The Academic Leadership Charter School, founded in 2009, is housed inside Mother Hale Academy, a district school in the South Bronx.
A South Bronx charter school is screening children for admission based on their performance on academic tests, according to parents and several current and former employees of Academic Leadership Charter School.
As a charter school, Academic Leadership is required by New York state law to admit students through a random lottery. But multiple parents and staff members described a process designed by the school's director to weed out low-performing students.
Four parents who tried to enroll their children at Academic Leadership, an elementary school, this year or last year said that school employees tested their children before deciding whether or not to accept them.
"They took my son to a class to watch him in the class and see if everything was okay. He was in the class an hour," said Khalilur Munshi, describing his experience with the school this winter.
Dissatisfied with his neighborhood school, Munshi had taken his son, a second-grader, to Academic Leadership to try to enroll him in the middle of the school year. An employee told him that the second grade had open slots and no waiting list, and then his son was taken to sit in on the class, Munshi said.
When his son returned, a staff member told Munshi that there actually was a waiting list and that school officials would let him know if a spot opened up.
"I could tell they weren't going to take my son," he said. After the visit, he called the school three times to check on the status of the waiting list and never heard back.
Several former and current school employees said that the school's director and founder, Norma Figueroa-Hurwitz, a long-time New York City educator, orders teachers to test applicants in order to admit the most advanced students. The employees all asked to remain anonymous out of concern that speaking on the record would jeopardize their careers in education.
Reached by phone, Figueroa-Hurwitz denied that students were tested before they were admitted and declined to answer further questions. The same day, her husband and the school's co-founder, Ted Hurwitz, called GothamSchools to respond on Figueroa-Hurwitz's behalf. He said that the school tests students only after they have been admitted through the lottery for the purpose of "placement."
Asked why parents would say otherwise, he said, "I don’t know why. I don’t understand that. We do anything and everything we can. We might do that to get a head start, but I can’t understand that personally." Hurwitz said that he now spends one day a week at the school.
Deputy Commissioner John King, who will soon become commissioner, said that for a teacher to earn a rating of developing, effective, or highly effective, there should be some evidence of student progress on state tests.
Introducing a new option for how to change teacher evaluation, the Board of Regents voted today to allow districts and unions to increase the weight of student test scores on those evaluations to 40 percent.
According to the law passed last summer, which changed how teachers in New York State are evaluated and introduced their students' test scores as an element for consideration, state tests would count for 20 out of 100 points. Another 20 points would come from local assessments, which school districts could devise on their own. Yet the set of regulations approved in a vote this evening will allow school districts, with the approval of teachers unions, to count students' progress on state tests for 40 points of a teacher's evaluation score.
The board voted 14 to 3 to approve the regulations. Regents Betty Rosa, Roger Tilles, and the board's newest member Kathleen Cashin, voted against the proposal.
The increased emphasis on students' progress on standardized tests turned up in the final draft of regulations after Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped into the discussions last week. In a letter to Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, the governor said he believed that students' scores on the annual math and reading tests should carry more weight in the evaluation of their teachers. Mayor Bloomberg agreed, saying that an earlier draft of the regulations did not place enough importance on the tests.
Yesterday, a group of 10 prominent education researchers sent the Regents a letter asking them not to place more weight on value-added scores, which measure students' progress on tests against that of similar types of students.
If Governor Andrew Cuomo angered Mayor Bloomberg by batting off his calls to end seniority-based layoffs, perhaps the governor redeemed himself in the mayor's eyes today. Cuomo sent the chancellor of New York's Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, a letter saying he believes that student test scores should count for a larger portion of teachers' annual evaluations.
His comments are a critique of a set of regulations put out by the Board of Regents that they will vote on next week. The regulations are to be used by New York City and other districts as a guide to implementing the state's new teacher evaluation system.
In a statement today, Tisch vowed to support Cuomo's recommendations at the meeting next week, saying that they "will lead to an even stronger teacher and principal evaluation system for New York." It's not clear if the other members of the board will agree with Tisch. A recent appointee to the board, the former city school official Kathleen Cashin, is a quiet critic of Bloomberg's.
Another hurdle involves getting the teacher evaluations implemented in school districts. The new state law revising the evaluation system granted final power to local collective bargaining talks between districts and unions. That means that no evaluation system will become final without local unions' approval.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew responded to Cuomo's letter obliquely, saying only: "We look forward to discussing the Governor's recommendations with the Regents."
