after the appeals

City set to begin paying millions for charter-school rent under new law

The city is getting ready to cut its first checks to charter schools that are paying for their own space—an outlay that could stretch to nearly $10 million for this school year, based on charter school enrollment figures.

By the end of May, the Department of Education will have sent money to dozens of expanding charter schools to cover this year’s facility costs, according to a letter sent to school leaders this month. The schools are the first to reap the significant financial benefits of a state law passed just over a year ago that is sure to grow more costly for the city in the coming years.

“It’s huge,” said Great Oaks Charter School founder Michael Duffy, who became the first school leader to test the nascent law’s limits this summer. Duffy estimates his Lower Manhattan school stands to receive about $300,000 to cover rent for about 109 students in seventh grade this year.

Great Oaks is one of 46 city charter schools in private space that added grades, according to the New York City Charter School Center, and more than 3,600 students from those schools were enrolled in new grades. Most of those schools successfully appealed to the State Education Department for rental assistance over the last several months.

Under the law, eligible schools can receive up to 20 percent of their total school funding for those students — which this year rounds to $2,755 per student. (The actual amount paid to each school could be less, depending on how much the school pays in rent. The department is reviewing leases to calculate what to pay each school.)

Not all eligible schools have applied for the funding, a department spokesman said, though the charter center said most are expected to have applied or to apply in the future. If they do, the city would be on the hook for as much as $10 million for this school year, although that sum will likely be lower because some school leaders said they paid less than $2,755 per student in rent.

The spokesman said that a precise tally of costs would not be available until city reviews all of the appeals.

But the city’s costs are certain to continue to add up, as more schools open and enrollment increases at expanding schools. Next school year, the charter center’s enrollment projections would put the maximum tab just for expanding schools at $17.8 million.

One of those new schools, South Bronx Early College Academy Charter School, will be due more than $300,000 for 110 six graders next year, according to the founding principal.

“It’s a heck of a gift,” said the founder, Ric Campbell.

The city is obligated to spend $40 million to cover rent costs of eligible charter schools if they are not given space inside of a city-owned building, according to the law. Once the bills hit the $40 million ceiling, costs will be split with the state.

The law was passed in April 2014 as a rebuke to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who during his early months in office signaled that he would end the city’s practice of giving charter schools space inside of city-owned buildings for free. Charter schools do not automatically receive any funding for space, and de Blasio’s predecessor Michael Bloomberg used the controversial space-sharing policy to help grow the city’s charter sector.

“The challenge since the dawn of the charter school sector in New York City has been facilities,” said Duffy, who headed the education department’s charter school office from 2007 to 2010. The new facilities funding law, he added, “is the next chapter.”

Many of the schools set to receive the funding didn’t expect the financial boost when the law was passed last April. Lawmakers and members of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s own staff indicated then that only brand-new schools would be covered.

But a conference call last May between charter school leaders and New York City Charter School CEO James Merriman kicked off what would become a broader campaign. Merriman, a lawyer, said his reading of the law suggested that existing schools could also take advantage of the funding as long as they were adding grades.

Duffy was the first leader of an existing school to request space from the city and, once denied, appealed to then-State Education Commissioner John King. On his last day in office, King upheld Great Oaks’ appeal, a decision that opened the floodgates for other schools to submit their own requests.

Not all the private rent bills will cost as much as the $300,000 that Duffy is expecting for Great Oaks, which next year will move into a school building that will be vacant after the charter school there now closes at the end of the school year.

For instance, there are just 13 students in 11th grade this year at John W. Lavelle Preparatory, according to President Ken Byalin. The most the school could receive for this year is about $36,000, but Byalin said it would be lower because its costs to operate inside corporate offices come out to less than $2,755 per student.

Byalin said that since the school’s rent is already paid for the year, the money might go toward providing summer school classes, more Saturday school days, or maybe to fund a trip for the school’s inaugural senior class next year.

Not all charter schools in private space are eligible for city money. Twenty-three are done adding grades, and are therefore ineligible, a funding discrepancy that has prompted a lawsuit from charter school parents and advocates.

And not all of the expanding schools in private space will receive it. New Dawn Charter High School in Brooklyn is a transfer school for students who had previously left other high schools and are behind in their academic credits. But because students enter the school at different ages and different levels of high school completion, the school doesn’t technically have any grades. So even though it is adding students, it is not technically “adding grades,” which disqualified the school, according to its principal.

“We argued that the wording in the law was not meant to be a barrier to a new school like us,” New Dawn principal Sara Asmussen said of her school’s rejected appeal. “But it’s fine. The law’s the law. That’s what it says.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.