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Charter school leaders sound caution about enrollment targets

Eva Moskowitz and her charter school network are objecting to new targets meant to push charter schools to enroll a fair share of students with disabilities and English language learners.

When they revised the state’s charter schools law in 2010, legislators included a requirement that the schools register a “comparable” number of high-needs students. Now the state has proposed a methodology to calculate enrollment targets for charter schools based on how many students attend the school and the overall ratio of high-needs students in each district. Schools that currently enroll too few students with special needs will be required to show at least a “good-faith” effort to enroll more.

But a top official in the Success Academies network said Wednesday that she objected to any such requirement. Setting enrollment targets creates a disincentive for schools to help students get to the point that they no longer need special services, said Emily Kim, general counselor for the Success Academies network.

“For us, our goal is not to hit a number and stay at that number for English language learners,” Kim said. “Our goal is that they learn English, that they perform at the highest levels, and that they graduate from high school college ready and are successful in life.”

“So if our figures go down, we’re proud of that,” she added.

UPDATE: A state education official said the proposed targets would not penalize schools schools if their students are declassified as special education or ELL. Through what’s being called a “three year lag,” schools would get credit for students who had been classified anytime in the last three years. “With the three-year lag, there is little to no chance that there will be a dinging of schools for declassification of a child,” said Assistant Commissioner Sally Bachofer, who helped developed the targets.

Bachofer also said that declassification rates at individual schools, while not a part of the proposed methodology, could be presented during the charter renewal period as a “good faith effort” to serve these high needs students.

Kim was part of a four-person panel recruited by the New York City Bar Association to discuss charter school co-locations.

That topic soon gave way to a discussion of the general merits of the charter school movement. UFT Vice President Leo Casey, Coalition for Educational Justice organizer Zakiyah Ansari, and New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman also sat on the panel, which Inside City Hall host Errol Louis moderated.

Kim said she wasn’t speaking on behalf of the Success network, but a spokeswoman later said Moskowitz agreed with her.

Moskowitz is a critic of the way the state currently tracks ELL students and believes a more telling metric is the rate of students who pass a state proficiency exam for English language learners.

Across the city, many students do not pass the exam even after attending city schools for several years. According to a Success network review, 36 percent of first-graders identified as ELLs in 2003 had not passed the exam seven years later.

Of the nearly 2,500 students who attended a Success school last year, 7 percent were ELLs, according to state data. In some of the districts where the network operates, the ELL rate is twice as high. But in the 2009-2010 school year, 36 percent of students in Success schools tested out of ELL, twice the citywide rate, Sedlis said.

“That is a major problem in this city,” said the spokeswoman, Jenny Sedlis. “Charters should not be forced to replicate the dysfunctions of the district.”

Merriman said special education enrollment targets could run the same risk by incentivizing schools to identify students as having disabilities excessively.

“Special education has been used, unfortunately, sometimes as a tool for discrimination against African American males, as a way to isolate them in self-contained classrooms,” he said. “We don’t want to make normative what we all know is a bad system.”

The charter school center that Merriman runs released a report last month acknowledging that the city’s charter schools don’t serve as many high-needs students as they should. He said during the panel that changing the distribution of students isn’t as simple as it might seem.

“It’s not easy sometime to get ELLS to come in to your school,” Merriman said. “They tend to come in as a community. They want to make sure as a community that their students will be served well.”

Plus, with many city charter schools still scaling up, they lack the kind of specialized teachers to serve even small populations. Some charter schools, such has Achievement First Bushwick, which received a shortened renewal in part because of its struggles, have hired English as a Second Language teachers specifically to serve larger numbers of ELL students that live in the district.

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