Bloomberg's reaction was more effusive:
“The thoughtful recommendations made today by Governor Cuomo will greatly improve the rigor of these new evaluations, and I am heartened that the Regents agreed to adopt them. But it will take the sustained commitment of all invested parties – and perhaps most importantly, the cooperation of the teachers union – if we are to make this evaluation system a reality.”
Here's Cuomo's complete letter:
Unable to convince the teachers union to let school officials fire principals and teachers at a group of low-performing schools, the city is resorting to a another option: changing the schools' management.
The so-called "restart" option is one of four programs districts can take on in order to win federal grants aimed at improving the country's lowest-performing schools.
City officials announced today that nine public schools will undergo the restart model next year. The plan putting a school under new management — for example, under the guidance of an education management organization like New Visions. A major, and so-far unanswered, question is how this plan will differ from the relationships schools already have with support networks, whose job it is to offer academic and operational guidance. Another question is what organizations would apply to partner with these schools on such short notice.
Three other schools that are eligible for the federal improvement grants will not receive them next year. Plans to overhaul the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Harlem Renaissance High School, and W.H. Maxwell Career and Technical High School, all of which could begin any of the improvement models next year, will be put on hold for another year while the city decides whether to close them or improve them as they are.
Department of Education officials said they intend to announce their plans for 31 other schools that are eligible for the grants tomorrow. Some of those schools will undergo the restart strategy, but the officials did not say how many.
In April, Cynthia Rosario picked up a copy of the New York Times Magazine and began reading its cover story, which chronicled the challenges of a South Bronx middle school and its driven principal.
The story talked about M.S. 223's rising test scores, its extraordinarily challenging students, and how its staff of young, but committed teachers was steadily improving. But all that progress was threatened, the school's principal Ramon Gonzalez believed, by the city's plans to open a charter school in the building next year. His building was already nearing capacity and handing the remaining space to a new school would jeopardize his plan to expand into a high school.
"I kept reading thinking, 'Oh no,'" Rosario said, just waiting to see her school's name mentioned in the role of the villain.
A year ago, when Rosario applied to open a charter school in the South Bronx, she entered the city's opaque space-search process, which nearly pitted her against a high-quality school. When she began, she never imagined the city's Department of Education would look to a school like M.S. 223 for space.
The city and teachers union still have not reached an agreement on how to overhaul more than 30 struggling schools. But city school officials said that, deal or no deal, they will announce those plans at the end of this week.
Though the original due-date for submitting school improvement plans was today, state education officials granted the city's request to postpone the deadline to Friday. That leaves the city and teachers union four days to reach an agreement on which of three federal improvement strategies each of the schools should undergo.
Of the 43 schools that are eligible for school improvement grants, but have yet to begin using them, 31 are waiting to be told if they’ll be transformation, turnaround, or restart schools. Under each of these three plans being considered, schools would receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant money.
A spokesman for the city's Department of Education, Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, said that the city had asked for an extension in part to have more time to negotiate with the union.
Last week, union officials said they were hopeful a deal would be reached by today, but that has not happened.
Though the Kingsbridge Innovative Design Charter School is less than a year old, state education officials have decided they have seen enough of its finances to recommend the school's closure.
In a letter sent to the charter school's founder and board earlier this week, state officials wrote that after putting the school on probation and reviewing its finances, they believe it should close at the end of this year. Ever since the school's delayed opening in September, it has struggled to pay rent and cover the costs of educating its 150 students. According to a report on WNYC, the school laid off 11 teachers it could no longer afford.
Back in April, Julio Cotto, the school's founder and executive director, told the Wall Street Journal that his school did not deserve to be closed.
"Our financial challenges are similar to those of any charter school moving into a private space in the first year," he told the paper.
Officials from the New York State Education Department did not agree. In a letter to Cotto and the school's board, Deputy Commissioner John King and Charter School Office Director Cliff Chuang wrote that they don't believe the school has proved it can stay afloat financially even through the remainder of this school year. Their letter states:
Bloomberg announced his budget today, which continues to propose thousands of teacher layoffs.
