clashes in the space wars

Charter leaders continue to battle de Blasio over space in public school buildings

Parents and staff members from P.S. 277 and Academic Leadership Charter School at a January public hearing about a co-location plan.

A group of charter school leaders is trying to pour cold water on the idea that Mayor Bill de Blasio has warmed to charter schools.

Days after de Blasio gave an education speech that drew praise from some charter school leaders, others sharply criticized the mayor Tuesday charging that he has not done enough to support their growth. At the heart of their criticism is an ongoing battle for limited space inside of city-owned school buildings, which the de Blasio administration has been reluctant to offer to charter schools.

In an open letter to de Blasio, the leaders accuse the de Blasio administration of “hurting some of the city’s most vulnerable students” by denying their requests for space in public-school buildings.

The letter was circulated by the advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools, which is organizing a rally scheduled for Sept. 30 — the latest in a series of large-scale events designed to demonstrate the political power of the charter sector. It was signed by Eva Moskowitz, the leader of the Success Academy network of charter schools and a regular critic of  Mayor de Blasio’s, and by five other leaders who have been less apt to criticize the mayor publicly in recent months.

The schools’ requests for space have come in the wake of legislation, passed in 2014, that dramatically altered how charter schools in New York City found space.

Under former Mayor Bloomberg, some charter schools were granted space in public school buildings, and others were forced to use their budgets to pay for private space. The new law, sparked by a fight between Moskowitz and the city early in de Blasio’s term, offers additional perks to charter schools. Now, a new or expanding school can request city space, and if city officials say suitable space is not available, an appeals process allows charter schools to receive city funding to rent space elsewhere.

The administration has offered school space to a small number of charter schools, but de Blasio has leaned more heavily on the appeal process, denying requests from 45 charter schools, according to the New York Post. The result: All but one school will receive city funds to operate in private space, which the city estimates will cost more than $30 million by the end of this school year.

The leaders, who run the Achievement First, KIPP, Public Preparatory, and Uncommon Schools networks, as well as the founder of Coney Island Prep, called the city’s spending on private space “downright shameful” given that space remains available inside many public school buildings. Many charter networks favor space inside public buildings, in part because it saves money on utilities and other miscellaneous costs. Such co-locations, pioneered by the Bloomberg administration, helped the city’s charter sector to grow quickly over the last decade.

It is a striking contrast from the friendly tone that some of those leaders have sought to strike in other ways. Uncommon Schools has provided professional development to district teachers in Brownsville, KIPP founder Dave Levin served on a city-appointed space-sharing working group, and just last month Public Prep CEO Ian Rowe hosted a visit from Chancellor Carmen Fariña to one of his co-located schools on its first day.

But space-sharing arrangements can become tense as schools with different schedules, philosophies, and grade levels divide scarce resources like time in the cafeteria and gym. The Panel for Educational Policy rejected one such co-location request at the end of last school year, citing concerns about the arrangement. De Blasio vowed to listen more closely to concerned school communities while campaigning for mayor.

David Bloomfield, a professor of education leadership at the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, said he sees reasons for charter schools to prefer private space, primarily that they don’t have to share common facilities. The mayor is being unfairly criticized, he said, for following procedures outlined in a law that charter school advocates favored.

“This is a law that was written to their specifications, certainly not de Blasio’s,” Bloomfield said. “It seems to be a situation where he can do no right.”

Meanwhile, not all charter school leaders agree that operating in public school buildings is necessary — or even preferable. Steve Zimmerman, the founder of two charter schools in Queens and co-director of the Coalition for Community Charter Schools, a group that represents many unaffiliated charter schools, said that public schools built decades ago often have outdated infrastructure that can be hard to renovate.

Plus, Zimmerman added, there’s only so much space available in public buildings.

“We’re going to be bumping up against reality soon,” he said.

Department spokeswoman Devora Kaye said in a statement that the city was simply complying with state law.

“We have a clear process in place and have been and continue to comply with the State law to provide space or rental assistance for eligible charter schools,” Kaye said in a statement.

big plans

Four things you should know about new Memphis plan to expand district support for all schools

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Shelby County Schools board members heard an ambitious plan Tuesday to expand district support for students across all its nearly 150 schools.

The proposal would expand the district’s flagship turnaround program, the Innovation Zone; test all first-graders for gifted education; give hand-held electronic devices to more high school students; and offer more advanced courses. The recommendations are the first from the district’s new chief academic officer, Antonio Burt, who was appointed in September.

“We’re really focused on system-wide equity,” he said. “We can really switch the conversation from equity to really focusing on equity in action.”

In recent years, Memphis has become a model in Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts. But district officials believe Shelby County Schools has not effectively scaled those lessons up to impact more students more quickly. Burt said his plan will fill in those gaps.

Burt did not break down how much these initiatives would cost, but incoming interim superintendent Joris Ray said the proposals would anchor the district’s budget priorities for the 2019-20 school year.

Here is what you need to know:

All first-grade students would be tested to see if they are eligible for CLUE, the district’s gifted education program.

Currently, teachers pick students to be tested for admittance into a program that promotes higher-level grade work for students from preschool to high school.

Burt said the way students are chosen has led to wide disparities in the racial makeup of the program. Though white students make up 7 percent of the district’s population, they make up 38 percent of the students in CLUE. Black students make up 77 percent of the district’s enrollment, but 45 percent of students in the program.

