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Students wearing blue button down shirts and orange ties sit

Students and faculty at Success Academy Harlem 5 in 2014.

Geoff Decker / Chalkbeat

Charter school demographics coming under fresh scrutiny

When Success Academy Upper West comes up for review this year, officials will likely note that its test scores are among the best in New York state. But it might fall short by another metric: its demographics.

About one in three students qualified as low-income last year, and 3 percent were English language learners. But the school’s share of low-income students should be closer to 50 percent and its English learner population closer to 7 percent, according to state calculations devised to nudge charter schools to serve more high-need students.

Such disparities have been flash points in debates about New York City’s charter schools for years. Lawmakers stepped in five years ago, requiring schools to have targets for enrolling students with disabilities, English language learners, and students from low-income families. The idea was that not making efforts to hit those targets would jeopardize a school’s ability to stay open.

This year, for the first time, schools’ progress toward those goals are being scrutinized. But it appears that state regulators plan to treat the targets as guidelines, not requirements.

“We’re not exactly sure how rigidly we’re going to interpret the targets because there may be some challenges that the schools face,” Joseph Belluck, who chairs the committee that governs SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute, said last week. If a school can’t show it has tried to meet its targets, SUNY will be stricter, he added.

“We hope that they will not say that they’ve done nothing to meet them,” Belluck said. “That would be a problem.”

The Board of Regents, the state’s other authorizer, is taking only a slightly more aggressive tack. In June, Regent Kathy Cashin challenged a recommendation to allow Community Roots, a charter school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to remain open for another five years because it enrolled relatively few low-income students.

“They weren’t in compliance with the law,” Cashin said. “They have great math scores and great reading scores, which is wonderful, but the number of children in poverty are not there.”

Ultimately, Community Roots was given the go-ahead to stay open for a full five years.

The attention to student demographics has added a new dimension to the renewal process, which New York’s charter schools must go through every few years to stay open. In the past, SUNY and the state have focused almost exclusively on a school’s academic outcomes, finances, and factors like whether its board of trustees is functional during that evaluation process.

Regulators aren’t likely to abandon their focus on test scores and other academic data points in evaluating a school’s performance. But the scrutiny comes as debates over whether the city’s charter schools serve their “fair share” of high-needs students have been amplified by top education department officials, including Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and the city’s teachers union, who say that many schools do not.

The latest data show that the city’s charter schools lag significantly behind district schools in serving English language learners and slightly behind when it comes to students with disabilities. And while the vast majority of charter school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 80 percent of charter schools have fewer poor students than their district average, according to a 2012 analysis by the New York City Charter Center.

Community Roots, for example, served fewer than half as many low-income students (40 percent) as its target (86 percent), and also fell below its target for English language learners, though it served twice as many students with disabilities as its target.

Those numbers matter because in New York, charter schools were designed specifically to offer new options for students who would otherwise be required to attend low-performing neighborhood schools. But some charter schools say those targets don’t account for schools with varying missions, and could even offer perverse incentives not to help students shed their classification as an English learners.

When the State Education Department mulled renewing Community Roots for only three years, board chairs Tracey Strauss and Scott Strasser told officials that the school’s relative diversity was intentional.

“This mission to create an integrated Public School is supported by a body of research that demonstrates the many benefits to students and families attending diverse schools,” they wrote, attaching a two-page summary of the research.

Success Academy Upper West is one of three of Success Academy schools whose enrollment and retention numbers will be examined by SUNY when they are considered for renewal. The network has been expanding into higher-income neighborhoods, and founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz has been an outspoken critic of the law.

In 2012, Moskowitz wrote to state education officials that she was worried that her schools’ ability to more quickly test students out of the English language learner program could end up hurting her chances at renewal.

Meanwhile, Success Academy Bedford-Stuyvesant I will likely fall short of some of its targets this year.

According to the state’s calculator, a charter elementary school with a profile similar to the Bed-Stuy school — serving about 550 students in Brooklyn’s District 14 — would have targets of 18 percent students with disabilities, and 14 percent English learners. At Success, 10 percent of students had disabilities and 2 percent were English learners, according to InsideSchools.

“It’s still a one-size-fits-all, rough-and-ready way to do it,” said James Merriman, the head of the Charter Center. “But it is the law, and I think charter leaders are committed to meeting those targets and certainly making good-faith efforts to meet them.”