not going quietly

Brooklyn charters protest city’s closure decision, as at least one prepares to fight

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Fahari Academy Charter School, above, will close in June.

The two struggling charter schools that the city plans to close in June aren’t going down without a fight.

Both schools, Fahari Academy Charter School and the Ethical Community Charter School, were told last week that the city would not renew their charters. Now, both say the city has ignored their strengths and are pushing back, with Fahari hinting at possible legal action.

“We will exhaust all options to ensure that this decision is reconsidered and reversed so that we may remain the incredible place of opportunity we have become for our families, staff, and students,” Jason Starr, board chair of the Fahari Academy Charter School, wrote in a four-page statement.

“We ask you to restore our faith in your leadership by visiting our school and revising your renewal decision,” Annette Keane, principal of Ethical Community, wrote in a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Fahari’s response in particular underscores an ongoing struggle for the city’s charter school office, which has had trouble closing schools in the past — both when it has tried to not renew an expiring charter, and when it has tried to revoke a charter mid-term. Low-performing schools, or ones in precarious financial positions, have successfully sued to remain open by proving in court that the city’s performance standards were moving targets and poorly communicated.

“The entire procedure utilized by the [charter school office] for revocation is riddled with inconsistencies and lacks a certain level of transparency,” a judge wrote in a 2012 ruling that overturned the city’s decision to close Williamsburg Charter High School.

Peninsula Preparatory Charter School also used the courts to stay open after the city attempted to close it in 2012. Fahari’s board has used the tactic, too, suing to keep the school open last year but withdrawing the lawsuit after Fariña agreed to give the school a one-year reprieve.

The situation has looked different for schools authorized by the State University of New York. Two SUNY-authorized schools set to close at the end of this year, UFT Charter School and Innovate Manhattan Charter School, had boards that voluntarily surrendered their charters (or in UFT’s, the charter for the school’s lower grades), in part because SUNY’s tightly enforced standards left little question that they would be closed.

Following the announcement on Friday, leaders at both Fahari and Ethical Community also criticized the city for giving the schools minimal advance notice that they were facing closure. Jason Starr, Fahari’s board chair, said he was shocked when the city informed the board.

“Neither Fahari’s Board of Trustees nor its administration were given notice of the DOE’s intentions, much less an opportunity to respond before the decision was made,” Starr said.

Keane, principal of Ethical Community, said she found out about 90 minutes before the city made its announcement, leaving her “completely blindsided by the media blitz that ensued.”

“Our families came to school shocked and confused, many in tears, on Friday morning,” Keane wrote in her letter to Fariña. “The Ethical Community Charter School believes it was unfair for you to deny our school the opportunity to share the news of our closure with our own community members.”

On Thursday afternoon, department spokeswoman Devora Kaye acknowledged in an email to reporters that the schools had been notified recently. In response to the schools’ criticism, she told Chalkbeat that the city had communicated the stakes and the timeline for its decisions with the schools.

“This was not a surprise,” Kaye said in a statement. “Each of these schools was given clear conditions with benchmarks for performance they had to meet to demonstrate they were best serving children. Both failed to do so.”

Thursday’s notice triggered a 30-day process, she added, during which each school’s board will get a chance to formally respond to the city’s decision.

Correction: A previous version misstated the Board of Regents’ role in approving the city’s non-renewal decisions. Unlike renewal decisions, no action from the Regents is needed to close charter schools through a non-renewal. 


Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

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