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. 

$1 billion

The tension between CPS enrollment declines and new schools

PHOTO: Tim Boyle/Getty Images
The West Loop neighborhood on the Near West Side is booming with new residents and corporate headquarters.

Chicago plans on opening a handful of schools in the next several years. But for whom?

Chicago Public Schools faces a critical decline in enrollment and is closing or phasing out four more schools on the city’s South Side as a result.

Yet the district just unveiled a new $1 billion capital plan that adds schools: an open-enrollment high school on the Near West Side and an elementary school in the Belmont Cragin community on the Northwest Side. That’s in addition to repurposing two old buildings to open classical schools in Bronzeville on the Near South Side and West Eldson on the Southwest Side.

CPS is soliciting feedback about the plan this Thursday ahead of next week’s board of education vote, but community organizers say the proposal shows a bias toward investments in or near high-growth, gentrifying areas of the city. Some complain the new schools will siphon enrollment and resources from current neighborhood options, and worry the schools are an election-year ploy that will exacerbate or enable gentrification. Others contend that the district’s spending still prioritizes white and mixed communities near downtown and on the North Side as opposed to majority black and Latino communities on the South and West sides.

Despite the criticism, and despite declines in city population and enrollment, CPS said it is taking a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to to creating new schools and academic opportunities. In a statement to Chalkbeat Chicago, CPS defended its decision to open new schools, despite enrollment declines, by citing community demand. And CPS CEO Janice Jackson told a room of business and nonprofit executives at the City Club of Chicago on Monday, “we can’t do great work without investing” — and not just in school staff, but in buildings themselves.

At a budget hearing later in the day, Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark stressed the money was being allocated “with a great deal of focus on local schools that in the past had legitimate reason to feel that they were not prioritized as they should (be).”

The problem, still, is fewer and fewer families are enrolling their students at CPS.

Enrollment is declining at Chicago Public Schools.

The roughly 371,000 students enrolled at CPS this year is a 15 percent decrease compared with the year 2000, when enrollment topped 435,000, according to CPS data. And there’s no sign the numbers will trend upward soon:  The district projects about 20,000 fewer students to enroll in the next three years. The trends mirror population drops in Chicago, which has about 182,000 fewer residents than it did 18 years ago, according to Census data. More than 220,000 black residents have left since the year 2000.

One expert on neighborhood change in Chicago, Alden Loury of the Metropolitan Planning Council, said building new schools shouldn’t be part of a broad policy given the city’s population declines. However, he said new schools may make sense in certain areas.

“You may see pockets within the city where there’s a very clear difference happening,” he said.

Demographer Rob Paral, who publishes Chicago demographic data on his website, said while the city’s population might be down, some parts of the city that have grown, especially areas that are gentrifying and former white ethnic enclaves transformed by Latinos and immigrants.

“Chicago has got these microclimates when it comes to neighborhood change,” Paral said.

You’ll see what he’s saying in Belmont Cragin, a community just west of one of Chicago’s most popular gentrifying communities, where the population has ballooned as the overall city population has dropped.

A new elementary school for Belmont Cragin

Belmont Cragin is a quiet, working-class neighborhood full of single-family brick bungalows and two-flat apartments. Taquerias, Mexican boutiques, hair salons and auto bodies dominate commercial corridors that used to serve more Polish residents, who are concentrated on the northern end of the community.  Since 1990, Belmont Cragin’s population has increased 40 percent to 80,000 and changed from two-thirds white to 80 percent Latino. Paral said Latinos have moved from communities like Logan Square to the east, where gentrification pushed them out, and replaced aging white populations. Latinos have similarly transformed former enclaves for European immigrants on the Southwest Side, like West Eldson and Gage Park.

CPS said in its statement that community groups and leaders in Belmont Cragin advocated for the elementary school, and that CPS “shares these communities’ vision of expanding high-quality educational opportunities to children of all backgrounds.”

CPS wouldn’t say who in the Belmont Cragin community had asked for a new school. It wasn’t Rosa Reyes or Mariana Reyes (no relation). They said their children’s school, Burbank Elementary, is losing students and needing improvements to its roof, heating and cooling systems. The district labels Burbank, like most schools in Belmont Cragin, as efficiently using its space and not yet suffering  from under-enrollment — yet. Still, its student body is shrinking. Latino enrollment at CPS seems to be falling, too. Experts note that immigrants are coming to the city at much lower rates than in the past when they offset black population loss, and that birth rates have declined across the board. 

The mothers said CPS allowed a Noble Charter Network to open in 2014 that exacerbated enrollment declines at Steinmetz High School, and that the same happened to Burbank in 2013, when an UNO charter elementary opened a few blocks west of the school.

Steadily losing students costs Burbank funding, doled out per-pupil. That’s why they the parents don’t support CPS’ new school proposal.

“It will be taking from the local schools,” Rosa Reyes said.

A push for a Near West Side high school

Drive west from Chicago’s central business district and you’ll pass through the Near West Side, one of the city’s 77 official community areas. However, those official boundaries also contain a racially and economically diverse mix of neighborhoods. East of Ashland, you’ll see the West Loop, home to mostly white and affluent residents, pricy condos, trendy restaurants, and a booming business community that includes corporate headquarters for Google and McDonalds.

