war of attrition

The quieter charter school divide: what you need to know about 'backfill'

As rancorous charter school space debates continue to dominate the headlines, another lower-profile round of discussion about who attends the schools is just beginning.

Charter leaders strategizing about how to work with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and avoid paying rent say that they believe committing to particular enrollment policies could be one way to assuage de Blasio’s and Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s concerns about charter schools “doing their part.”

One main issue is backfill, or what happens to space vacated by students who leave charter schools. Some schools, seeking to fulfill a larger mission and bolster their finances, fill those spots by calling students off of their waiting lists. Other schools focus on teaching the students who remain, avoiding a potential drop in test scores and the social and academic disruption of adding new students.

The debate over which policy is best has long divided the charter sector, as critics have charged that schools that do not backfill are not serving their share of high-needs students.

Now, the issue is growing in prominence as school leaders try to anticipate how the mayor will deal with charter schools in the years ahead, and especially how the city might charge charter schools rent to operate in public space. Meanwhile, financial pressures on schools already paying rent have made backfilling a necessity for a growing number of schools.

De Blasio’s meeting with a coalition of 34 charter school leaders on Monday — city officials’ second sit-down with them in two weeks — didn’t get into detailed policy discussions, though attendees said the conversation touched on how to use enrollment policy to promote equity. But the charter leaders are now planning regular meetings with city officials and say they expect the backfill issue to resurface.

“I think facilities is probably the bigger one,” Future Is Now founder and coalition member Steve Barr said of the issues on the table. “But they might say, these are some things that we need assurances on.”

Some charter leaders outside the coalition agreed. “It’s definitely more of a public policy issue than it has been in the past,” said Steve Evangelista, co-founder of Harlem Link Charter School.

One of de Blasio’s few points of leverage over charter schools

Charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately managed, sit outside the mayor’s authority. De Blasio does have the power to set the conditions by which charter schools can operate in public space, though. Governor Andrew Cuomo said as much last week when he asked, “The question becomes, what should the criteria for co-location be?”

The city has laid out some criteria for next year’s co-locations, but they were logistical considerations like the ages of the students who would be sharing a building and the proposed school’s size. The mayor has yet to say how he will make decisions about charging charter schools rent, a key campaign promise.

Requiring certain enrollment practices like backfill could make sense, given Fariña’s criticism of charter schools that she says don’t serve similar populations as district schools. Last week, she criticized Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz for implying that there are certain high-needs students “she cannot help, necessarily, because she doesn’t have the resources for them.”

One charter leader described the potential trade-off this way: The city provides space rent-free if the schools commit to more inclusive enrollment tactics. Then the choice becomes the operator’s: do we want to go along, or stick to our model and pay a penalty for it?

For Stacey Gauthier, principal at Renaissance Charter School, the decision to backfill in every grade wasn’t really a decision at all. Like other charter schools, her school has waiting list of students, which many schools cite as evidence of their success and demand.

“It was just natural, just organic,” Gauthier said. “You have a space, there are 2,500 kids on a wait list—why would you not fill the space? It never crossed my mind—’Wow, don’t backfill because you might have to work harder to make that kid a Renaissance kid.'”

“My charter colleagues should really look closely if their enrollment practices don’t look equitable,” she said.

Backfill comes at a cost to schools

Others, including some coalition members, argue that the choice is more complicated. In 2012, the New York City Charter School Center put that ideological divide mildly. “NYC charter school leaders have mixed opinions about backfill enrollment,” its State of the Sector report said.

Backfilling seats that open up can pose steep challenges for schools. Students who enter the school midyear or at one of a school’s higher grade levels can have trouble adjusting to a new school and be academically behind. Midyear entries especially are more likely to have unstable home lives, leading to them leaving the school—meaning that one “backfilled” seat might actually be filled by two or three students over the course of a year.

Research has shown that students who leave charter schools tend to be lower-performing academically, so not replacing them can boost scores overall — a move that benefits charter schools that are eager to prove their value.

“On one hand, why should they?” said Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University. “It’s a real disruption for the classroom teacher. Traditional public schools are plagued with this problem, especially in high-poverty areas where there is lots of student attrition.”

An understanding of those challenges and a desire to maintain a particular school’s culture has led some charter school networks to reject backfilling, especially in the higher grades. Success Academies only backfill through the third grade, and students in all subsequent grades up to high school must have started by that grade.

