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.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”

Future of Schools

Four school leaders hope to bring innovative ideas to Indianapolis education

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Brandon Brown introduces four new innovation school fellows.

Hoping to jumpstart innovation in Indianapolis education, four experienced educators will spend a year or more developing new models for schools.

The educators were chosen from among 39 applicants for fellowships from the Mind Trust, a nonprofit that supports district-charter partnerships. This is the fifth round of innovation fellowships, which give leaders one to two years to prepare to launch or takeover schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

The fellowship includes an annual salary of about $100,000, benefits, and support for creating new schools, such as visits to other schools, training, and legal assistance. The package for each fellow is worth approximately $200,000 per year.

The city has 16 innovation schools, and they enroll about 20 percent of the students in Indianapolis Public Schools. They are under the umbrella of the district, but they are managed by outside charter operators or nonprofits, and most of the teachers are not employed by the district nor do they belong to the teachers union. The Mind Trust has been instrumental in the creation of innovation schools, and the vast majority of the schools were founded with support from the nonprofit.

The innovation fellowship winners include two people from Indianapolis and two recruits from other cities. But in a sign that the nonprofit’s leaders have become more cautious in their choices, all four have years of experience in education.

Brandon Brown, CEO of the Mind Trust, said that’s by design. About four early innovation fellows never ended up opening innovation schools. But all of the recent winners have either opened schools or are on track to open them, he said.

Candidates are much more likely to be successful, he said, if they have the entrepreneurial spirit to create their own nonprofits and win community support — and have experience in education.

“There’s this notion that if you’re a great entrepreneur, you don’t have to have the unique skill set to know education and [yet] you can go operate a school,” Brown said. “We’ve learned that that’s a very rare thing to see.”

While the winners have all worked in established schools, however, Brown said they are trying new models.

Tihesha Henderson, principal of School 99, won a fellowship to develop a school designed to meet the social and emotional needs of students. She will take a yearlong leave from her current job and hopes to return and transform School 99 into an innovation school.

Henderson envisions a school that adjusts to meet student needs, whether through therapy, small classes, or classroom redesign. School 99 already has significant flexibility, but as an innovation school, Henderson would be able to change the school calendar and set teacher pay, she said.

“We don’t have to be the status quo,” she said. “We can branch out and do some things differently, but it all comes back to — are we meeting out kids needs?”

The other fellows are Alicia Hervey, dean of student development for Christel House Academies; Kim Neal, managing director of secondary education for the charter school network KIPP DC; and Brandy Williams, an expert in special education from New Orleans.

Although innovation schools are considered part of Indianapolis Public Schools, they also often have charters through the office of Mayor Joe Hogsett. The collaborative nature of the schools was on display at the announcement Thursday, where Hogsett, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, and Brown all spoke.

The innovation schools, said Ferebee, are part of a broader district strategy to give principals more flexibility to run their schools.

“We hire great leaders, get out of their way and give them the space and agility to make decisions about academics [and] operations to better serve our students and our families,” he said.

The city’s reputation in the education community is helping it attract educators from across the country, said Hogsett.

“They know our city is one where they can make a difference,” he said. “Indianapolis welcomes their passion with open arms.”