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Despite state law, Bronx charter school tests students for entry

A South Bronx charter school is screening children for admission based on their performance on academic tests, according to parents and several current and former employees of Academic Leadership Charter School.

As a charter school, Academic Leadership is required by New York state law to admit students through a random lottery. But multiple parents and staff members described a process designed by the school’s director to weed out low-performing students.

Four parents who tried to enroll their children at Academic Leadership, an elementary school, this year or last year said that school employees tested their children before deciding whether or not to accept them.

“They took my son to a class to watch him in the class and see if everything was okay. He was in the class an hour,” said Khalilur Munshi, describing his experience with the school this winter.

Dissatisfied with his neighborhood school, Munshi had taken his son, a second-grader, to Academic Leadership to try to enroll him in the middle of the school year. An employee told him that the second grade had open slots and no waiting list, and then his son was taken to sit in on the class, Munshi said.

When his son returned, a staff member told Munshi that there actually was a waiting list and that school officials would let him know if a spot opened up.

“I could tell they weren’t going to take my son,” he said. After the visit, he called the school three times to check on the status of the waiting list and never heard back.

Several former and current school employees said that the school’s director and founder, Norma Figueroa-Hurwitz, a long-time New York City educator, orders teachers to test applicants in order to admit the most advanced students. The employees all asked to remain anonymous out of concern that speaking on the record would jeopardize their careers in education.

Reached by phone, Figueroa-Hurwitz denied that students were tested before they were admitted and declined to answer further questions. The same day, her husband and the school’s co-founder, Ted Hurwitz, called GothamSchools to respond on Figueroa-Hurwitz’s behalf. He said that the school tests students only after they have been admitted through the lottery for the purpose of “placement.”

Asked why parents would say otherwise, he said, “I don’t know why. I don’t understand that. We do anything and everything we can. We might do that to get a head start, but I can’t understand that personally.” Hurwitz said that he now spends one day a week at the school.

Figueroa-Hurwitz and Hurwitz founded Academic Leadership in 2009 with a charter authorized by the New York City Department of Education. Before founding Academic Leadership, Figueroa-Hurwitz ran the Sisulu Walker Charter School in Harlem and worked for 23 years as principal of P.S. 83 in East Harlem.

Academic Leadership currently serves students in kindergarten through second grade. Students will not take the state’s annual math and reading exams until next year, when the school plans to add a third grade. Employees described an atmosphere of constant teacher turnover and instability.

This year, parents entered their children’s names in the school’s lottery just as they would for any other charter school, and Academic Leadership then held a lottery. The process deviated, however, after the school sent out letters with the results of the lottery. Rather than telling families who’d been wait-listed that a spot had opened up, Academic Leadership officials called some families and asked them to bring their children to the school, current and former employees said.

The parents interviewed said that they were told to bring report cards and children’s work from other schools. At the school, children were taken to a classroom with a teacher and asked to read a passage and do math problems. In other cases, the parents said that their children sat in on a class. Parents said that after the tests, their children were either offered a seat at the school or the parents were told that the school would call them if something opened up.

Most charter schools take a week or two to let parents know the results of their lotteries. Academic Leadership did not share the full results of this year’s lottery, which was held on April 13, until a month later. On May 12 — two days after Figueroa-Hurwitz left a phone message at GothamSchools saying that she had heard that a reporter was asking questions about her school — parents received letters informing them that their children had been wait-listed.

Asked about the delayed response, Hurwitz said that it was due to the school’s spring break. “I looked into the problem of the time lag for the parents to receive their letters and I realized that the Easter Holiday ( Spring Recess ) started right after our Lottery and the school was cloed [sic] for 13 days,” he wrote in an email.

In fact, the date printed on the letters falls during the spring break period advertised on the school’s web site. The letters were dated April 22; according to the web site, the break stretched from April 18 to April 26.

The admissions practices described by parents and school employees appear to contradict the purpose of charter schools outlined in New York’s charter school law. The law, first passed in 1998, orders charter schools to put a “special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are at-risk of academic failure.”

Nationally and in New York City, a central debate about charter schools is whether they enroll numbers of low-performing students that are comparable to the traditional schools around them. Critics accuse the schools of either deliberately or inadvertently “creaming” — skimming off stronger students with more dedicated parents.

One parent who applied this year, Laura Bennett, said that an Academic Leadership teacher tested her son this Monday after school officials asked her to come in so that she could get a sense of the building. When she arrived, instead of being given a tour of the school, Bennett said that a teacher sat with her son in a classroom and asked him to do math problems and read from a passage.

“She was seeing that everything was viewed the right way and he understood the story,” Bennett said. “I wanted a spot in the school so bad that I really didn’t think [anything] of it.”

It’s unclear whether all admitted students took a test before they were enrolled. Three families of incoming kindergarteners who were walking out of the school on Monday said that their children had not been given a test.

One parent, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear that Figueroa-Hurwitz would retaliate against her child, said that her son enrolled at Academic Leadership in the middle of last school year. She said that when she called the school to try to enroll her son, she was told that she should bring him in for an interview. She was asked to bring his report card and previous school work.

“The teacher and my son went in the room and she had him do a couple of math problems,” the parent said. “Then she came out and said, ‘Well, if you want to, he can start on Monday.'”

Another parent, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that she inquired about putting her son in Academic Leadership’s kindergarten last school year.

“I wasn’t even informed there was a lottery,” she said. “I got a letter saying he was wait-listed. Then I got a call saying there was a spot available and he had to be tested.”

Several former employees said that Figueroa-Hurwitz determines admissions to the school based on the results of the tests and whether she personally likes the parents. The former employees said that the pressure to perform well on tests continues after students are enrolled.

“She [Figueroa-Hurwitz] tries to get the really low students, the students who struggle more, [out of the school],” said a former teacher. “She tries to discourage the parents and upset them and get them to leave.”

Paulette Williams, the mother of a first-grader at Academic Leadership, said that she tried to run the school’s parent association until this year, when her daughter began acting out in class and her relationship with Figueroa-Hurwitz soured.

“She told me the same thing she told other parents: if you don’t feel comfortable here, you can always [move] your daughter somewhere else,” Williams said. “And I felt offended by that because I was working so hard to make sure the parents were comfortable and everything was going well.”

Like most New York City charter schools, Academic Leadership is supposed to give preference to the siblings of already-enrolled students. Hurwitz said that the school is still deciding whether to admit one parent’s younger child, although the parent’s older child is already enrolled as a student.

“We’re working on one person,” Hurwitz said. “It’s an internal school type of problem. Otherwise, we’re perfectly compliant.”

Hurwitz would not give a reason for not admitting the younger sibling.

Reached by phone, Academic Leadership Board Chairman Nick McNickle said that he had never heard of the school testing students before admitting them.

“I know that Ted Hurwitz is of 100 percent integrity, so I’m quite confident that he handled the lottery following all proper New York State and New York City Board of Education protocols,” McNickle said.

Responsibility for charter schools’ performance and management ultimately rests with the state education department. Previously, troubled charter schools authorized by the New York City Department of Education, as Academic Leadership was, have been put on probation.

Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Education, said that the city is beginning to examine “a number of issues” at Academic Leadership.

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