DSC_0100edit
Students read books at the UFT Charter School, which narrowly escaped closure today. The struggling school will be allowed to stay open for at least another two years.

The UFT Charter School received a two-year lifeline today, thanks in part to a city policy that the teachers union has opposed in the past.

The Department of Education’s proposal to move the school’s struggling middle grades under the same roof as the elementary school next year was an important reason that authorizers voted to renew the school’s charter for two more years, state officials said today. The school now faces an automatic “death penalty” in 2015 if academic performance doesn’t improve.

“I don’t want to have another round of this,” said Joseph Belluck, chairman of SUNY’s Charter Schools Committee. “Now is their time to show they can do this.”

The UFT Charter School was already open on a probationary basis, and years of low student performance, organizational dysfunction, and financial distress left its future in doubt. A report by SUNY CSI reviewers released last week detailed those struggles but — unusually — did not include a recommendation for whether committee members should vote to keep the school open or close it down.

Today, the three-person committee led by Belluck voted reluctantly to keep the school open. Committee members said the school’s middle grades did not deserve to stay open, but they said that closing the middle school would have left a “donut hole” between the higher-performing elementary school grades and the relatively new high school grades, where achievement is less clear.

Before their vote, they discussed some of the improvement plans that the school has going forward, including a move to consolidate the elementary and middle schools in the same public school building.

Currently, the schools are separated by about a mile, and school administrators have argued that being separated has held back the middle school’s ability to improve. Consolidating the locations would reduce high attrition between fifth and sixth grades and foster more collaboration between teachers at the two school levels, they said.

“The school indicates that … a K-8 program at that campus will address the problems that the middle school has had academically,” said Susan Miller Barker, who is not part of the committee but attended the meeting because she oversees school reviews for the SUNY Charter School Institute.

The argument puts the union in a potentially uncomfortable predicament. The union has been critical of many charter school co-locations, arguing that they unfairly take away space from district schools. In 2011, it unsuccessfully sued the city to reverse its charter school co-location plans for the upcoming school year. More recently, UFT President Michael Mulgrew has lobbied mayoral candidates to support a moratorium on co-locations, singling out charter schools in particular.

In a statement today, Mulgrew, who serves on the school’s board, said he was pleased with the renewal decision. ”We are happy to see that the SUNY authorizers have recognized the many successes of our charter school, and have given the school the chance to build on those successes during the next two years,” he said.

A UFT spokesman said the union was not uniformly opposed to all charter school co-locations. ”Our objections have been to co-locations where there isn’t enough room and/or community opposition,” Dick Riley said.

It’s unclear how J.H.S. 292, the district school that currently shares space with the UFT Charter Elementary School, feels about the city’s plans to move additional grades into the building. According the city plans, the building’s utilization rate would increase from 70 percent to more than 90 percent, meaning that access to classrooms and shared space such as the gymnasium, auditorium, and cafeteria would be less flexible.

When reached on the phone this afternoon, Principal Gloria Williams Nandan declined to comment. But she said she would be speaking about the co-location plan at a public hearing on Wednesday. The Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the proposal March 11.

The renewal decision was criticized by StudentsFirstNY, which is aligned to Mayor Bloomberg on education issues and is a frequent critic of the union’s role in education.

“The decision to allow the UFT Charter School to remain open for another two years is yet another example of politics coming before the interests of our kids,” said StudentsFirstNY spokeswoman Chandra Hayslett.

The renewal also drew criticism from charter school advocates, who have characterized repeated short-term renewals as anathema to the charter movement’s philosophy of flexibility in exchange for tough accountability.

Greg Richmond, CEO of the National Alliance of Charter School Authorizers, which has called on states to crack down on low-performing charter schools, said that short-term renewals were often a way for authorizers to protect themselves politically. It can appease parents and the school community that doesn’t want to see the school closed, while simultaneously keeping up a false perception of heightened accountability.

“I think a lot of times these short-term renewals are something that makes the the [authorizer] comfortable,” Richmond said. “They can have their cake and eat it too.”