New York

Charter school sues over closure decision it hopes de Blasio will overturn

Nimia Gutierrez (center), with school staff (left), her daughter and her eighth grade son.

A lawsuit filed last week by an embattled Brooklyn charter school could force Mayor Bill de Blasio to confront yet another one of his education campaign pledges — about school closures.

In November, citing the school’s poor performance, the Bloomberg administration recommended that Fahari Academy Charter School not be allowed to remain open after June.

Now, Fahari has filed suit— but only to avoid losing the right to pursue legal action because of a statute of limitations. The school’s lawyer said he’s confident that with de Blasio in office, the dispute can be handled out of court.

“We have a beef with the previous administration’s decision,”said Matthew Delforte, who filed the suit last week. The lawsuit charges that the city’s decision was made on faulty grounds, in part because the struggling school is improving, but Delforte said he would not pursue the suit if de Blasio overturns the Bloomberg administration’s decision.

Delforte said he believes that de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s approach to struggling schools put them on Fahari’s side. While Mayor Bloomberg saw the replacement of staff and administrators through school closure as the fastest and most effective way to improve schools, de Blasio criticized the controversial policy during his campaign for mayor.

“To too many people over at the Tweed building, closing a school is a panacea. They think it will solve all our problems,” de Blasio said in 2012 while public advocate.

Last year, Fariña said that struggling schools could improve if their principals and teachers had more opportunities to learn from other schools that produced better results. “Principal-to-principal, teachers-to-teachers, are the best vehicle to professional development that I know,” she said.

Students tend to perform better in new schools than the low-performing schools that were closed down, research has shown. But the results have been clouded by the finding that new schools have fewer students with the highest academic needs.

The city’s decision in November came after the Department of Education first placed Fahari under probation in 2012 following a tumultuous first three years of operation marked by low test scores, high staff turnover and student attrition. Last year, fewer than one in 10 students passed the 2013 English or math state tests.

The school has taken moves to correct its early missteps, bringing in new leadership and overhauling its curriculum to make it more aligned to Common Core learning standards. Officials at Fahari say the school has turned a corner and is now headed in the right direction.

“The [non-renewal] decision is really based on a school that no longer exists,” Delforte said. “It’s two really different places.”

Fahari supporters, including United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, have lobbied the de Blasio administration to reverse the decision and renew the school’s charter, which would then be kicked up to the Board of Regents for final approval.

“[I]…join the Fahari community in urging you to rescind your predecessor’s recommendation and instead recommend to the Regents that the school’s charter should be renewed for another term,” Mulgrew said.

A department spokesman did not comment on the lawsuit, but said in a statement that no decisions about Fahari have been made. The issue is part of the long list of Bloomberg-era policies that Fariña is still reviewing, nearly four months into her tenure.

“Since January 1st, we’ve been engaging in a top-to-bottom review of every decision and policy that we inherited,” said the spokesman, Harry Hartfield. “That includes the non-renewal of Fahari.”

The lawsuit alleges that the city’s decision was wrong on several grounds, including that the non-renewal was not decided in the way that state law dictates. Delforte said the city’s decision should have been treated as a charter “revocation,” which would have given the school a chance to respond and provided an additional public hearing. It also argues that the city created and inconsistently applied some renewal standards, such as the school’s worst-ranked status on the city’s progress reports, while ignoring other ones, such as its popularity with parents and its improvement efforts.

“The DOE’s inconsistent application of standards reflects that in practice, there are no accountable standards guiding the DOE’s renewal or nonrenewal decisions,” the suit concludes. 

The office that historically has overseen the city’s authorizing duties is in a state of flux, having recently lost its executive director, Sonia Park, who took a job running two Manhattan charter schools. It’s supposed to oversee city-authorized charter schools based on its own accountability criteria. But there is some concern that the ultimate accountability, to close low-performing charter schools, could be withheld if Fariña and de Blasio change their intervention approach for district schools, as they’ve pledged.

The ongoing uncertainty around Fahari has parents at the school anxious about where their kids will go to school next year. Tessa Minss, whose daughter is in fifth grade, said that if Fahari stays open, “I’m in.”

“But if it’s decided not to stay open, then I have to move her,” Minss said, adding “no one wants to keep moving their kids.”

Notice of Petition W Verified Petition Without Exhibits 03 12 13 (PDF)

Notice of Petition W Verified Petition Without Exhibits 03 12 13 (Text)

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”