the new space wars

As charter sector continues to swell, a space dilemma grows for de Blasio

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter

City education officials aren’t backing away from a pledge to not force additional schools to share space, even in the face of a new law that will make that a pricey proposition.

This week, a top city education official said that Chancellor Carmen Fariña has given orders not to make any space-sharing plans until the city has come up with better ways to get feedback from community members. Fariña wants future co-locations to happen only when they “come from the community and are not imposed on them,” Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said at a City Council hearing.

The statement from Grimm, the department’s longtime school facilities chief, signaled that the de Blasio administration remains committed to limiting future co-locations. (A department spokeswoman later said that a new process would solicit more community feedback, but that the city would still come up with its own proposals.)

Together, the statements outline the difficult position that Mayor Bill de Blasio will soon find himself in, given the continued growth of charter schools—which city officials do not control—and new charter school legislation, which will make co-locations financially advantageous.

“The governor has presented the mayor with a Hobson’s choice: spend money on facilities or disrupt schools daily through co-location,” said Brooklyn College Education Professor David Bloomfield.

The new law requires the city to provide new charter schools with free space inside the city’s own buildings or public funding to cover rent in a private facility. The legislation is a rebuke from state lawmakers of de Blasio’s criticism of charter schools during the mayoral campaign and his early months in office.

One challenge the law poses for de Blasio is that it makes financial sense to keep charter schools in city buildings. If the city doesn’t provide space, the law provides for charters to receive an extra funding allowance for each student, which in 2015 would be $2,775, from the city.

Thirteen charter schools have already been approved to open that year, serving 2,000 students at first and 5,800 at full capacity. Private space for those schools would cost as much as $5 million in the 2015-16 school year and $16 million once they are all at capacity, based on enrollment estimates.

In addition, the city is planning to spend $5.4 million next year for three displaced  Success Academy schools, which will have fewer than 500 students next year, to operate in Catholic school buildings.

Many of the schools approved to open in 2015 originally told their authorizers that they were planning to find, and pay for, private space, but the new legislation is likely to change those calculations. Vasthi Acosta, head of Amber Charter School, said the school’s board will consider requesting city space or funding for their newly approved second school.

The other option for de Blasio—siting all of the new charter schools in public school buildings—is likely to be a hard sell to communities.

Charter school co-locations, which make up about 10 percent of co-locations citywide, have frequently stirred resentment from parents and staff members at traditional public schools—some of which have been required to downsize to make room in their buildings. Bloomberg’s critics saw the encroachment as symbolic of his eagerness to supplant the traditional public education system with privately-run charter schools.

Some co-locations also cause major inconveniences. Schools have had to use auditoriums for storage and closets for classrooms, conditions that may violate students’ state constitutional rights, the Campaign for Educational Equity argued in a new research brief.

But supporters of the co-location policy also see it as an innovative—albeit imperfect— way to deal with New York City’s unavoidable space-crunch. And they point to a body of research that links the small schools and charters, which co-locations often made possible, to improved academic outcomes for students.

David Umansky, CEO of Civic Builders, a nonprofit that helps develop private space for charter schools, said he believes there is enough space in the system’s 1,200 buildings to responsibly add new schools. The question is, he added, how much the administration is willing to “deal with difficult issues with the communities.”

For a mayor who has promised to build consensus around major school planning decisions, and wants to keep money in the traditional school system, neither option is a clear win.

That leaves de Blasio and Fariña focused on changing a co-location decision-making process they have said is in serious need of repair.

To fix it, they have created two working groups whose members include several charter school leaders, including KIPP Founder Dave Levin. (Umansky is part of one.) Their charge is to identify ways to change to how school space is measured and allotted in the city’s yearly building utilization report, known as the “blue book,” and improve the public review process.

Some cosmetic changes are coming soon. Lorraine Grillo, CEO of the School Construction Authority, said at the hearing this week that it would be released earlier to give officials more planning time and be more “user-friendly” than previous versions. Substantive tweaks to the way school space is calculated won’t happen until next year, Grillo said.

Still, not all charter school co-locations are contentious. At the John F. Kennedy Campus, the two New Visions charter schools are seen as good neighbors by people working in the building’s six other high schools.

“People say, how do the charter schools and the district schools co-habitate so happily?” Karalyne Sperling, a principal in the building. She says it’s because most of the schools are associated with New Visions, a non-profit that also provides support to district schools.

“We have so many people that we know in common that it makes us more friendly toward each other and work things out,” Sperling added.

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Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”