon’s letter in full here.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.