war of attrition

A council bill and a looming report thrust ‘backfill’ into charter-school debate

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
City Councilman Mark Levine, who is sponsoring a charter-school enrollment transparency bill.

A Teach for America alum on the City Council is packing the legislative punch behind a new campaign aimed at pressuring charter schools to serve more high-needs students.

Councilman Mark Levine introduced a transparency bill in January that would shed light on how often charter schools and some district schools “backfill” vacant seats with new students. Meanwhile, a parent group backed by a prominent former charter-school CEO is planning to release an analysis of enrollment data that could lend new urgency to a debate that has long divided the charter sector.

Levine’s bill would also require the city to release data on how many students leave and are replaced in gifted and talented programs and specialized high schools. Together, a bigger set of public information about how students enter and leave schools would help parents and the public better evaluate city schools and their test scores, he said.

“If all you know about the schools are the test scores, and you don’t have any information about their backfill and attrition rates, then you don’t have the complete picture of school performance,” Levine, who represents Harlem and Morningside Heights, said in an interview.

Filling the seats of students who leave a school isn’t required, but some charter school operators believe backfilling is essential to fulfill the sector’s mission of serving at-risk students. And not filling seats means schools receive less public money to operate, making a no-backfill policy impossible for many schools.

Christina Reyes, founder and executive director of Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School, said she backfills for financial and ideological reasons. Not doing so is unfair to district schools that are usually obligated to accept students throughout the year, she said.

“If a district school doesn’t have a choice, why is it OK that we have a choice?” Reyes said.

The argument against backfill is that it can disrupt a carefully cultivated school culture and make it difficult for new students to catch up. Schools belonging to some charter management organizations, such as Uncommon Schools and Success Academy, have rejected backfilling in many grades — although both networks say they have begun filling more seats in recent years.

Levine’s bill represents a middle-of-road approach to regulating the city’s charter-school sector, whose growth is roundly opposed by many of Levine’s colleagues on the council. Education committee chair Daniel Dromm, who last week sent letters to charter schools seeking financial information about their operations, wants to pass a symbolic resolution to call on the state legislature to “reject any attempt to raise the cap on the number of charter schools.”

Last month, the parent group Democracy Builders, founded by former Democracy Prep CEO Seth Andrew, started an online petition to support Levine’s bill and wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that argued that all charter schools should backfill. Democracy Builders wants to require charter schools to backfill students, which would likely require changes to the state charter law.

That’s a step too far for Levine, who was a member of Teach for America’s second-ever cohort in 1991 and taught for two years at P.S. 146 (He also served a brief stint as executive director of Teach for America’s New York office in 2002). Levine said at this point he’s just looking for more data about the scope of the issue.

“I’m not prescribing a remedy here,” Levine said. “I think we need to get the data first. We can’t even have a reasonable conversation on the policy without it.”

Democracy Builders does have some data at its disposal. The organization is finishing an analysis of enrollment data from 2006 to 2014, and sources who have reviewed it say it could have a significant effect on the way state test scores are used to compare charter schools, particularly those belonging to some charter management organizations that don’t backfill.

That analysis has not yet been made public, but Democracy Builders Executive Director Princess Lyles said it will show how well schools hold onto students, or replace the ones who leave, and what effect that has on state proficiency rates, Lyles said.

“Generally speaking, we see that proficiency rates are going up as student enrollment is going down,” said Lyles, who added that she expected the analysis to be available later this month.

That context that is absent when the state releases its test scores each year, and schools with the highest proficiency rates routinely cite their performance on those tests as evidence that their model is working.

New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman said he supported the initiative, though he said Levine’s bill is flawed because it doesn’t require the same data for all city public schools. (Levine says he’s revising the bill to include them.) Merriman said the data should also show when students when students enter and leave schools, to rebut criticism of schools pushing students out before state tests, and show where students go when they leave charter schools.

“We are supportive of increased transparency and welcome additional data in regards to student enrollment that further helps put student achievement into perspective,” Merriman said in a statement.

 

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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.”