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Proposed charter schools find backing from deposed principals

Two of the charter schools vying to open next year have the backing of principals from schools the city has moved to close.

One school’s lead applicant is the principal of Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School, which the city this year deemed so low-performing that it should be closed. Another would be led by Evelyn Collins, an arts evangelist who was principal of Manhattan Theatre Laboratory High School when the city school board voted last February to phase it out.

That’s on top of a third school whose board would include a principal who was removed from the district school he ran until 2010.

The three schools are among 23 whose preliminary proposals won their planners an invitation from the State Education Department to submit formal applications to open in New York City. They join another 12 schools that have asked SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute for permission to open in the city.

James Merriman, director of the New York City Charter School Center, said he would not comment on individual school proposals because he was not familiar with them. But he said that opening a charter school is a bad backup plan for school leaders who have stumbled before.

“Anyone who thinks the charter sector will be an easier way to run a successful school, or running a charter school is going to be easy, is in for a big surprise,” Merriman said. “The fact is charters are held to even higher accountability standards than district schools and so I caution anyone who does not have a track record of success in thinking that success will come to them in the charter sector.”

Musical chairs for principals of struggling schools is not new to the city or exclusive to charter schools. Principals of district schools that the city has closed have sometimes wound up with new schools of their own.

One school leader who has found refuge in the charter sector is Jose Maldonado-Rivera, who was removed from Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering in late 2010 after investigators concluded he had an inappropriate relationship with a member of his staff. A year earlier, he had come under fire after a student drowned during an end-of-year field trip that city investigators found had not been supervised adequately.

As the New York Daily News reported in June, Maldonado-Rivera this summer became the founding principal of Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health and Science Charter School in the Bronx. And now he is a member of the “education committee” for another proposed charter school, the Harlem Engineering and Applied Sciences Charter School, according to the school’s letter of intent. Like Columbia Secondary School, HEAS would offer both middle and high school grades and would focus on bringing a challenging science curriculum to a diverse group of students.

Ericka Wala, the principal in charge of Peninsula Prep when the city moved to close it this spring, is the lead applicant behind another proposal, for Bright Futures Academy Charter School. Bright Futures would serve middle school students and offer a curriculum designed to prepare students for the rigorous International Baccalaureate diploma in high school, according to its application. It is being proposed for District 29, in the northeastern corner of Queens.

After the Department of Education said PPA’s test scores were too low to justify its continued existence, families and staff sprung to its defense, saying that the school was a solid option in a neighborhood with few passable schools. A drawn-out court battle means the school is unlikely to close this summer, and Wala said she intends to stay on this fall.

Wala said today that she had started working with other educators on the Bright Futures proposal long before PPA was in jeopardy and that she would join the new school’s board, but not its staff. She said she was driven by a desire to build on the challenging IB curriculum, rare in New York City but more popular in Georgia, where Wala previously worked.

“I wanted to bring that concept to the Queens community,” Wala said about the IB program.

The Bright Futures Academy letter of intent was among three that were withdrawn from this round of consideration because Wala said certain details needed to be tweaked. She said the school would submit an updated letter of intent before the state’s third and final deadline on Sept. 12.

For Collins, winning approval from the state to open Onyx Academy for Performing Arts would mean the realization of a nearly decade-old dream: to build a performing arts school from scratch.

That’s according to Ruth Morrison, a media executive who is on the charter school’s founding board. Morrison said Collins is not yet discussing Onyx Academy with reporters. But she said Collins had been thinking about starting a school since 2003 and began readying the charter proposal after the city decided to close the high school she had been running since 2006, Manhattan Theatre Lab.

Collins had taken over there in 2006 after serving as assistant principal for the arts at Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts. Both schools struggled academically, and last year, the Department of Education moved to close Manhattan Theatre Lab and Wadleigh’s middle school. (Wadleigh was later removed from the closure list at the eleventh hour.)

At Manhattan Theatre Lab’s closure hearing in January, many students praised Collins’s leadership. But some said she had given academics short shrift in her push for excellence in arts.

Despite Manhattan Theatre Lab’s struggles, Collins’s track record is “excellent,” Morrison said today.

According to its charter school proposal, Onyx Academy would open in 2014 as a middle and high school with two separate principals and Collins as the executive director. Like Manhattan Theatre Lab, it would be performance arts-themed and open to any student who applies, regardless of his or her academic or artistic aptitude, according to its proposal. Most other city arts schools require auditions.

It would also accomplish a vision that Collins had begun to sketch out as head of the Onyx Center for the Performing Arts. According to her profile on LinkedIn, a professional social networking site, Collins had since 2008 maintained the center to produce and promote arts that “celebrate the African-American experience for a discriminating audience.” A video that Manhattan Theatre Lab distributed in its defense this winter carried an Onyx trademark. And a Microsoft Word document, published online, that Collins created lists as a central objective “to design a New York State accredited private high school” that Onyx would fund and support.

Information about the production company was removed today from Collins’s LinkedIn page, and a YouTube video about the charter school that Collins promoted on Twitter last month is no longer available. Morrison said she did not know about a previous plan to open Onyx as a private school.

In fact, Morrison said, it’s the flexibility of the charter school model would allow Onyx to succeed where Manhattan Theatre Lab could not. The middle school and high school principals would act as instructional leaders to the teachers, she said, while Collins would handle big-picture, administrative leadership.

Morrison also said that the way students are admitted to charter schools would bring more prepared students. Many of Manhattan Theatre Lab’s students had not applied for the school but instead had been placed there by the Department of Education, she said. In contrast, charter schools select only from students who have opted into an admissions lottery, and Morrison said Onyx Academy’s founders expect all students who apply to have interest in the performing arts — and for admission to be competitive.

“For many of students that came to MTL, that school was not the appropriate setting for them. They weren’t interested in the arts, they weren’t interested in academics, and in many cases, because of their own circumstances they needed resources that the DOE did not provide,” Morrison said. “Generally speaking, when a young person chooses a school to attend, they have some motivation in being there.”

But charter school advocates say research proves that student motivation isn’t the characteristic that causes charter schools to succeed. And Merriman cautioned that the themes underpinning many of the Department of Education’s high schools are less attractive to families seeking charter schools.

When applying to charter schools, “many students may not be interested in the theme at all — what they’re truly interested in is finding a good school,” Merriman said. “The notion that [themed schools] will attract a group of students all of whom are interested in that theme hasn’t necessarily been borne out.”

Planning teams that the State Education Department invited to submit full applications to open new charter schools will have until next month to do so. The state will announce in December which schools will be allowed to open.