meet the parent

A charter school parent gains prominence as loyal opposition

Mona Davids and her daughter, a sixth grade student at Equality Charter School in Co-op City.
Mona Davids and her daughter, a sixth grade student at Equality Charter School in Co-op City. (Photo courtesy of Mona Davids.)

A Bronx parent who went from charter school foe to cheerleader in under a year is now at the middle of a debate over how to organize charter school parents.

Mona Davids has rapidly gone from being an unknown public school parent in Co-op City to being known by key players in the debate over charter schools and among the highest ranks of the Department of Education. She pops up everywhere from charter school board meetings and charter renewal hearings to district Community Education Council gatherings. She was even featured in a television advertisement for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reelection campaign, in which she blasted rival William Thompson’s education record.

A year ago, Davids was on the other side of the battle. As co-president of the parent association of P.S. 160 in the Bronx, she broke the news that the DOE was considering putting a new charter school, Equality Charter School, in the same building. Davids, whose daughter attended the district school, initially helped lead parent protests against siting the charter school there.

But after learning more about Equality Charter, Davids suddenly reversed course, sent in her daughter’s application to the charter school and began helping the charter recruit other students.

As she began to organize parents for Equality Charter School, Davids said that she recognized a flaw in the way charter schools are set up in New York City. Davids was accustomed to working within the structures set up by the Department of Education to involve parents in traditional public schools, mechanisms like School Leadership Teams, Community Education Councils and District Family Advocates.

“In the charter school system, we don’t have any of that,” Davids said. She began searching for organizations to help support parent involvement in charter schools, finding options in Massachusetts, California and Idaho, but nothing in New York.

“I was really surprised that parents didn’t have a voice,” she said.

Davids founded the New York City Charter Parents Association in May and next week, she will launch the Charter Parent Training Academy.

The training program is designed to replicate her own organizing strategies among other charter school parents. She’s starting small, sitting down with six charter school parents from schools around the city three days a week for three months.  She intends to train them how to conduct parent meetings, incorporate their schools’ parent groups as non-profits, fund-raise and request member items for their schools from their legislators.

Charter school parents need to double as lobbyists, Davids said, and she wants to teach them the trade. She wants to train the parents how to advocate for changes to state education law that limit per-pupil funding for charter schools and ban charters from receiving public funding for their own school buildings.

For all her vocal support of charter schools, Davids said that she knows the system isn’t perfect, and she doesn’t intend to be quiet about her criticisms.

“I am a supporter of charter schools, but we have serious issues,” she said. “The grievance process doesn’t work. Something needs to be done, but right now the charter system doesn’t have district family advocates. Every system must have checks and balances.”

Davids, who is on leave from her job as head of the consulting firm Azania Holdings, said she funded her work at the Parent Association by herself until this week, when she received her first outside donation. She refused to identify the donor, saying only that the donation is from a philanthropist acting as a private individual. The donation will be used to provide a stipend for the six parents participating in the training academy, which will be held during daytime hours, Davids said.

With her tall frame and command of a microphone, many have looked at Davids and seen a natural politician. Davids makes advocates on both side of the charter debate a bit nervous. To charter school opponents, Davids may be the harbinger of a grassroots support movement in New York, the lack of which has occasionally been a sore spot in the charter school movement. To charter school advocates, she is not an unconditional friend.

“I’m not a paid flak, I’m a parent,” she said. “We are not puppets of the charter school movement; we are not puppets of the anti-charter school movement. This association was born out of a fight for equal access to a quality education for all students.”

Davids said that because of her interest in educational equity, one of the main goals of her group is to “bridge this huge divisive gap” between charter school parents and parents of traditional public school students.

Her ability to bridge that gap is still unproven. Several P.S. 160 parents I spoke to who fought against the siting of Equality Charter Schools said they still feel betrayed by her for switching sides in that debate. And Davids’ involvement in other charter school siting battles, notably at P.S. 15 and PAVE Academy in Red Hook, has garnered much attention, some of it extremely critical.

Davids said that she would like to find common ground with the charter school opponents who have dubbed her “Moaning Mona.” Her suggested starting place? Charter school facilities funding.

“If they don’t want charter schools in the building, will they please help us get construction funding for new schools?” she said.

Newsroom

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.