turnaround tales

After Verizon uproar, 'restart' contracts win easy approval

The vast majority of public commenters at last night’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting seemed to think that a $120 million contract with Verizon was the only thing on the agenda.

Amid dozens of angry comments about the Verizon contract, exactly one audience member spoke out against another set of contracts on the agenda: ones that would hand over the reins of 14 failing schools to six nonprofit managers.

The speaker, a parent, urged the panelists not to approve the contract because the Department of Education had not made the full contracts available for them to review.

“These contracts will be approved, but they will not be reviewed before hand,” said Paola de Kock, a member of the Citywide Council on High Schools, who spoke in between Communication Workers of America strikers. “What you will be approving tonight is unethical for our children.”

Shortly after the panel okayed the Verizon deal and most audience members departed, it gave a green light to the contracts, which are part of a larger plan to “restart” failing schools. The panel’s approval was a final step in the city’s bid to link the schools with the nonprofits, known as Education Partnership Organizations, in order to receive federal School Improvement Grants for the schools.

The contract won approval with just one vote against it after Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s chief academic officer, answered questions from the panelists about how the city would hold EPOs accountable and measure the progress of the schools undergoing “restart” under their supervision.

Though the discussion did not last as long as the one on Verizon’s contract, several panel members pressed Polakow-Suransky for details on how the EPOs were selected and how they would be improving the schools.

He said the city would be setting different goals for each school, depending on its needs. A school that has lagged in its reading scores would be assessed according to how it performs in reading, while a school whose biggest weakness is its graduation rate would be judged by that metric.

The principals union has criticized the EPO model for absolving the department of some of its responsibility to struggling schools.

We reported last week that several of the EPOs were not planning major changes, at least at first. Polakow-Suransky sounded the same note, saying that the department would not be scrutinizing the “restart” schools much more closely than it does other schools.

“We will be looking at similar metrics that we already look at for our schools. progress in terms of the measures measured on the progress report and through our quality review,” he said. “We’ll build in to our relationship with them regular checks throughout the year to understand what’s working and what’s not throughout the year.”

Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens borough president’s appointee to the panel, said he was satisfied with the DOE officials’ responses.

“Its not like the EPO is going to say, ‘this is what we’re going to do,’ and not get some kind of approval from the DOE,” he said. “The department is not washing their hands of whatever decisions will be made. There is going to be an active role from the department side, the school-based side, and the EPO side.”

Fedkowskyj said the fact that almost all of the schools had been matched with their first-choice EPO clinched his support: “I didn’t want this limited resource of dollars from the federal government to be given to us and not be used effectively to improve the learning environment.”

Patrick Sullivan, the lone dissenter in the otherwise unanimous vote to approve the contracts, said he would not be convinced that the DOE would be able to fulfill its obligations to those schools under the plan until he could see copies of the contracts, which he was told had not been drafted yet.

One school originally slated to undergo “restart,” Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx, was not part of any of the contracts approved last night. That school is now set to undergo “transformation,” which comes with the promise of additional resources, department officials say. Transformation also requires leadership change in most cases, and Banana Kelly’s 12-year principal, Joshua Laub, announced his resignation this week, according to a letter from Laub  posted on the EdVox blog.

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.