Mayor Bloomberg reaffirmed his plans to cut 6,000 teaching jobs in his budget address today and said that even if the state restores some funding, he will not promise use it to avoid teacher layoffs.
The budget for 2012 includes 4,100 teacher layoffs and the loss of an additional 2,000 teaching jobs through attrition. These job losses would amount to an eight percent decrease in the size of the teaching force — from 75,000 teachers down to about 69,000.
If the layoffs become a reality — threats in the last two years never bore fruit — it will be the first time since the 1970s that the city has laid off public school teachers. City officials have previously estimated that these layoffs will save the city roughly $300 million.
In his budget presentation today, the mayor blamed cuts to school spending from the city and state for the impending layoffs. In 2002, the city and state each covered roughly 50 percent of the city's education costs. Next fiscal year, the state will contribute 39 percent and the city will fund the remainder. This year, the city has also lost $850 million in federal stimulus funding for schools.
Days before the deadline to decide how it plans to overhaul low-performing schools, the city is considering going in a new direction.
Over the last year that the city has been deciding which of four federally mandated school improvement strategies to use in these schools, it has only publicly discussed two plans: transformation and turnaround. Both of them call for major changes in school personnel and how schools use time, meaning that both of them have to be negotiated with the teachers union.
But with the deadline for the city to submit its proposal only four days away, and the city yet to reach a deal with the teachers union, the Department of Education is considering a third option.
Known as the "restart" model, the plan involves closing a school and reopening it under new management — either as a charter school or as a district school run by a school management organization (for example, New Visions). Because this plan does not require the city to fire teachers or principals, it can be used without the union's cooperation.
"We would obviously love an agreement on those two models [transformation and turnaround], but we felt we had to cover our bases and be prepared to do restart," said DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld.
After being criticized by parents for bungling the roll-out of parent council elections, the Department of Education is taking heat again for making parents jump through hoops to vote.
For the first time, the website where parents go to vote for candidates in their district is password protected. Although the city sent passwords home in elementary and middle school students' backpacks, some parents who have children in high school said they never got the information. Without it, they can't cast their votes in the Community Education Council elections and, if they're running for a seat on the council, they can't see who their opponents are.
A Department of Education official said the department's Office of Family Information and Action decided to put the list of candidates' names and profiles behind a password for privacy reasons.
President of the Community Education Council in District 1, Lisa Donlan, said she and other parents have not been able to log-on. Although she is running for office Donlan, whose son is in high school, said she can't access the list of 12 candidates running in her district.
Three more schools will begin closing next year, following a vote by the citywide school board last night that brought the total of schools closed this year to 27.
Members of the Panel for Educational Policy voted to close two transfer schools — Pacific High School and the Bronx Academy High School — as well as P.S. 30, an elementary school in Queens. A spokeswoman for the city's Department of education said that, including the decision to shutter Ross Global Charter School, 27 schools will begin closing next year.
It was Chancellor Dennis Walcott's first panel meeting since Mayor Bloomberg named him to the post. Walcott said he hoped to change the tenor of the meetings by answering parents' questions and publicly debating policy issues at a deeper level than his predecessors did.
Walcott began the meeting by walking down from the stage and into the crowd, where he promised parents, teachers, and students that he and his staff would respect them.
"You will never hear me be disagreeable with you," he said. "The one thing we understand is these are emotional issues for you...the approach we’re going to take moving forward is be responsive to those issues even when we don’t agree."
If audience members heard Walcott's plea for civility, they betrayed no signs. The boos and catcalls that have peppered panel meetings for months reappeared last night, as did animosity between charter school supporters and the district schools they will have to share space with next year.
From L to R: Sharon Denson, Vice President; Raj Thakkar, Founder & CEO; Stephen Reid, Vice President; Karen Daniels, Chief Operating Officer
Disenchanted with the corporate world, Raj Thakkar was skimming job openings in 2003 when he found an ad from a charter school looking for a chief financial officer. He didn't have any experience in education, but then again, the charter school barely did either: Explore Charter School was only a year old.
Years later, Explore is a growing charter school network and Thakkar has his own company, Charter School Business Management Inc., that has become one of the most widely consulted financial advisors by New York City charter schools. In a phone conversation yesterday, Thakkar estimated that he'd worked with more than 40 percent of the city's charter schools at one point or another over the last five years.
