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DOE collapses charter schools office as charter landscape shifts

Outgoing Charter Schools Office Executive Director Recy Dunn responds to a parent who was challenging the city's decision to close Peninsula Preparatory Academy in January.

While one tightly organized contingent of the city’s charter school sector prepared to stage a rally outside City Hall today, the Department of Education was shaking up its charter schools bureaucracy.

The Charter Schools Office’s executive director, Recy Dunn, is leaving the department, and the office is being subsumed into a broader division responsible for managing the opening, closing, and siting of schools, Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg announced in an email to his staff today.

Eliminating the Charter Schools Office is in some ways a remarkable move for the department, which has made charter schools a central prong of its reform strategy. But in other ways it is unsurprising, because the office lost momentum and authority in 2010, when legislators stripped the city of the right to award new charters.

Now, all new schools are authorized by either the State Education Department or SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute. The city’s role has been to assess existing schools, supporting them when they fall short of their promises and closing schools that do not improve.

This year, the department moved to close two schools that had faced academic and management problems and backed off of a threat to close a third struggling charter school. Both closures are currently on hold because of parent lawsuits challenging the validity of the department’s closure decision.

A charter schools insider who worked with Dunn at the department said Dunn was well liked but that the ongoing court battles had reflected poorly on his office.

“The DOE’s role right now is closing [charter] schools and they are not even able to do that successfully,” the source said.

Going forward, Sonia Park, who has headed one of the charter school office’s three networks, will supervise charter school accountability and support. Miriam Sondheimer, who is already working in the department’s portfolio division, will take over responsibilities relating to charter schools’ space — a challenging job because of the often contentious co-location arrangements.

Dunn had run the Charter Schools Office since October 2010, months after the state law change and two months after the previous director, Michael Duffy, departed to run a charter network of his own. Dunn had previously run the Department of Education’s early childhood office. He will become a manager at New Leaders, a national nonprofit that helps develop school leaders, according to Sternberg’s email.

Sternberg also announced that he had selected a replacement for his chief of staff, Romy Drucker, who has worked at the department for five years. Edward Hui, who has headed an office in charge of new school development, will take over. A large portion of his work will focus on implementing “turnaround,” the controversial process set to take place in 24 struggling schools over the summer, Sternberg wrote.

Sternberg’s complete email message to his staff is below.

Dear Colleagues:

I am writing to update you regarding several organizational realignments in the Division of Portfolio Planning. Although we are sad to see some of our most-valued colleagues go, we look forward to seeing members of our team take on new leadership roles and are excited about the contributions they will make to our work going forward.

On June 20th, Recy Dunn, who serves as Executive Director of the Charter Schools Office, will be leaving the Department of Education to become Regional Director at New Leaders.  In his tenure at the Department, Recy has made an enormous contribution to the children of New York City.  He was instrumental in strengthening the work of the Office of Early Childhood Education so our youngest learners can be better prepared for college and career readiness.  Leading the Charter Schools Office, Recy assembled an all-star team to carry out the critical charge of developing, supporting, and holding accountable high-quality charter schools.  Please join me in thanking Recy for his immeasurable investment in our work.  We wish him well in his new post and know he will continue to be an ally to the cause.  Over the next two weeks, Recy will serve as a special advisor to me to ensure a smooth transition.

Effective immediately, the Charter Schools Office (CSO) will move into the Office of Portfolio Management (OPM).  I am pleased to announce that Paymon Rouhanifard will become the Chief Executive Officer for Portfolio Management and will now oversee all CSO work, in addition to his current responsibilities overseeing citywide planning strategy.  This realignment will strengthen the Department’s efforts to attract and site high quality charter schools, to provide top-notch support and oversight to New York City’s 160 charters, and to make key charter processes sustainable.

Reporting to Paymon, Sonia Park will become Executive Director of Charter Schools Support & Accountability. In this role she will lead charter oversight efforts and the delivery of operational support to New York City’s 160 charter schools.   Miriam Sondheimer will become Executive Director of Charter Policy & Planning, and will also report to Paymon.  In this role she will manage citywide charter school policies and activities related to pipeline development, siting, and facilities.  Sonia and Miriam both bring years of experience working with charter schools to their new roles. We are excited about the vision and leadership they will bring to their charge.

As many of you already know, my Chief of Staff, Romy Drucker, will be leaving the Department to attend Harvard Business School. Over the past five years, Romy has been a colleague and friend to so many of us, and always a resilient advocate of the Children First reforms.  I am personally grateful for her partnership over the past two years and hope you will join me tonight (6pm @ Bubble Lounge) to show your appreciation for her work.

As Romy transitions out, I am pleased to announce that Edward Hui, who was previously serving as Executive Director of the Office of School Development in our Division, will become my Chief of Staff.  In this role, Edward will serve as senior project manager for Turnaround, as has Romy, as well as support work across the Division. In his five years at the Department, Edward has played a critical role in advancing numerous citywide reforms including ARIS, School of One, and New York City’s School Improvement Grant work with Persistently Lowest Achieving Schools. I am excited about the experience, excellence, and energy he will bring to this post.

It has been an impactful year for the Division of Portfolio Planning. As a result of our teams’ collective work this year, more than 170 portfolio reforms are planned for implementation in school year 2012-13 – up from 134 portfolio reforms that were implemented this year.  Thank you for your teams’ continued partnership and support to expand and enhance student and family choice, increase access to great schools, and improve learning conditions systemwide – from Pre-K to 12.

Please feel free to forward this announcement to your teams.


defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.