diversity of opinion

State law keeps charters from helping to reduce New York school segregation, report says

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

A new report points to charter schools as a potential avenue for fighting school segregation, but cautions that New York State law could make promoting diversity difficult in the Empire State.

In theory, charter schools are well positioned to achieve racial integration because they do not admit students based on their home address, writes researcher Halley Potter in “Charters Without Borders.” That makes them more like magnet schools, which can enroll students from all over a city, than like many elementary and middle schools in New York City, which admit students based on where they live.

But in New York, where state law requires charter schools to fill seats with students who live within the local district before offering seats to those who live outside it, that benefit is limited. New York is one of seven states with such a law.

New York City’s 32 school districts include some with racially and socioeconomically diverse populations. But many, including in parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn where the charter sector is strongest, do not have many residents who are white or middle-class.

Potter argues that the state’s enrollment rules limit chances to mix students of different backgrounds, which she said results in students attending racially isolated charter schools.

“It’s such a missed opportunity to restrict charter schools to in-district enrollment,” said Potter, who is a fellow at The Century Foundation and co-author of “A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education.” “If this were allowed for charter schools it would be a huge tool.”

The report comes as segregation in New York City schools is attracting more attention. A UCLA report issued last year found that New York Schools are among the most segregated in the country. The same report found that in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, nearly all charter schools were intensely segregated in 2010, with less than 10 percent white enrollment. The mayor and schools chancellor responded to a recent Chalkbeat story about stalled school diversity plans. The state has offered millions in new grants to city school districts and individual schools with plans to boost their diversity.

In crucial ways, racial segregation in charter schools stems not only from the letter of New York’s law, but from its spirit, too.

Some states permit charter schools simply as alternatives to local schools, opening them to middle-class families that prefer a different instructional approach or a focus on the arts, for example. In New York, the schools were created specifically to offer options to families whose children would otherwise be required to attend low-performing neighborhood schools.

That ethos has led charter operators to focus on enrolling local students, rather than engineering diverse student bodies.

“Our belief is that every community deserves great schools,” said Eve Colavito, the head of school for DREAM Charter School in East Harlem. “We do everything in our power to make sure that our scholars are from the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Potter said Colavito’s approach should not be treated as the only way forward.

“The public narrative around charter schools focuses on one particular kind of school,” Potter said. “That doesn’t take into account that some charter schools use their flexibility precisely to integrate.”

Indeed, some city charter operators have sought to use charter school enrollment rules, which require that students be admitted by lottery, to achieve diverse student populations. They include Daniel Kikuji Rubinstein, who runs Brooklyn Prospect Charter School and helped start the National Coalition of Diverse Charter Schools, as well as Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who argued in an op-ed earlier this month that charter school admissions lotteries could be used as tools to create diverse schools.

But New York City charter schools that enroll diverse populations are in racially and socioeconomically diverse districts. Moskowitz pointed to her schools on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill as evidence that residential diversity can translate into school diversity, but she did not note that her network’s Bronx and eastern Brooklyn schools are far less diverse.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said charter operators chose early on to employ strategies other than integration to boost students’ skills.

The attitude was: “I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to persuade white folks to go to school with black folks … I’m going to do what I can control,” Merriman said.

Though Merriman and Potter both believe charter schools can help foster school diversity, neither said they are the sole solution to school segregation.

“I don’t think [charter schools are] uniquely qualified,” Merriman said. “I think they are one part of the answer.”

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.