Success Academy has said that their longer school days and years help students jump so far ahead academically that placing older students in without that background would be unfair to them. Last year, 58 percent of its students were deemed proficient in reading and 80 percent in math on state exams.

“We want all children to feel and be successful. We wouldn’t want the newer children to be at a disadvantage,” a Success spokeswoman said last year.

Actually getting seats filled can also be no easy feat.

Charter schools face the question of whether to hold back incoming students who are behind academically or insert them into the grade they were expecting to attend, knowing that families might not accept a spot for their child if it means he or she is held back a grade.

And since state law requires charter schools to admit students by lottery, a school must start at the top of its waiting list and contact families until one accepts to fill a seat that becomes vacant. That process can take time if families have gotten comfortable at the school their child attends, making the choice to fill seats a costly one logistically. In contrast, the city assigns students to district schools, which do not have to use their own resources to fill seats.

It also has ideological and material benefits

Despite the challenges, charter schools have good reasons to fill seats that become vacant.

District schools take students after their entry grades and many accept students mid-year, and not doing so raises questions about whether charter schools are doing enough to educate a fair share of high-needs students. In addition, it complicates performance comparisons between charter and district schools — which the charter sector cites as a justification for growing – if the schools follow different enrollment rules.

Two weeks ago, the chair of Harlem Link Charter School’s board of trustees asked a question of the room during a board meeting: Who thinks it’s in the best interest of the community to continue the school’s backfilling policy?

It was a loaded question. Evangelista, the school’s co-founder, has spoken openly about his school’s policy of accepting new students at every grade and its connection to the school’s relatively lower test scores. Last year, 17 percent of its students cleared the state’s proficiency bar in reading, below the city average, and 29 percent did in math, which is at the city average.

“What is the community? Is it just the school community, when it’s very clear that bringing kids in that don’t know our school and its culture is very clearly detrimental?” Evangelista asked.

He has answered that question with a no, for now, and Harlem Link is choosing to define “community” as the broader neighborhood and school system.

There are financial as well as ideological considerations. A district school that loses a student after Oct. 31 keeps its funding for that student, but a charter school loses funding for a student as soon as the student leaves. Allowing more seats to remain unfilled each year exacts a steeper toll on school budgets.

For many charter schools, especially those in private space that have to pay rent, budgets are so tight that operating at anything but their highest capacity makes the school unsustainable. With prospective charter operators not counting on generous offers of public space from the de Blasio administration, backfilling may become more common.

Judi Kende, who works with prospective charter school operators through the Low Income Investment Fund, an organization that finances charter school facilities, has seen that trend firsthand. When LIIF is assessing a charter school’s financial viability, backfill policy gets special attention, Kende said.

“People are doing more backfilling. They kind of have to if they have real estate space,” Kende said.

For now, a mix of policies

Charter schools must spell out their enrollment policies when they ask for permission to operate. But authorizers have been loath to require charters to adopt one backfill policy or another, seeing it as one way in which the schools exercise the autonomy that defines them as a charter school, and so schools frequently include vague language in their charters.

“In terms of just replacing students, we leave that up to schools,” said Susan Miller Barker, the head of SUNY’s Charter School Institute. (The institute does plan to require more explicit descriptions of enrollment policy from new applicants, it announced in January.)

That leaves the city’s charter schools with a patchwork of policies, and some have changed over time. Democracy Prep and Explore Schools both accept students in all grades, for example, as do Beginning with Children II and Brooklyn Excelsior Charter School, while Harlem Village Academy doesn’t backfill upper grades.

In a Nov. 2009 report in Education Sector, Achievement First CFO Max Polaner said “the dream was to bring in kindergartners only,” given the difficulties of backfilling. The network’s application for the K-8 Achievement First Central Brooklyn, set to open next fall, notes that it will backfill up to the eighth grade.

For now, the coalition of charter schools sitting down with city officials is thinking about a number of policy issues to tackle down the line, with facilities and enrollment at the top of the list, Gauthier said.

“They’ve said, ‘We want this to be two-way, we know these are items that need to be addressed. We hope you can be our thought partners in this,’” she said.

De Blasio could draw inspiration from Massachusetts, which required all charter schools to backfill in some grades beginning in 2010, or from Denver and New Orleans, which use universal enrollment systems to ensure that charter and district schools follow the same policies. But De Blasio has so far not prioritized enrollment policy when discussing charter equity issues, and Evangelista cautioned that there are many possible policy priorities for City Hall.

