Despite state law, Bronx charter school tests students for entry

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.

Figueroa-Hurwitz and Hurwitz founded Academic Leadership in 2009 with a charter authorized by the New York City Department of Education. Before founding Academic Leadership, Figueroa-Hurwitz ran the Sisulu Walker Charter School in Harlem and worked for 23 years as principal of P.S. 83 in East Harlem.

Academic Leadership currently serves students in kindergarten through second grade. Students will not take the state’s annual math and reading exams until next year, when the school plans to add a third grade. Employees described an atmosphere of constant teacher turnover and instability.

This year, parents entered their children’s names in the school’s lottery just as they would for any other charter school, and Academic Leadership then held a lottery. The process deviated, however, after the school sent out letters with the results of the lottery. Rather than telling families who’d been wait-listed that a spot had opened up, Academic Leadership officials called some families and asked them to bring their children to the school, current and former employees said.

The parents interviewed said that they were told to bring report cards and children’s work from other schools. At the school, children were taken to a classroom with a teacher and asked to read a passage and do math problems. In other cases, the parents said that their children sat in on a class. Parents said that after the tests, their children were either offered a seat at the school or the parents were told that the school would call them if something opened up.

Most charter schools take a week or two to let parents know the results of their lotteries. Academic Leadership did not share the full results of this year’s lottery, which was held on April 13, until a month later. On May 12 — two days after Figueroa-Hurwitz left a phone message at GothamSchools saying that she had heard that a reporter was asking questions about her school — parents received letters informing them that their children had been wait-listed.

Asked about the delayed response, Hurwitz said that it was due to the school’s spring break. “I looked into the problem of the time lag for the parents to receive their letters and I realized that the Easter Holiday ( Spring Recess ) started right after our Lottery and the school was cloed [sic] for 13 days,” he wrote in an email.

In fact, the date printed on the letters falls during the spring break period advertised on the school’s web site. The letters were dated April 22; according to the web site, the break stretched from April 18 to April 26.

The admissions practices described by parents and school employees appear to contradict the purpose of charter schools outlined in New York’s charter school law. The law, first passed in 1998, orders charter schools to put a “special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are at-risk of academic failure.”

Nationally and in New York City, a central debate about charter schools is whether they enroll numbers of low-performing students that are comparable to the traditional schools around them. Critics accuse the schools of either deliberately or inadvertently “creaming” — skimming off stronger students with more dedicated parents.

One parent who applied this year, Laura Bennett, said that an Academic Leadership teacher tested her son this Monday after school officials asked her to come in so that she could get a sense of the building. When she arrived, instead of being given a tour of the school, Bennett said that a teacher sat with her son in a classroom and asked him to do math problems and read from a passage.

“She was seeing that everything was viewed the right way and he understood the story,” Bennett said. “I wanted a spot in the school so bad that I really didn’t think [anything] of it.”

It’s unclear whether all admitted students took a test before they were enrolled. Three families of incoming kindergarteners who were walking out of the school on Monday said that their children had not been given a test.

One parent, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear that Figueroa-Hurwitz would retaliate against her child, said that her son enrolled at Academic Leadership in the middle of last school year. She said that when she called the school to try to enroll her son, she was told that she should bring him in for an interview. She was asked to bring his report card and previous school work.

“The teacher and my son went in the room and she had him do a couple of math problems,” the parent said. “Then she came out and said, ‘Well, if you want to, he can start on Monday.'”

Another parent, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that she inquired about putting her son in Academic Leadership’s kindergarten last school year.

“I wasn’t even informed there was a lottery,” she said. “I got a letter saying he was wait-listed. Then I got a call saying there was a spot available and he had to be tested.”

Several former employees said that Figueroa-Hurwitz determines admissions to the school based on the results of the tests and whether she personally likes the parents. The former employees said that the pressure to perform well on tests continues after students are enrolled.

“She [Figueroa-Hurwitz] tries to get the really low students, the students who struggle more, [out of the school],” said a former teacher. “She tries to discourage the parents and upset them and get them to leave.”

Paulette Williams, the mother of a first-grader at Academic Leadership, said that she tried to run the school’s parent association until this year, when her daughter began acting out in class and her relationship with Figueroa-Hurwitz soured.

“She told me the same thing she told other parents: if you don’t feel comfortable here, you can always [move] your daughter somewhere else,” Williams said. “And I felt offended by that because I was working so hard to make sure the parents were comfortable and everything was going well.”

Like most New York City charter schools, Academic Leadership is supposed to give preference to the siblings of already-enrolled students. Hurwitz said that the school is still deciding whether to admit one parent’s younger child, although the parent’s older child is already enrolled as a student.

“We’re working on one person,” Hurwitz said. “It’s an internal school type of problem. Otherwise, we’re perfectly compliant.”

Hurwitz would not give a reason for not admitting the younger sibling.

Reached by phone, Academic Leadership Board Chairman Nick McNickle said that he had never heard of the school testing students before admitting them.

“I know that Ted Hurwitz is of 100 percent integrity, so I’m quite confident that he handled the lottery following all proper New York State and New York City Board of Education protocols,” McNickle said.

Responsibility for charter schools’ performance and management ultimately rests with the state education department. Previously, troubled charter schools authorized by the New York City Department of Education, as Academic Leadership was, have been put on probation.

Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Education, said that the city is beginning to examine “a number of issues” at Academic Leadership.

Betsy DeVos

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 Bellevue, 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.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

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.