But west of Ashland, as you approach the United Center where the Chicago Bulls play, you’ll find more low-income residents, public housing, and African-American residents. Like Belmont Cragin, the Near West Side has witnessed immense population growth in recent decades. White people have flocked to the area, especially the affluent West Loop, while the black population has plummeted. In 1990, about 66 percent of Near West Side residents were black and 19 percent were white. Nearly 20,000 new residents have moved in since then. Today, the Near West Side is 30 percent black and 42 percent white. An analysis by the Metropolitan Planning Council found that most African-Americans leaving Chicago are under 25, and low-income. Alden Loury, the council’s research director, said the city is struggling to retain young black people who might eventually establish families, and that many black Chicagoans have left seeking better job markets, more affordable housing, and higher quality schools.

CPS hasn’t announced where on the Near West Side it will put its proposed $70 million high school – but the community groups calling loudest for it are pro-business groups and neighborhood organizations led by mostly white professionals. The community group Connecting4Communities and the West Loop business organization the West Central Association have advocated for a new high school and see the mayor’s proposal as responsive to the growing community.

“Most of the high schools that people are comfortable sending their children to, the good ones, are selective enrollment,” said Executive Director Dennis O’Neill of Connecting4Communities.

He said that parents whose children don’t test into those schools—Jones College Prep, Whitney M. Young Academic Center, and Walter Payton College Prep —lack an acceptable option.

“Our neighborhood school, Wells, which is nowhere near our neighborhood, is so under-enrolled, and is not [a school] that people feel comfortable sending their children to,” he said. “When people see a school is so woefully under-enrolled, they just don’t have confidence in it.”

Wells Community Academy High School, which sits near the intersection of Ashland and Chicago avenues, also is mostly black and Latino, and mostly low income.

But O’Neill emphasized that high school request isn’t an effort to exclude any groups. He said the groups have a proposal for a new high school that draws on eight feeder schools, including a school serving a public housing development, to ensure the student body reflects the diversity of Chicago.

Loury of the planning council said it makes sense that as the Near West Side grows there’s a desire to satisfy that growing population. However, he found the idea of low enrollment at a predominately black and Latino school amid a boom in white population to be problematic. Parents might avoid sending their children to certain schools for various reasons, but a new building nearby furthers disinvestment in schools struggling to fill seats.

“It’s a pretty classic story in terms of Chicago and the struggles of integration and segregation,” he said.

A classical debate in Bronzeville

When it comes to CPS’ new school plans, line items don’t always mean new buildings, as evidenced by the two classical schools opening in existing structures in West Eldson on the Southwest Side and in Bronzeville on the South Side.  

Bronzeville Classical will open this fall as a citywide elementary selective enrollment school. Classical schools offer a rigorous liberal-arts curriculum to students who must test in. Last year, more than 1,000 students who qualified were turned away for lack of space, according to CPS, which is spending $40 million to expand three existing classical programs elsewhere.

“The district is meeting a growing demand for classical programs by establishing programs in parts of the city that do not have classical schools, like Bronzeville – making this high-quality programming more accessible to students in historically underserved neighborhoods,” the CPS statement read.

A spokeswoman for Alderman Pat Dowell, in whose ward the school is opening, responded to requests to interview the alderman with an emailed statement supporting the new Bronzeville school.

“It provides another quality educational option for families in Bronzeville and other nearby communities,” read the statement. “No longer will children from near south neighborhoods seeking a classical school education have to travel to the far southside, westside or northside for enrollment.”

However, some South Side residents see the classical school as problematic.

Natasha Erskine lives in Washington Heights on the Far South Side, but is Local School Council member at King College Preparatory High School in the Kenwood community near Bronzeville. She has a daughter enrolled at King, a selective enrollment high school. Before that, her daughter was in a gifted program at a nearby elementary school. Erskine supports neighborhood schools, but struggled finding schools that offered the kind of field trips and world language instruction many selective enrollment schools offer.

“I see the disparity, because it’s one we participate in it whether I like it or not,” she said.

Bronzeville is a culturally rich neighborhood known as Chicago’s “Black Metropolis,” where black migrants from the South forged a vibrant community during the Great Migration, building their own banks, businesses and cultural institutions.

And it retains a resilient core of committed black residents, but has suffered some decline and lost population like other black neighborhoods.  The community area that contains Bronzeville and Douglas has lost about half of its black population since 1990.

But Bronzeville is adjacent to the gentrified South Loop, which is grown increasingly white in recent years. And it’s a short drive  from Woodlawn, where the Obama Presidential Center is slated to be built. Paral, like other observers, predicts the Bronzeville is one of the areas between the South Loop and the Obama Library that will be further gentrified in coming years.

Jitu Brown, a longtime Chicago education organizer and community leader who heads the Journey for Justice Alliance, believes that the investments are an attempt to attract more white families to areas at a time when low-income people and African-Americans are being priced out and leaving the city. Brown added that creating more selective-enrollment schools is a different type of segregation: “You’re segregating talent.”

On Thursday, the district will solicit feedback about the spending plan via simultaneous public hearings at three different sites, Malcolm X College, Kennedy-King College, and Truman College. Here are the details.

Who's leaving?

63 teachers are leaving Detroit’s main district. Here’s a list of their names and former schools.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Is your child’s favorite teacher saying goodbye to the Detroit Public Schools Community District?

Last week, Detroit’s main district released the names of 63 teachers and 55 building staff members who retired or resigned by the end of June. We have a list of their names and the schools where they worked.

Rather than leave classrooms during the school year, teachers typically choose to retire or switch school districts while students are on break. This is only the first wave of departures expected this summer — one reason schools in Detroit are racing to hire certified teachers by the fall.

But for Detroit families, the teachers on this list are more than a number. Scroll down to see if an educator who made a difference in your child’s life — or your own — is leaving the district.

Teacher and staff separations in June 2018. Source: Detroit Public Schools Community District