“The policy debate right now is a sprawling octopus, and his office has the potential to drive attention to one or two things,” Evangelista said. “It could be testing, English Language learners, special ed, recruitment—these are all hot buttons.”

We’ve created a survey to collect information about backfill policies. Have firsthand experiences or knowledge of the process? Fill that out here

This story has been updated to clarify the difference between district and charter school funding over time. 

Achievement School District

Here’s why another state-run charter school is closing in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
GRAD Academy students work on a writing assignment during an African-American history class. The South Memphis charter school will shutter this summer.

The high cost of busing students from across Memphis to maintain the enrollment of GRAD Academy was a major factor in a national charter network’s decision to close the state-run high school.

Project GRAD USA announced plans last week to shutter its only Memphis school after four years as part of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Besides high transportation costs, the burden of maintaining an older school building and a dip in enrollment created an unsustainable situation, charter organization officials said this week.

“Higher-than-projected transportation and facilities costs were major contributors to the operational challenges that GRAD Academy encountered,” CEO Daryl Ogden told Chalkbeat.

GRAD Academy will become the third state-run charter school to close in Memphis since the ASD began operating schools in the city in 2012. KIPP Memphis and Gestalt Community Schools closed one school each last year, citing low enrollment and rising operational costs.

This is the first school year that GRAD Academy didn’t meet its enrollment targets, according to Ogden. The high school started the school year with 468 students, a drop of about 13 percent from the 2016-17 year.

Ogden said enrollment constraints significantly hurt the operator’s ability to recruit students to the South Memphis school.

Unlike most ASD schools, GRAD Academy started from scratch. It was not an existing low-performing school taken from the local district and assigned to a charter operator with the charge of turning it around. As a “new start,” the high school could only recruit students zoned to other state-run schools or the lowest-performing “priority schools” in Shelby County Schools.

Most of the ASD’s 31 remaining schools were takeovers and are allowed to recruit up to 25 percent of their student bodies from non-priority schools. (Now, a 2017 state law prohibits the ASD from creating new schools.)

GRAD Academy was not required to provide cross-city transportation but, because the school did not have a neighborhood zone, chose to as a way to build enrollment.

“Students were coming from all over Memphis, since there is not a zoned area around the school, and that began to be a challenge with attracting students,” said Kathleen Airhart, the ASD’s interim superintendent. “Their transportation costs were much higher than their counterparts in the ASD.”

Airhart said the State Department of Education has been working closely with GRAD Academy since becoming aware of its financial issues last October. She noted concern over whether the school had the funds to stay open through May, and the state worked with administrators to reduce expenses and streamline funding.

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Tennessee
GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed  South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Both state officials and Ogden declined to specify how much the school spent annually on transportation and building maintenance but said that the cost of facilities was also an issue. GRAD Academy rented and maintained the building that formerly housed South Side High School, originally built for 2,000 students and shuttered in 2015 by Shelby County Schools.

Airhart is working with two other ASD charter operators — Green Dot Public Schools and Frayser Community Schools — to offer GRAD Academy students a high school option next year. A meeting is scheduled at the school for 5 p.m. on Thursday to answer questions from parents and students about the closure and their options.

The impending closure of GRAD Academy is another blow to the ASD. It’s the state-run district’s highest-performing high school and has its largest percentage of high school students scoring on grade level, according to state data from 2017.

Airhart commended the school for its career and technical focus on engineering and coding — two pathways that could lead to dual certification for students.

“The goal would be to transition the two programs and equipment to Frayser Community Schools or Green Dot,” Airhart said, adding that the details haven’t been finalized.

Many GRAD students felt their voices were lost in the decision to shutter their school, according to Kyla Lewis, a 2017 alumna who is still involved in the school’s poetry team. She called the news “heartbreaking but not surprising” and added that teacher and principal turnover was high during her years there.

“South Memphis has seen so much school closure and this hits hard for kids actually from the neighborhood,” said Lewis, now a freshman at the University of Memphis. “I don’t agree with the decision, but the main issue I saw was the thinning out of teachers. Once the best teachers left, by my senior year, the school culture was starting to fall apart.”

Ogden commended his team for the school’s academic strides, but acknowledged that “faculty and staff turnover associated with urban school reform” was a major challenge.

“There has been a continual need to reinvest in our staff and introduce our culture process and learning and development philosophy to new colleagues, which can slow academic momentum,” he said. “There is a persistent national, state, and local shortage of highly qualified, experienced math teachers which we, along with all of our fellow Memphis school operators, especially at the secondary levels, have had to work hard to overcome.”

who's next?

