The city teachers union could face a school closure this year that hits uncomfortably close to home.
A decade ago, the early success of some charter schools became a case in point for a larger argument: The absence of a union contract in the schools enabled them to succeed with high-need students, proving that the presence of unions was holding other schools back, charter school advocates said.
Randi Weingarten, then the president of the United Federation of Teachers, opened the UFT Charter School in 2005 to pierce that argument. By posting higher scores, the school would “dispel the misguided and simplistic notion that the union contract is an impediment to success,” she said at the time.
The school got hefty grants from the Broad Foundation, space in two Department of Education school buildings, and a flood of applications from teachers and students alike.
But seven years into its existence, the nation’s first union-run school is one of the lowest-performing schools in the city. Fewer than a third of students are reading on grade level, and the math proficiency rate among eighth-graders is less than half the city average.
On the school’s most recent progress report, released last week, the Department of Education gave it a D and ranked it even lower than one of its co-located neighbors, J.H.S. 166, which the city tried to close last year and now has shortlisted again for possible closure.
The latest bad news comes as the school’s legal right to operate is nearing expiration. This year, the school’s charter authorizer, SUNY’s Board of Trustees, must decide whether to allow the school to remain open.
The renewal process started today with the first of a multi-day visit by reviewers from SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, which makes renewal recommendations to the trustees.
The last time SUNY CSI considered the UFT Charter School, it issued only a three-year charter renewal instead of the regular five years, citing an “ambiguous or mixed record of achievement.”
Test scores have plummeted since then, the school has cycled through multiple principals, and enrollment is down to just 70 percent of capacity. But union officials say they are optimistic that the school will weather the renewal process.
“I go to that school and I’m very, very happy with what we see,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said last week. “The parents are great, the teachers are doing a good job. We are very happy.”
A document that SUNY CSI submitted to its board last week offered a far bleaker assessment: Of the 13 schools with elementary and middle school grades authorized by the institute up for renewal this year, the UFT Charter School has the worst track record, according to the report.
In fact, according to the report, the UFT Charter School is the only school up for renewal actually performing worse than its district, District 19, as a whole, even though its students are, on average, less needy.
That statistic could doom its chances. Charter schools receive the right to operate free from city bureaucracy in exchange for promising to give students a better shot at academic success than they would otherwise have had. Advocates say a crucial metric is whether students outperform their peers in neighboring schools.
“Where schools don’t meet the standards as established by their authorizers and don’t meet them by a wide margin, it’s clear that in the charter sector the result should be closure,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Schools Center. Merriman was also SUNY CSI’s executive director when the UFT Charter School first received its charter.
If SUNY CSI decides to close the school, it would mark the embarrassing end of Weingarten’s high-stakes bet that teachers can run a school as well, or better, than the Department of Education or other charter school operators, as long as no one is telling them what to do.
But it would be incorrect to conclude that the school foundered because the union contract is too constricting, sources close to the school said.
“You can look across the city and find talented principals working within the four corners of the contract and they have great schools,” said a source familiar with the project who asked to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing ongoing professional relationships.
“It’s not the contract. It’s the quality of the leadership and the management that picked them,” the source said.
In keeping with the school’s philosophy, the union drew principals from its own ranks, giving them the title of “teacher leaders.” To open the elementary school, Weingarten chose Rita Danis, who had been working at the union’s teacher support office. The next year, the union picked Drew Goodman, an assistant principal, to run the secondary school. Neither had led a school before, and within three years, each had resigned amid public clashes with teachers and families.
The union appointed Michelle Bodden, once seen as a possible successor to Weingarten, to replace Danis at the elementary school, where she has remained since 2008. But the secondary school has run through four different principals since 2009.
Its current leader, Martin Weinstein, is a former Department of Education superintendent who resigned after being accused of sexual harassment, according to a lawsuit he filed against the city last year.
“There are other people who we thought should be principal, but nobody wants to take over the job,” said a teacher who left the school last year after working under Weinstein for several months. He said many other teachers also left because they thought the school was in decline.
Even Shelia Evans-Tranumn, a former State Education Department official whom the union hired to supervise the charter school in 2010, said leadership changes had hamstrung the school.
“The number one reason why schools fail is rotation of leadership,” she said. “When you have leaders coming in and out, they’re not able to really get their vision across. It certainly impacted our school.”
