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UFT Charter School makes its case as renewal decision nears

The reviewers who will help decide the UFT Charter School’s fate have seen the data, observed classroom instruction and studied its operations. On Thursday night, they heard from students, teachers and parents.

“It hasn’t always been easy,” said Brian C. Saunders, speaking about his autistic eighth grade son, who has been at the school since first grade. “Sometimes it’s been difficult, but along every step of the way he’s grown. He’s matured.”

Saunder’s son has a longer tenure than most of the adults in his school, which has undergone four leadership changes since 2009 and a turnover of 30 teachers in 2011. During and after those years of disarray, the school faltered, test scores plummeted, and was found to be in violation of federal law for providing inadequate services to students learning English, according to a report released earlier this year.

School officials say that there is strong evidence that the school was improving and on Thursday Saunders and two dozen others spoke about those changes.

“Numbers don’t always tell the story,” said board chair Evelyn DeJesus.

It might not make much of a difference. In New York State, charter schools must get permission from their authorizing body when its charter expires, a term that lasts five years or less. The board of trustees of the State University of New York, which originally authorized the school to open in 2005, will make its decision early next year. Renewal decisions are “heavily based on academic results,” according to the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, which makes recommendations to the board.

On paper, the chances for renewal don’t look good at a time when the national charter sector is calling for authorizers to crack down on low-performing charter schools. The school’s student academic performance, which the SUNY Charter School Institute factors heavily into its report, has continued to lag even after it was served with a probationary extension in 2010.

The renewal decision will be under a microscope for another reason. As GothamSchools reported in October, the school was opened to prove a point:

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.

SUNY, considered a national model in charter authorizing, will be issuing renewal reports for 13 schools this school year, and the UFT Charter School is the only one whose students perform worse on average than their district counterparts, even though UFT’s student population is less needy.

The decision for SUNY comes at a time when charter school advocates are calling for authorizers to close more schools that are low performing. Last month, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a member organization that represents charter authorizers, announced that it would push more of its members to “be more proactive in closing failing schools and opening great ones.”

On Thursday, school officials made a case for why the school wasn’t as bad as some of the data showed. Students in the elementary grades have actually performed better than the district average. One official said they could have scored even higher had it not for a classmate’s sudden death as testing began last April.

“We had to come in, and the fifth graders were on the floor crying,” said Executive Director Shelia Evans-Tranumn. “It was devastating and their scores reflected it.”

Evans-Tranumn, who was brought in to stabilize the school in 2010, said the school was headed in the right direction. Last year, the middle and high school grades did not have a system for identifying and serving high-needs students. Evans-Tranumn said that teachers are now regularly intervening when students fall behind.

“We’re in a constant improvement stage, where when we see something that’s not quite working for students, then we examine what it is we’re doing and try to offer them something better,” she said.

Asked if she felt confident in the school’s current principals, Michelle Boddin-White in the elementary school and Martin Weinstein in the secondary schools, Evans-Tranumn said she was not ready to make a final evaluation.

“I think part of what happens is that people get locked into positions based upon what they did last year,” Evans-Tranumn said. “I don’t think that’s how schools should run. We should look at, what are the goals this year? You don’t want the school to stay the same as last year.”

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