Nationally, black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers, and especially if their teacher is white, according to a 2016 study at Vanderbilt University.

For the first time, all Memphis schools identified by the state as low performing will get additional money.

Eleven schools will be added to the district’s Innovation Zone, known for improving test scores.

The iZone pumps about $600,000 per school for teacher bonuses, for more resources to combat the effects of poverty, and for principals to have more say over which teachers they hire.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district’s academic chief.

Some of the schools Burt wants to add have been languishing on the state’s list since it was first created in 2012, but have not received substantial support.

As some schools are being added to the iZone, others have improved their performance, and are no longer eligible for additional state funding. Shelby County Schools, which has covered the reduction in funding, for the first time plans to gradually wean 13 schools off that extra support. Burt vowed to monitor those schools to make sure they don’t slip again.

Scroll down to the bottom of the story to see which schools will be affected.

Burt’s plan also would combine Hamilton Elementary and Hamilton Middle into a K-8 school next year, and separate Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High into two schools again after a charter operator moved out the neighborhood. The Hamilton school proposal is also part of outgoing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s recommendation to consolidate some schools.

Every student in nine high schools would get a hand-held device or laptop this fall, with a goal to expand to every school by the 2024-25 school year.

The district hasn’t decided whether it would be laptops, tablets, or some other device, but officials say students should have more access to technology.

“I think about children in the municipalities and across the nation… they have a device in their hand,” said Ray. “All their textbooks, they’re loaded to one device. So we need to in Shelby County Schools increase technology and give our students the opportunity to compete worldwide.”

But board members cautioned the district should have a robust learning plan for those devices.

“It’s more than just putting a device in hand,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.

Every high school will have two Advanced Placement courses for college credit by school year 2020-21.

Students from poor families are more likely to attend a high school with fewer advanced courses, according to a 2018 district report. Burt wants to change that.

The plan calls for more teachers in every high school to be trained to lead an honors, Advanced Placement, or pre-Advanced Placement class.

Below are the schools that would be added to and removed from the iZone. Read the district’s full presentation below.

The schools that would be added to the iZone are:

  • LaRose Elementary
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Getwell Elementary
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Woodstock Middle
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Craigmont Middle
  • Wooddale High
  • Sheffield High
  • Oakhaven High
  • Manassas High

These schools would be cycled out of the iZone:

  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Treadwell Elementary
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Ford Road Elementary
  • Westhaven Elementary
  • Douglass K-8
  • Chickasaw Middle
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Hamilton Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Mitchell High
  • Melrose High

text skills

‘My reminders are not spam!’: Teachers and parents protest Verizon over new texting fees

Hell hath no fury like teachers who are told that their direct line to students and parents might soon be cut off.

That’s what Verizon is learning after a text-messaging service used by teachers and parents to share updates about homework assignments and snow days announced that the company would soon make messaging prohibitively expensive.

The service, Remind, emailed users late Monday to tell them that Verizon had decided to treat their messages as spam — a move that would make it impossible to continue distributing messages for free. The change would affect 7 million of the service’s 31 million users, a spokesperson said.

“The Verizon fee will increase our costs of providing text messaging by 11X—pushing our annual costs into the millions of dollars,” the company said in the letter. “This isn’t financially feasible for us to support, and it’s forcing us to end Remind text messaging for everyone who has a wireless plan with Verizon.”

The letter urged teachers and families to download Remind’s app instead — and to lobby Verizon to change its policy.

“If there’s one thing we know, it’s the power of communication,” Remind’s website read. “If Remind’s made a positive impact on how you teach or learn, please call Verizon and ask them to #ReverseTheFee.”

Overnight and into Tuesday, countless educators and parents followed Remind’s lead, posting on Twitter and calling Verizon to explain why free text messaging is essential to their work. Two million educators use the service monthly, and the company says it is used in about 80 percent of U.S. schools.

“My reminders to students and their parents are #NotSpam!!,” wrote Phillip Cantor, a high school teacher in Chicago.  “My district allows ONLY @remind101 to communicate with students via text because it’s safe and free.”

“I bet you didn’t know that 29% of the students that attend the school I teach at rely on the translation tool built into @RemindHQ,” tweeted Beth Small. “Please don’t silence parent/teacher communication!”

“The Remind service is invaluable with my students,” wrote David Bell. “As a high school counselor it helps me build a rapport with my students that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

Remind officials said the company had been trying to negotiate with Verizon since last summer, when the company first announced the rate increase. (They also said they are locked in a similar conflict with a telecommunications company in Canada.)

Those negotiations are complicated. According to a Verizon spokesperson, Remind contracts with another messaging company, Twilio, that contracts with a firm that has a contract with Verizon, and Remind is not the only service to be caught in a dragnet meant to reduce the number of spam messages that cell phone users receive.

Several of those companies met throughout the day Tuesday with the goal of preserving free text-messaging for teachers and schools. But the night ended without a resolution, and with the social media protest continuing to take aim at the phone company.

“As a student, I use Remind daily and by charging teachers for using its features, that experience will be cut off for me,” tweeted Keegan Ator. “What’s more important, future generations of hard-working students or a few extra pennies in the bank?”