charter wars

Why calls for Success Academy sanctions aren’t likely to succeed

Chanting “suspend Eva,” advocates entered SUNY’s offices last week demanding that its officials punish the Success Academy charter-school network and its founder, Eva Moskowitz.

The activists want SUNY to launch a formal investigation into the network’s discipline policies and stop granting the network more charters in response to a New York Times article which described unruly students being pressured to leave Success schools through suspensions and 911 calls.

“We’re looking for outcomes from that investigation,” said Billy Easton, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy organization opposed to Success Academy.

It’s the latest in a long line of calls for tighter regulation of the charter school sector from charter critics, who have promised to create an entire lobbying campaign around the media reports about Success.

Experts say SUNY’s intervention specifically is unlikely. Here’s why.

How it works

As one of two authorizers in the state that can approve new charters, the SUNY Charter School Institute is also tasked with renewing successful schools and closing unsuccessful ones. SUNY can reprimand the charter schools it oversees in two ways.

One is during its annual holistic review of each school. The other is through a formal complaint process. That starts with a complaint filed by a parent alleging that the school has violated the law or its charter — the document laying out the school’s mission and its academic goals.

Through either process, SUNY can place schools on corrective plans or probation, revoke a charter, or simply recommend that a school close at the end of its charter term.

But the formal complaint process only reaches SUNY when schools fail to handle violations on their own, according to SUNY materials. Since Success says the “Got to Go” list described in the Times existed for three days and was handled within the charter school network, it doesn’t rise to that level.

One of the last times a formal complaint reached SUNY was in 2013, when a parent’s concern at Roosevelt Children’s Academy Charter School on Long Island caused SUNY officials to recommend the school be put on probation. This year, SUNY officials advised that the school be granted a full five-year renewed charter, with conditions.

Meanwhile, even if SUNY were to take a broader look at Success’ discipline policies, the authorizer’s holistic reviews include many other factors. And though SUNY is known for having strict standards, it also dislikes meddling in school affairs — a reputation that some charter leaders say is in line with the charter sector’s emphasis on autonomy and makes it a preferred authorizer in New York.

“We have confidence that SUNY, one of the most respected authorizers in the country, won’t stop authorizing the highest performing network of charter schools in New York City because one of our 34 principals made a mistake a year ago for which we promptly reprimanded him,” Success spokeswoman Ann Powell said in a statement.

A question of focus

The focus of SUNY, and the state’s other charter authorizers, is primarily on making sure that charter schools are fulfilling their original intent — boosting student achievement.

Academic achievement is the “single most important factor” in their assessments of schools, according to SUNY guidelines. By those metrics, Success Academy schools regularly outperform the city’s district schools and other charter schools as well.

Dirk Tillotson, the executive director of school choices at the New York Charter School Incubator, said that while he would like to see SUNY take a broader look at school discipline, they have been narrowly focused on stringent academic standards in the past.

“Many of the authorizers just haven’t wanted to take this fight on,” he said

Meanwhile, schools are seldom dinged for discipline issues in their holistic reviews, said Leslie Talbot, an education consultant and a leader of the Pathways to Opportunity Project.

SUNY has been in contact with officials from most of the 22 charter schools up for renewal this year in the last few weeks, including from Success Academy, said Susan Miller Barker, the executive director of SUNY’s Charter School Institute. She did not say whether the Institute discussed the New York Times allegations with Success.

What is happening, and other options

Advocates may still seek to force changes to discipline policies in other ways, including lawsuits and through the legislative process.

Achievement First, another prominent charter school network, faces a lawsuit that some schools mishandled special education students. Meanwhile, state legislators have put forth legislation that could ban suspensions for young children for nonviolent infractions and limit the time of suspensions at both district and charter schools.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was circulating an online petition Wednesday calling for the federal education department to conduct its own investigation. And at least one state senator has also pledged to look into Success’ potential legal violations.

“There’s some charges that the Success Academies may be subject to. My office will be looking into that,” said State Senator Bill Perkins. He did not say which specific charges Success could face.

Regardless of this particular case, SUNY is beginning to look more closely at school discipline data. Miller Barker said they had begun asking charter schools up for renewal to provide more detailed information about suspensions.

“We will continue to review this information and as allowed by existing law take into consideration any violations of law or the misuse of discipline by our schools,” she said in a statement.

On Wednesday, a group of Success Academy vowed to continue their work, calling the ongoing criticism of their work a distraction.

“We’re not worried about lawsuits,” said Khari Shabazz, principal of Success Academy Harlem West. “We want to make sure that we addressed what we thought was a mischaracterization of our schools and let it stand where it is.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”