audacity of hope

To read NY's Race to the Top bid, wear rose colored glasses

New York State’s Race to the Top application is nearly a printer-jamming 1,000 pages, but a quick skim of the documents offers some insight into how the state is presenting itself and its proposals to judges in Washington.

Charter cap:

Throughout the fight over whether and how to lift the state’s charter cap, state education officials and the Board of Regents advocated for more than doubling the number of charters allowed in New York. Lifting the cap would not only improve the state’s chances at winning federal money, they said, it had become necessary as New York was closing in on its 200 school limit.

In December, Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch told GothamSchools: “My opinion is that the charter cap is now at a place where it will prevent us from opening great charter schools.” Yet the state’s application paints a distinctly different picture of the charter cap’s effect:

“Article 56 of New York’s Education Law does include a cap on the number of charter schools that may be formed, other than charter schools formed by conversion of an existing public school, but such cap does not prohibit or effectively limit the number of high-performing charter schools in the state.” (emphasis mine)

It’s commonly known that the state’s charter law allows for 200 schools, but there’s a little-known provision that doesn’t count conversions — district schools that opt to become charter schools — in that limit. With this in mind, the application states that while there may appear to be 200 allowable charter schools, but there are actually 4,740 if you include all the district schools that could convert.

“The total number of charter schools that currently may form in New York are 4,540 conversion charter schools plus 200 non-conversion charter schools, or 4,740.  This represents approximately 104 percent of the total schools in the state that are allowed to be charter schools.”

The wording has charter advocates like New York Charter Schools Association policy director Peter Murphy more than a little flummoxed.

“If New York had a 10-year record of converting its schools into charter schools, that would be one thing and they could make that argument come off as more plausible, but it’s a very legalistic argument to make. And it should not be taken seriously,” he said.

Charter conversion is a rarity in New York, in part because schools that convert remain under the teachers union contract, an idea that most charter school operators find unappealing. In total, there are only 6 conversion charter schools in the state.

“In fairness to the department, the legislature didn’t give them anything to work with,” Murphy said. “They’re putting their best argument forward and it’s a hollow one.”

Tisch defended the application’s language.

“The application clarifies exactly what New York State allows, and frankly conversions are tools that are used,” she said.

SUNY charters
New York’s application gives the number of charter schools that are currently open, but it downplays the number that are set to open next year. It states:

As of the 2009-10 school year-to-date, New York has 140 charter schools currently operating (with an additional 14 charter schools approved to begin operating in 2010-2011 or later).

According to Murphy, there are an additional 17 authorized schools that will open next year, bringing the total to 31. The application doesn’t count schools that were turned down by the Board of Regents and will open under SUNY approval. Under state law, SUNY can independently authorize charter schools, meaning that if the Board of Regents vetoes a charter application, SUNY can override the decision.

Test scores and teachers

In the months that led up to the Race to the Top and in the face of opposition from state and local teachers unions, SED officials said linking test scores to teacher tenure would be part of the plan. But up until now, it they never said how much weight the test scores would have in determining which teachers were successful.

The state’s application says it plans to use five factors in coming up with an “education effectiveness score” for teachers and principals, one of which is test scores. Districts that signed onto the plan will use student data as 30-40 percent of that score, placing “student growth at the center of their evaluation system.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”