damned if you do

A school has a year to prove it can do the (almost) impossible

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PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Opportunity Charter School's flags line 113th street in Harlem, where the school shares a building with P.S. 241.

Opportunity Charter School in Harlem is a rare species in the charter school movement.

Its student body is roughly half general education students and half students with learning disabilities. The two groups learn in classes side by side, following the “inclusion” model. And year after year, students entering the school have some of the lowest test scores in the city — a distinction that’s become a point of pride.

“Lowest achieving kids in New York City. Bottom 10 percent,” Opportunity’s assistant principal, Brett Fazio, said in an interview, with the same delight other school administrators reserve for science fair champions.

But the point of Opportunity, as CEO Leonard Goldberg dreamed it up when he was an administrator at a residential school five years ago, is to take the least and make them champions.

That hasn’t been an easy task and as a result, Goldberg’s school is in trouble. In part, this is because it’s a charter school, subject to the demands of the charter school ultimatum: set your standards high and meet them, or else.

At the same time that the combined middle and high school is preparing its first twelfth grade class for graduation, the city has put the school on probation. Opportunity has one year to improve its test scores or it will lose its charter, something that’s rarely happened among the city’s charter schools.

A School on Trial

Walking through Opportunity’s hallways, there’s no sense that the school is on trial. During the first week of class, students were busy learning the school’s rules, teachers were trying to capitalize on the first-week honeymoon, and a crew of affable bouncers patrolled the hallway. Linger too long between classes? Someone will nudge you on your way. Arrive at school irritable and with an empty stomach? Someone who knows what’s going on at home will pull you aside. There is someone watching Opportunity students at every turn, waiting to see whether they might need managing.

“I think we continue doing what we have been doing,” said Yoly Parra, a Spanish teacher. “For me every day is probation because every day I make sure I’m doing what I have to do for these kids.”

When Goldberg left a residential school in Westchester to found Opportunity in 2004, he convinced Fazio and several other staff members to come with him. Goldberg, who graduated from the Bank Street College of Education and taught students with IEPs for years, was fed up with the traditional special education model.

“I felt marginalized as a teacher,” he said. “The schools’ attitude was: ‘Why bother with your kids?'”

According to Goldberg, Opportunity is on its way to meeting its charter goals, which include having the majority of students score Levels 3 or 4 on the state tests by the time they enter high school, seeing that all eighth graders are promoted to high school, and ensuring that all high school seniors have the ability to go to college.

How well the school has been able to meet that first goal has been the subject of intense scrutiny. State testing data shows that when it comes to moving general and special education students from Level 1 to Level 2 in math and reading, Opportunity has been successful. More of its special education students have made one year of progress than students with learning disabilities throughout the city.

picture-5However, Opportunity has a difficult time getting its Level 2 students past that ceiling. This year, 19 percent of its students tested proficient in English, while 40 percent were proficient in math and though those numbers may seem low, they’re massive improvements over the 2008 scores.

More alarming to state and city officials is the comparatively little progress high scoring students and general education students have made.

Testing data from 2007 and 2008, the two years the school’s charter renewal report studies in depth, shows that most students who regularly score in the top two thirds of the school did not make one year’s worth of progress and, in some cases, slid backward.

“I think it’s great to say that your model is inclusive, but you can’t do that at the expense of the students in general education,” Michael Duffy, director of the Office of Charter Schools for the Department of Education. “You can’t spend a year and make less than a year of progress.”

Many Opportunity teachers and administrators believe the strides they’re making with their nearly 400 students, some of whom enter unable to sound out letters of the alphabet, can’t be picked up in an annual test.

“They don’t have those tools yet to truly, accurately measure us and the achievements that we create,” said Opportunity Charter’s principal, Marya Baker. “Sometimes they’re little steps.”

“I don’t think they [the city and state] understand that you can’t measure students who are four or five years behind on one state standardized test and expect the school to be accountable for a system that has failed them for six or seven years,” Fazio said. “I think that’s a very unfair judgment, but it is a judgment we have to work with.”

Goldberg sees the school as being caught between two masters — the state and the city — who view OCS differently. The state, he said, is focused on whether the school is meeting the goals laid out in its charter, while the city is more interested in signs of progress.

“We’re obviously a school that benefits from a progress lens and not an absolute goal lens,” he said. “Because, if you take the absolute goal of a student who’s coming in at sixth grade and doesn’t know that A sounds like “ah”, then yeah, you’re not going to be successful, but if you see that that student goes from not being able to say A is “ah” to passing the Regents in high school, then that’s huge. And how do you measure that?” he asked.

When it came to the school’s own renewal process, the difference in approach may have been more concrete. In the first report the city submitted to the state and Board of Regents for approval, the Department of Education called for a more lenient, two year probation period, but in its second report, it had downgraded it to one year. A spokesman for the State Education Department would not comment on whether SED had pushed for a shorter time frame.

Duffy, who visited the school last August, said he’s seeing encouraging signs. “I think they’re taking all the right steps,” he said, noting the introduction of an AP English class and several honors English and math classes.

“They had a come-in-everybody mentality, which is a good thing, but they weren’t prepared to handle it,” said one advocate who works with parents of students with disabilities. “Opportunity is trying to do the right thing. They didn’t just run and hide and not take kids like other charter schools did.”

By Goldberg’s calculation, the school is about to send its twelfth grade class into the world with a higher graduation rate than the city average. Asked if he expects the city to give Opportunity Charter a five year renewal, Goldberg said, “Absolutely.”

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.