unchartered territory

Head of charter school set to close fires back at teachers, DOE

The head of the Brooklyn charter school whose charter could be revoked is firing back at the Department of Education and the former teachers who reported her.

In a letter sent to parents on Tuesday, Sheila Joseph, superintendent of the East New York Preparatory school, called the DOE’s allegations that she artificially inflated her salary, violated its charter by shortening the school year and expelled nearly 50 low-performing students before they took state tests “unfounded and untrue.” Joseph also argued in the letter that the school’s high faculty turnover rate was necessary to preserve high standards for the students.

“No one enjoys faculty turnover, but just as we have high and uncompromising standards for our students we also will not compromise on faculty performance,” she wrote. Between the end of last school year and the beginning of this one, the school lost every teacher it had.

“Some of our best teachers are now here because others had to be let go,” Joseph continued. “I don’t take lightly the fact that there has been turnover. However, I will never allow your children to have anything less than the absolute best.”

Former teachers at the school reacted angrily to Joseph’s explanation to parents.

“She’s lying,” said one former teacher who was dismissed in June.

“You’re saying you let go of 100 percent of your staff last year because they were bad, but all of your students passed the test?” the teacher said. (The school had 100 percent of its students score proficient on state math exams last year.) “If so, you must have done something with the scores.”

Teachers accused Joseph of firing them in retaliation for wanting to leave and for reporting abuses at the school to the DOE, which put the school on probation last February.

“I knew this was coming,” the teacher said. “We opened this can of worms.”

Teachers described a school in which teachers were fired arbitrarily and replaced with staff with neither teacher certification nor undergraduate degrees. The principal of the school was fired almost immediately after announcing she wouldn’t return the following year after having differences with Joseph, teachers said. A former teacher described a main hallway decorated with pictures of the teaching staff. “You’d come in and you’d see another picture gone,” the teacher said. “You’d be like, oh no.”

In addition to expelling students, a teacher said, low-scoring third graders were sent back to second grade to avoid being tested. Teachers said that students with disabilities were either counseled out of the school or taught by teaching assistants who lacked proper certification.

One teacher said the school never gave her a copy of its charter; when she finally received it from the DOE’s charter school office, she discovered the school had received funds for technology and project-based learning that were never implemented. Another former teacher said that, even as Joseph gave herself a raise, she cut teachers’ hours and solicited donations from parents, citing budget cuts.

Mona Davids, head of the New York Charter Parents Association, who has argued that charter schools need to be more transparent and held accountable for more than just test scores, said the case of East New York Prep underscores the need for better parent grievance processes and teacher whistle-blower protections in charter schools.

“If you’re trying to tell us that everyone of those 48 [expelled] students’ parents didn’t want to complain about it — they couldn’t complain about it, because they have nowhere to go in the charter school system,” Davids said. The DOE opened its investigation of the school in response to complaints from parents, but Davids said the process must be more formal.

Davids said that as a charter school parent, she also hoped that teachers would one day be able to report improprieties they see in their schools without fear for their jobs.

“There should be whistle-blower protections for teachers in charter schools,” she said. “I’m not saying that all charter schools should be unionized, but with every job, there should be some some protections.”

The school and parents received a letter from the DOE on Monday night detailing the reasons behind the closure. The school has 30 days to respond before Chancellor Joel Klein makes a final decision. In the letter, Joseph says she will reply to the charges in that time.

Joseph is also convening a series of meeting with parents to defend herself and the school. The first of those meetings was held tonight, with three more to follow through the weekend. One former teacher also reported that the school’s parent coordinator is organizing a petition for parents who want to save the school.

The DOE is holding a meeting of its own at the school, next Wednesday, to explain the closure and offer help placing students in other schools.

A former teacher said she was confident that the schools’ students would weather the changes and find spots at other schools.

“The school doesn’t even need to be shut down, in my opinion,” she said. “[Joseph] just needs to go.”

Here is the full text of Joseph’s letter:

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.