Yesterday, the New York branch of the U.S. Small Business Administration recognized Thakkar, giving him and his company the New York City Small Business Person of the Year Award.
Thakkar's company is unusual in that he has little competition: few firms do the same sort of work in New York, and none specialize in support for charter schools alone.
The latest city schools official in the running for a top post outside New York is someone who has kept her name out of the headlines. Cami Anderson did this while overseeing the education of some of the city's most challenging students: high school drop-outs trying to earn GEDs, students in prison, and others in drug rehabilitation programs.
Anderson is one of two candidates being considered for the job of Newark schools chief, the Star Ledger reported today.
Appointed superintendent of the alternative schools district, known as District 79, in 2006, Anderson immediately began shaking up the schools under her control. She closed the city's remaining schools for pregnant women, known as P-schools, and overhauled the Department of Education's programs for students studying for the GED exam. As part of a district-wide reorganization, she helped negotiate a deal with the teachers union that required many District 79 teachers to reapply for their jobs.
Yet despite these changes, Anderson has largely worked out of the public eye.
"People have made a lot of comparisons of her and [former Washington D.C. schools chief] Michelle Rhee," said someone who worked for Anderson. "Michelle was this very vocal 'I’m not going to do this with these people anymore' leader, and Cami really took a different route."
A few weeks ago, we reported that a KIPP charter school was threatening to fire most of its teachers in an effort to turn the school around. Today, I caught up with one of the teachers, who said that worries about a mass-firing have been calmed by a new principal's arrival.
According to the teacher, who asked to be anonymous in order to protect her job, teacher morale has improved at the KIPP AMP (Knowledge is Power Program: Always Mentally Prepared) school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Several weeks ago, dispirited teachers said that the majority of their colleagues had been told that they would not have jobs next year.
But since then the school's new principal, Debon Lewis, has told the staff that he's looking to improve the staff rather than replace it entirely.
"Now that Debon is stepping up and playing a more active role as a leader people are feeling more comfortable," the teacher said. "The impression that I get is that people who want to stay are hustling and doing what they have to do to improve."
Two years ago, concerns about teacher turnover were the driving force behind KIPP AMP teachers’ decision to join the teachers union against the will of the school’s board. A year later teachers opted out of union membership, kicking off a prolonged fight in which the United Federation of Teachers accused KIPP of intimidating teachers who wanted to unionize.
Principals who worried that new, toughened state math and English exams would hurt their performance reviews had good reason: Far fewer principals earned high marks from the city last year.
Data on principals' performance ratings, which GothamSchools obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, show that the number of principals who "substantially exceed" expectations fell by roughly 60 percent from 2009 to 2010. (A full list of all principals and how they scored is at the end of this post.)
The decrease parallels a drop in test scores and fewer schools earning "A" grades on their progress reports. The percentage of elementary and middle schools to get A’s on their city-issued report cards fell from 84 to 25 percent — a drop precipitated by more students failing the exams and the city grading schools on a curve.
With fewer principals earning the city's highest rating, more fell into the middle. Principals can earn one of five ratings: does not meet expectations, partially meets, meets, exceeds, or substantially exceeds. The number of principals rated as "exceeding" expectations rose from 465 to 608 and the number who "meet" expectations climbed from 114 to 376.
The number of principals earning substandard marks also rose. In 2009, only five principals were rated "does not meet" expectations, but that number more than quadrupled to 21 in 2010. Even with the increase, the percentage of principals earning the lowest rating is now only 1.4 percent of the 1449 on the city's list.
PHOTO: Sarah DarvilleDennis Walcott visited students at P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn on Monday.
For the second time in three months, New York City officially has a new schools chancellor. State Education Commissioner David Steiner approved a waiver for now-former Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott today, clearing him to run the city's school system, beginning on Monday.
The decision came quickly on the heels of a panel's unanimous recommendation yesterday that Steiner grant Walcott the wavier. Walcott has a masters in education, but because he does not have a school superintendents license, he needed the waiver to become chancellor.
Obtaining the waiver was vastly easier for Walcott than it was for his predecessor Cathie Black. Last November, the eight-member panel that considered whether to give Black a waiver eventually voted against it. Four panel members voted against granting the waiver, two voted in favor, and two voted “not at this time." Steiner told the panel that he also harbored serious doubts about whether Black was up to the task. For several days he agonized over the decision before making a deal with the city that would give Black a waiver on the condition that the mayor appoint a chief academic officer.
