target practice

High-needs enrollment targets could challenge some charters

A screenshot from the state's proposed enrollment targets calculator. It shows the range of target enrollments for a school enrolling 150 students in Brooklyn's District 15.

The state is preparing to take a step forward in implementing a two-year-old clause in its charter school law that requires the schools to serve their fair share of high-needs students.

When legislators revised the charter school law in 2010, their main objective was to increase the number of charters allowed. But they also added a requirement that charter schools enroll “comparable” numbers of students with disabilities and English language learners, populations that the schools typically under-enroll.

What comparability would mean has never been clear — until now. Last week, the state unveiled a proposed methodology for calculating enrollment targets, and it intends to finalize the algorithm at next month’s meeting of SUNY’s Board of Trustees, which oversees charter schools.

The targets would vary from school to school and be determined based on the overall ratio of high-needs students in each district. The proposal includes a calculator that determines enrollment targets for any school based on its location, the grades it serves, and the size of its student body.

Under the proposed methodology, a charter school with 400 students in grades five through eight in Upper Manhattan’s District 6, for example, would have to enroll 98 percent students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, 15 percent students with disabilities, and 44 percent ELLs. In District 2, which has more affluent families and fewer immigrants, a similar school would be expected to enroll 64 percent poor students and 13.4 percent ELLs. But it would still need to have 15 percent of students with special needs.

Some charter schools already meet and exceed their enrollment targets. But many others fall far short, as a charter sector self-assessment published last month indicated. The report found that 80 percent of charter schools enroll a lower proportion of poor students than their district.

Under the law, repeated failure to meet the enrollment targets could result in a school losing its right to operate. But more immediately, charter schools that don’t meet their enrollment targets will be expected to show a “good faith” effort to boost their numbers, according to Cynthia Proctor, a spokeswoman for SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute.

“Once the methodology is approved and targets set, part of developing authorizer practice will certainly be conversations with schools and related guidance on expectations in terms of good faith efforts to meet targets,” Proctor said in an email.

Those efforts are likely to include focusing recruitment efforts on high-needs populations and asking the state for permission to give preference to different groups of high-needs students in their admission lotteries, as some schools have already done.

“Some of the charters may need to change their enrollment procedures to make sure they’re reaching out to those families and places and centers,” said Jacqueline Frey, who runs DREAM Charter School in Harlem.

But Frey added, “From my perspective, this doesn’t change the nature of how we do our business.” The school has more special education students than the targets would require but slightly too few low-income students and ELLs.

Other charter school operators say the targets represent a step forward in addressing ongoing inequities in charter school enrollments but don’t solve the problem.

“It seems like it’s the outcome we all want, but it doesn’t sound like it’s telling us how to get there,” said Morty Ballen, the founder of the Explore Charter Schools network.

Indeed, schools face real challenges around enrolling some high-needs populations. State law requires that they admit students via a lottery and fill their seats, so charter schools cannot simply set aside a portion of seats for high-needs students. Once schools are full, they cannot admit midyear arrivals, who are often immigrants who do not speak English. Plus, schools that help some students shed their ELL or special education designation could be dinged if their portion of high-needs students decreases.

The methodology could still be changed to reflect some of the challenges. The state’s proposal notes, for example, that ELL students are not evenly distributed within school districts, but instead tend to concentrate in certain neighborhood pockets, so the methodology might generate targets that are unreasonably high or low for schools.

The targets are only for charter schools, but their creation is causing the state to look at enrollment trends in district schools, too. Together, the scrutiny can only be good for students, said James Merriman, executive director of the New York City Charter School Center.

“We support efforts to improve transparency around special education and student enrollment in both charter schools and district schools with the end goal of improving achievement for all kids,” he said.

SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute is holding a webinar May 18 to detail the proposed target methodology and will accept comments about it until May 29.

“We hope that one of the realizations that emerges from the extensive process followed to bring us to the point where we are now is that this is complex work,” Proctor said.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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