What you should know about seven people who could be the next New York City schools chancellor

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Carmen FariƱa's retirement.

Nearly a month after Carmen Fariña announced that this school year would be her last as New York City’s chancellor, New Yorkers are no closer to knowing who will succeed her.

As city emissaries reach out to possible replacements around the country and City Hall vets people inside the Department of Education, speculation has mounted quickly. Will Mayor Bill de Blasio go with a trusted insider? Or will he try to attract a celebrated outsider who could drum up some excitement about his education agenda?

What’s clear is that de Blasio has committed to picking an educator for the slot, ruling out some officials who have played a leading role in his biggest education initiatives so far. Low pay, an established education agenda, and de Blasio’s reputation for being a micromanager may make it tough to recruit a high-profile outsider. Still, the job remains among the most prestigious education posts in the country.

Everyone who pays attention to education in the city has ideas about who might be under consideration.

After talking to more than a dozen people who keep a close eye on the education department and City Hall, some of them from within, we’ve sorted through the rumors and political jockeying to handicap several contenders.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Alberto Carvalho

Alberto Carvalho

Who he is: Carvalho is the widely admired leader of Miami’s school system, where he has spent his entire career. Under his leadership, the district’s finances and academic performance improved. He has an inspiring life story, too: He became an educator after first coming to the United States from Portugal as an undocumented immigrant.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Politically savvy, skilled in engaging with the media, and prolific on Twitter, Carvalho would certainly fill the mayor’s requirement of being able to sell an education agenda. During his tenure, he helped convince county voters to approve a $1 billion bond for school infrastructure and technology upgrades.

Why you might not: Things are going well for Carvalho in Miami, where his contract runs until 2020 — and he’s balked at high-profile opportunities in the past. Like other outsiders, he’s already far outearning the city chancellor’s salary: He makes roughly $345,000 in Miami now, compared to nearly $235,000 for Fariña in New York.

What he says: “My commitment to Miami is so strong and I have demonstrated it in the face of political opportunities,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s really hard for me to imagine a set of circumstances that would lead to a different decision on my part.”

Kathleen Cashin

Kathleen Cashin

Who she is: Cashin is currently a member of New York’s Board of Regents, where she helps set education policy for the entire state. Before that, she spent more than three decades as a New York City educator — first as a teacher and principal before working her way up to be a regional superintendent.

Why you might see her at Tweed: De Blasio has signaled he’s looking for someone like Fariña, and Cashin fits that mold. She believes, as Fariña does, that principals must be veteran educators who earn their autonomy (she resisted Bloomberg’s efforts to hire principals who were not experienced educators). Crucially, she has shown results boosting student achievement in high-poverty areas of the city, a problem de Blasio has struggled to solve.

Why you might not: Cashin recently turned 70, she is not a person of color, and is not likely to bring lots of new ideas to the table.

What she says: Did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

What a supporter says: “She had the toughest district in the entire city and she handled her district not only with focus,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, but also “elegance and professionalism beyond belief. I have so much respect for Dr. Cashin.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Rudy Crew

Rudy Crew

Who he is: Crew is the president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, part of the city’s public university system. He previously served as New York City’s schools chief for four years in the late 1990s under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, spent another four running the Miami-Dade county school district, and did a brief (and controversial) stint as an education official in Oregon.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Crew is a black man, which makes him a standout among the education department’s top ranks. He knows the political landscape and has continued to take an interest in the city’s schools through his work at Medgar Evers, where he created a program that provides training to local public-school teachers and early-college classes for students. Crew also seems to share de Blasio’s belief that high-quality instruction should take priority over school integration, and as chancellor, he set up a turnaround program for struggling schools that has clear parallels with the mayor’s Renewal initiative.

Why you might not: While Crew has had some success boosting student achievement, he also has a record of political clashes. He left Miami after the school board’s chair said they had developed “irreconcilable differences” and Oregon amid controversy about his commitment to the job.

What he says: Crew declined to be interviewed, but a spokeswoman said he “has not been contacted about the job.”

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
MaryEllen Elia

MaryEllen Elia

Who she is: Currently the head of New York’s state education department, Elia previously led one of the nation’s 10 largest school districts, Hillsborough County in Florida. There, she gained a reputation for working closely with the local teachers union on policy issues that unions often oppose. She was named Florida’s 2015 superintendent of the year before being ousted by the school board shortly afterward, in a move that garnered some local and national criticism.