Weingarten and Leo Casey, a former UFT vice president who was heavily involved with the development of the secondary school, each declined to comment on the school’s current state. They both said their involvement with the schools had ended years ago, for Weingarten shortly after she resigned as union president in 2009 and for Casey when he left the school’s board in 2011.
But during a panel discussion on a different topic in May, Casey said he was hopeful that the school could get better in the future.
“We’ve had our struggles,” he said. “There is a somewhat mixed academic record that we’re working on and that we think we’re in a position to improve.”
The school’s board seems to be pinning its renewal hopes on the improvement plans, according to a statement from chair Evelyn DeJesus.
“As part of the renewal process, we will be meeting with the SUNY Charter School staff [sic] to discuss the situation at the school, and to talk about the new programs we are instituting — including Saturday remediation and a College Bound program — designed to improve student performance, particularly in the middle school grades,” she said.
Evans-Tranumn said she is “a realist” about the school’s chances of renewal. But she said there are real signs of improvement already. For several years, she said, not a single fifth-grader stayed in the school for sixth grade. This year, 35 students made the transition to the secondary school, which is housed in a different location from the elementary school. And union officials noted that the school is considered “in good standing” with the state after multiple years on a list of schools needing improvement.
“I understand what is before us in terms of the analysis that SUNY will make, but they dont have the whole story,” Evans-Tranumn said, “We plan to do whatever we need to do to tell our story.”
The fact that the school is finishing a three-year renewal could work against it.
“The idea when we established short-term renewals was that thereafter it was a full five years or nothing,” said Merriman. He added, “Further … another full-term renewal wouldn’t be granted where schools simply had plans in place to improve in the future.”
SUNY CSI’s current executive director, Susan Miller Barker, said she could not comment about any individual school because her office is responsible for making renewal evaluations.
But, she said, “we do adhere pretty strictly to our renewal protocol.” The protocol involves examining the school’s performance data and comparing it with the achievement promises it made three years ago, as well as considering the information gleaned from the site visit, she said.
But SUNY CSI has allowed other struggling charter schools to stay open in dramatically different forms. In 2004, it ordered Albany’s New Covenant Charter School to stop serving middle school grades; the school stayed open until 2010. Agreeing to close the secondary school could be one option for the UFT Charter School, whose elementary grades post stronger results.
But Evans-Tranumn said she was optimistic about the middle school’s prognosis. In addition to the higher student retention this year, the union is still working on securing a single space that could house the entire school. Last year, the City Council gave the union $2 million to plan for a potential private space.
Another possibility is to hand the reins over to a different charter operator, similar to what Harlem Day Charter School did in 2011 when it was facing closure. But no formal process exists to make such a transition happen, and even if it did, convincing someone to take over the school would be a hard sell.
“We believe we need the freedoms of a charter to do effective turnaround work,” said Morty Ballen, CEO of Explore Schools, a charter network that this year absorbed the students from a Brownsville elementary school that was closing. Those freedoms, he said, are dependent on not having a collective bargaining agreement like the one the UFT Charter School currently has in place.
And yet another is to play politics, a move that the UFT Charter School is uniquely positioned within the charter sector to make. SUNY’s Board of Trustees is appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose major education initiative, overhauling teacher evaluations, can only happen with the UFT’s cooperation.
Under a timeline that Miller Barker sketched out, the UFT Charter School would find out its renewal recommendation at the same time that Cuomo has set as a deadline for districts and their unions to agree on new evaluation systems. If the union appeals to Cuomo for helping securing a charter renewal, the governor could conceivably consider it expedient to accede.
Whatever the outcome of SUNY CSI’s deliberation, the UFT Charter School is already out of favor with the union’s top brass when they cite examples of successful teacher empowerment.
Weingarten said this week that Green Dot New York Charter School in the Bronx, which opened with a unique union partnership and a “thin contract” that gives teachers some of the rights they would get in a district school, is thriving. Virtually all of the members in its first cohort graduated in four years, she said. She also said the union was participating in school improvement efforts in New Haven, Newark, and Boston.
“We are continuing to see progress and innovation at many teacher-led schools,” she wrote in an email.
And even the teacher who left the UFT Charter School in June said he had not given up on its original mission.
“This school was supposed to be run by the teachers, but it obviously didn’t work out that way,” he said. “If you have the right leadership it could work.”