In his letter granting Walcott a waiver, Steiner writes that although Walcott does not hold a school superintendents license, he does have other qualifications and experience that make him an appropriate choice for the job. Steinder concludes:
Under Albany's new budget agreement, New York City's school capital plan will regain roughly 12,000 seats — a boon to school officials who expected harsher cuts, but a number that does not meet earlier demand estimates.
In November of last year, city officials estimated that they would need to increase earlier seat construction projections in the face of overcrowding in schools. At the time, they planned for 50,074 new seats to be built by 2014, many of them in elementary and middle schools where demand had ballooned.
Then came a proposal from Governor Andrew Cuomo to cap state spending on school construction aid. The plan would have significantly reduced the state's contribution. To absorb the cut, city officials said they wouldn't be able to build thousands of the seats they had planned on — a decision that would have affected schools in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Riverdale, Bronx, the most.
But now that Cuomo's proposal has not been included in the budget agreement, the numbers have changed again. With $1.7 billion more to spend on school construction, the city can now afford to build about 26,500 seats, instead of the roughly 14,000 it had planned on.
City officials said that more information about which neighborhoods would benefit from the seat construction increase, and which would not feel any effect, would be released tomorrow.
Chancellor-designee Dennis Walcott joined P.S. 261 first graders for a dance and movement class.
On his first visit to a public school since being named Chancellor-designee, Dennis Walcott breezed through Brooklyn’s P.S. 261 like the warm weather soothing the city today. As he strode in, memories of March and his deposed predecessor, Cathie Black, seemed to fade.
He chatted easily with third graders about gardening, read to a class of first graders, and took his turn at kickball during second graders' recess. Dropping in on a dance and movement class, Walcott climbed onstage and, following a teacher's orders, posed like a flower, then like a tree, and then tried to follow along with the class's "alley cat dance" steps.
"I feel like I'm in a commercial," said a first-grade student.
"A commercial?" said Walcott, laughing. "Some people may see it that way."
Over 3,000 soon-to-be kindergarteners are on wait-lists for elementary school this year — a marked increase over last year and one that's hitting schools in Queens and Manhattan particularly hard.
Every spring, in what has become a ritual in recent years, parents register for kindergarten at their nearby elementary schools for the following year ,and every spring, thousands are wait-listed. Department of Education officials said they received 8,000 more kindergarten applications this year than last year. While more than 92 percent of those families have been accepted to their zoned schools, 3,195 of them are still waiting for a placement.
DOE officials emphasized that between now and the end of May the wait list numbers could fluctuate. During the intervening months, some families will move away, enroll their children in private or parochial schools, or win lotteries for charter school admission. Officials said they would open more kindergarten classes where they could find space.
But come the end of May, families who still don't have seats in their zoned schools will be sent new schools to choose from. Last year, nearly 1,000 kindergarteners did not get spots in their zoned schools. Some of the new assignments sent families to less-coveted schools just down the block. Others sent the 5- and 6-year-olds on treks as arduous as a nearly 3-mile hike from Sunset Park to Red Hook, in the case of four unlucky Brooklyn families.
City school officials have underreported the number of students who dropped out of high school in the past by reclassifying some of them, according to a report released by the State Comptroller today.
The report, which comes out of an audit completed by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli's office in January, examines a group of students that are labeled as "discharged," meaning they have left the school system for legitimate reasons, such as moving to another state or deciding to enroll in a G.E.D. program. It finds that some of these students should actually have been labeled as drop-outs, but because of paperwork errors or school officials' failure to follow state regulations in certain cases, they were counted as discharged.
Students who are discharged don't count towards the city's drop-out rate and some advocates have argued that principals can misuse the discharge code, entering students who simply dropped out in order to inflate their graduation rate artificially. Overall, the comptroller's report found that even with the improper discharge classifications taken into account, the city's graduation rate was "generally accurate."
To determine whether the city's Department of Education was improperly classifying drop-outs as discharges, auditors in the comptroller's office examined the records of students who started high school in 2004 and should have graduated in 2008, but were discharged along the way. They randomly chose 500 of the 17,025 general education students who were discharged and 100 of the 1,923 discharged special education students.