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Fahari Academy parents look to de Blasio to keep doors open

Gail Cudjoe had heard about Fahari Academy’s struggles. But when her son won a seat in the school’s fifth grade lottery, she pulled him from their zoned elementary school to start at the grade 5-8 charter school, believing it would be something better.

Four months into the school year, she’s pleased with how her son is doing at the school. But the city isn’t: In November, officials announced Fahari would be the only school it moved to close this year, despite an awkwardly-timed mayoral transition.

For Cudjoe’s son and dozens of other fifth graders, the school’s closure would mean attending their third school in just over a year. So parents and board members are now trying enlist local elected officials to help change Department of Education officials’ minds.

“Where are you going to move them to?” Cudjoe asked, standing outside the school’s auditorium after a meeting this Saturday with city officials there to answer precisely that question.

Fahari’s charter expired on Dec. 15, but received a six-month renewal this week in order to stay open through the end of the school year. But the DOE, the school’s legal authorizer, has no plans to keep it open, citing a litany of academic and stability issues that have dogged the school since its opening in 2009.

The campaign for local political support has worked, to an extent: City Council member Eugene Mathieu has pledged his support, it came too late on Saturday, arriving 30 minutes after officials with the Department of Education left. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew wrote a letter in support for the school, whose teachers are represented by the teachers union, to Brooklyn Regent Lester Young. But Young stayed mum at this week’s Board of Regent meeting when Fahari’s six-month renewal came up for approval.

Supporters say the most important elected official in Fahari’s fight still hasn’t started his job. They hope that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who campaigned against closing low-performing schools, would reverse the city’s decision — though he’s also expressed doubt about helping charter schools.

“We understand that a new mayor and a new chancellor are coming in January 1,” said Fahari’s board chair Jason Starr. “Perhaps with different priorities and values we can have a different outcome.”

De Blasio did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

For now, parents who want the school to stay open are balancing advocacy with an understanding of the reality of the situation. The city has sent parents a list of nearby charter schools to apply to, and several said that they’ve already added their name to waiting lists.

The uncertainty has already compelled some to leave. In the month since the school learned its charter would not be renewed, 11 students have moved to a different school, although school officials said not all of them were related to the non-renewal.

Starr criticized the city’s handling of the authorization process for their charter this fall. An initial renewal agreement that Starr received just hours after they learned Fahari was being closed included the names of board members from a different charter school that faced closure several years ago, Ross Global Academy.

“I wasn’t altogether surprised at that basic mistake,” Starr said referring to renewal letter, “because that’s what this process has been like this entire time.”

At the meeting, Sonia Park, executive director of the Department of Education’s charter school office, declined to comment. Her staff referred questions to the department’s press office, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Regardless of the authorization process, the city has said the school’s academic outlook is bleak. Fahari has never received higher than a C on its progress report, and earned an F this year. On last year’s state tests, Fahari’s scores were 10 percentage points below the Crown Heights an Fl district average in English and four points below in math.

Officials at the school acknowledge the ongoing academic challenges, but points to improvement in areas that the city first flagged more than a year ago. Teacher and student retention are way up and suspension rates are among of the city’s lowest. They also highlight a 30 percent special education enrollment rate as evidence of its commitment to retaining high-needs students.

Radha Radkar, a former Fahari teacher sees things differently. She was an early supporter of the school’s turnaround efforts, but left in June because she said she lost confidence in the school’s direction.

“In my time there, when the school would receive constructive feedback from the DOE on how to improve things, I didn’t feel like there would be an honest effort to really reexamine how to turn the school around,” said Radkar, who is now teaching in higher education.

Parents and school officials said Fahari’s new principal, Stephanie Clagnaz, hired in June, is the perfect person to address the school’s challenges. Under Clagnaz, the school scrapped the school’s reading curriculum because it wasn’t aligned to new learning standards and began using lesson modules posted to the state education department’s curriculum website, EngageNY.org.

Parents said that Clagnaz has created a sense of community at the school, which includes giving out teachers’ cell phone numbers so they can call about homework. Many said they appreciated her presence in the hallways at the start of each day, where she greets students as they come in.

Clagnaz has held several jobs in recent years, the most recent of which was a nine-month stint in Long Island as a curriculum official, according to her LinkedIn page. She also founded and ran Empower Charter School in Crown Heights from 2008 to 2010.

She was also one of five principals who worked at Ross Global before it closed.

“I look at this as a challenge,” Clagnaz said after Saturday’s meeting. Having been at two low-performing charter schools, she said that Ross and Fahari were “worlds different.”

“The board here is 100 percent supportive of the administration and teachers,” she said.