Why you might see her at Tweed: While Elia is considered a long shot, it could make sense for de Blasio to give her a look. She’s a good match for de Blasio’s overall orientation: She’s progressive-minded — see the state’s new initiative to help districts integrate their schools — but also believes that schools should be held accountable for helping students learn. Elia has spent nearly three years running the state education department without making enemies. She also hasn’t set out to make a big splash in her leadership, which could be appealing for a mayor whose agenda is already in place.

Why you might not: She appears comfortable in her role in Albany, where she’s helping the state adapt to the new federal education law, and reconsider its approach to teacher evaluations, graduation requirements, and more. Also, she has no experience working in New York City.

What she says: “Commissioner Elia has had no discussions about this,” said State Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “She loves her job as State Education Commissioner and remains committed to fostering equity in education for all children across New York State.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dorita Gibson

Dorita Gibson

Who she is: Gibson is the education department’s second in command as Fariña’s senior deputy chancellor. She has served at virtually every level of leadership within the New York City school system, rising from teacher to assistant principal, principal, and high-level superintendent. She’s helped lead big changes in the way the education department supports schools, and is partly responsible for overseeing the mayor’s signature “Renewal” program for struggling schools.

Why you might see her at Tweed: She’s already there, an advantage at a moment when some outsiders seem unenthusiastic about taking over the school system. Gibson is one of Fariña’s top deputies who leads initiatives that are core to the city’s education agenda. She’s also a longtime educator, which de Blasio has said is a requirement, and the department’s top-ranking deputy of color.

Why you might not: Despite being Fariña’s number two, Gibson has kept a low profile, and rarely appears in the press. Her absence raises questions about her interest or likelihood of assuming the top position.

What she says: Declined to comment.

What people are saying: Gibson “seems to be a natural successor,” writes David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The only problem is that, like other central Department of Education officials, she doesn’t seem to have the support of the mayor or chancellor.”

PHOTO: Via LinkedIn
Cheryl Watson-Harris

Cheryl Watson-Harris

Who she is: Watson-Harris is the education department’s senior executive director of field support, who is responsible for helping manage centers that support schools on instructional and operational issues. She started her career as a New York City teacher before working as a principal and superintendent in Boston for nearly two decades. She assumed her current role in 2015.

Why you might see her at Tweed: Watson-Harris rose quickly from running just one of the large school-support centers to overseeing all seven. Multiple sources said she was perceived as being groomed for a higher-ranking position at the education education department. And on her Twitter feed, where she acts as a public booster for the school system, she notes that she’s the parent of a student in the city’s public schools.

Why you might not: She would have to leapfrog a number of more senior officials who have years of experience at higher rungs of education department leadership, including Gibson. Insiders question whether she’s ready to make that jump.

What she says: Declined to comment.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Phil Weinberg

Phil Weinberg

Who he is: Weinberg is one of Fariña’s six deputy chancellors. He began his career teaching at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology — and wound up staying for 27 years before rising to principal in 2001. In 2014, Fariña plucked him from that post to head up a resurrected “teaching and learning” division that had been dormant for years.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Weinberg is widely respected among educators and has avoided major blowback during his four years leading teaching and learning at the department. The things he’s passionate about — including strong teaching, coherent curriculum, and collaboration among educators — are close to Fariña’s heart, which would matter if she plays a strong role in choosing her successor.

Why you might not: His efforts have been peripheral to the initiatives the de Blasio administration cares about most, such as prekindergarten and community schools. He seems to prefer an internal role to a public-facing one. And he’s a white man — hardly the top demographic choice for the leader of a district where more than 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

What he says: Did not respond to a message seeking comment.

That’s the short list, but many other names have also surfaced.

Josh Starr, a former New York City official who now works at PDK International, and Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA, would make good fits for de Blasio’s progressive platform, but both have said they are not in the running.

Other names that have been floated as potential contenders include Lillian Lowery, a former district superintendent and top education official in Maryland and Delaware (now a vice president at Ed Trust); Angelica Infante-Green, a fast-rising deputy commissioner in New York’s state education department who is reportedly in the running for Mass. state education commissioner; and Betty Rosa, a former superintendent in the Bronx and chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents.

There’s also a cadre of educators who have left New York City for other school systems and might be interested in returning, including Andres Alonso, currently an education professor at Harvard, and Jaime Aquino, who helps lead New Leaders for New Schools, a non-profit organization that focuses on training principals.

Philissa Cramer and Christina Veiga contributed reporting.