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SUNY looks for new operator to take over failing charter school

For the first time, SUNY officials are looking to reinvent a struggling charter school with new leadership rather than shutting it down and sending its students elsewhere.

Rather than closing Harlem Day Charter School for its low test scores, the SUNY Charter School Institute is trying to find a new operator to replace the school’s board, administration and staff.

“The key element here is that really the only thing that would remain would be students,” said Jonas Chartock, the institute’s executive director. The idea is that the school’s 240 students would experience less disruption if their school was restructured rather than closed.

The call for applications that SUNY released today does not explicitly name Harlem Day. But that school’s charter is up for renewal this year and its enrollment numbers match those described in SUNY’s document. Harlem Day’s progress report grade this year ranked the school as the 11th poorest-performing elementary or middle school in the city.

Chartock said that when the board realized that its low test scores made its chances for renewal slim, board members said they would rescind their renewal application if SUNY was able to find another board to take over the school.

“I do think that’s an example that other boards can learn from,” Chartock said.

If SUNY goes through with the move, it would be the first time a charter school’s board has voluntarily handed over its charter to a new board and new operator, Chartock said.

But today’s proposal appears to be designed for Harlem Day specifically, rather than as a broad policy shift for failing charters. Chartock said that it’s unclear whether this kind of charter re-start process could eventually be used at other schools.

It’s also unclear exactly how some of the logistics of the shift — like a transfer of the school’s building lease and its finances — would work.

New York Charter Schools Association Policy Director Peter Murphy said that the re-start has the potential to succeed. Harlem Day has struggled academically but does not have problems like safety, conflicts between parents and administration, or mismanagement that have plagued other troubled charters. That makes it more likely that a new operator could pull off a smooth transition, he said.

“Usually when the grades are low, there’s a bunch of other easily identifiable problems,” Murphy said. “That’s not the case here.”

But Murphy expressed reservations that restructuring the school would necessarily be better than shutting it down entirely, especially in a neighborhood like Harlem where many other charter operators provide options for the school’s students. (Andy Rotherham made a similar argument on his blog yesterday.)

Chartock noted that it’s possible the institute would not approve any of the applications it receives to take over the school. In that case, he said, SUNY would proceed with the school’s renewal process and likely recommend against renewing the charter.

The institute released its call for applications today before SUNY’s Board of Trustees have officially approved the move. But Chartock said that the early call was necessary to give potential charter operators enough time to prepare their applications.

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