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.”

what's next?

Policymakers agree virtual schools should get more teachers and less money. Will they make it happen?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A view outside of Indiana Virtual School's office, located in an office park at the northern edge of Marion County.

After Chalkbeat revealed widespread low-performance and unusual spending at Indiana Virtual School, there were no immediate plans to change how the fast-growing but relatively little-known online charter school operates.

Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman who is one of Indiana’s most influential education lawmakers, has not commented after repeated requests for an interview.

Senate Democrats have no education priorities specified for the upcoming year.

And Senate Republicans and House Democrats haven’t yet released their 2018 plans. Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he largely thought Indiana’s charter laws were fine, although he was open to tweaking aspects of the law — such as whether authorizers of failing charter schools should be allowed to open additional schools.

But national and even local charter school advocates — including those who could affect public policy — agree changes need to be made at Indiana Virtual School and online charters more broadly across the state. Some were blunt in their assessment of the school, which since 2011 has enrolled thousands of students and failed to graduate most of them. It also has a barebones teaching force, low test scores, and two F grades from the state.

“The whole thing is a mess,” said Tony Walker, a pro-charter school Democrat on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

And the school’s problems aren’t limited to academics. Walker also called out the school’s lenient attendance policy, lack of real-time teaching and choice not to provide computers to students.

“Them not having an online platform that permits them to have live courses should be a deal-breaker … You should never have an online school that exists without that,” he said. “You should never have an online school that’s chartered that does not provide the means to access the school to its students. If you’re not giving your students laptops, then you shouldn’t exist.”

What’s more, Thomas Stoughton, Indiana Virtual’s founder, previously headed a for-profit company that charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school while he was school board president. Stoughton is also leading the school’s growth — a second Indiana school opened this year, and plans for Michigan and Texas schools are in the works.

Although Indiana’s legislative session won’t begin until January — and it’s looking like a year where education won’t be center stage — Democrat and Republican lawmakers indicated interest in making changes to laws governing virtual schools, but nothing more.

Doing nothing just isn’t acceptable, said Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat from Anderson and a former educator.

“Surely given the statistics the General Assembly has an obligation to take a look what’s happening,” she said.

Walker said Indiana Virtual School’s student-teacher ratio jumped out at him. At the end of last school year, Indiana Virtual had one teacher for every 222 students.

Now, Indiana Virtual and the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy enroll about 6,332 students, served by 40 teachers, which makes the student-to-teacher ratio 158-to-1. The national average for online charter schools is 30-to-1, according to the National Education Policy Center.

“There’s absolutely no justification or reason that I can think of to permit a school to have a 221-1 faculty-student ratio,” Walker said. “That’s just ridiculous … There needs to be substantially more of the funds appropriated in the direction of instruction than I think this school has.”

Rep. Scott Pelath, the long-time leader of the House Democrats who stepped down from that role last week, was also surprised by the student-teacher ratio, even more surprised than he was by the tens of millions of dollars the state has set aside to fund the schools.

“That struck me as just outrageous, and I would think the public would think it was outrageous,” Pelath said. “Particularly when virtual schools are used as a substitute in places where you maybe have a lot more at-risk kids that need more attention, not less.”

Indeed, more than 80 percent of the students at Indiana Virtual qualify for meal assistance, but otherwise their demographics closely mirror those of the state — majority white, with relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs. The school says many of its students have been expelled from previous schools, and they say their students’ struggles are part of the reason graduation rates and test scores remain low.

But Karega Rausch, a former member of the Indiana Charter School Board who now works for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said online charter schools as a whole shouldn’t use student characteristics as an excuse. The group even has an entire set of online school-specific policies states should adopt in light of their poor performance.

“Just having lots of low-income kids is not a justifiable reason to not teach them well,” Rausch said. “Just having a lot of kids that may be mobile is not an excuse for not teaching them well. Traditional public schools and charter schools are finding ways of serving those kids at high levels.”

While traditional schools should serve as a model for instruction, Indiana’s school funding formula creates problems in a virtual environment. For schools like Indiana Virtual that have few barriers to entry and inconsistent attendance reporting practices, it can be hard to know if students who are enrolled are actually being educated. Yet schools get more money for every student they enroll.

Kruse and Walker, as well as national advocates, said they would support a funding model based on how much work students do, rather than whether they are on a school’s books on Count Day. New Hampshire and Florida already use this kind of system.

“There needs to be a different funding formula for these schools,” Walker said. “They should not be funded on a per-student basis like brick-and-mortar schools … it becomes a profit mill.”

An analysis from Florida Southwestern State College School of Education last year found that funding based on students finishing classes in virtual schools cost the state less money than the more traditional per-student model. Walker called on lawmakers to consider this change and put it into law “sooner rather than later.”

Pelath said based on what he’s learned about online schools, he doesn’t see them as a good substitute for traditional education. (Former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz agrees.)

“The oversight and accountability is not anywhere close to what we would have in traditional education,” Pelath said. “It’s entirely reasonable that some virtual experiences can be part of the larger overall experience, but as a substitute they are just woefully inadequate.”

The first step is to stop growth immediately, he said. Virtual schools enroll about 12,000 students across the state — about 1 percent of all students — and the number has been growing each year.

As far as upcoming legislation, Pelath was less sure, and new House Democrat leadership will certainly play a role in the caucuses’ goals for next year. Pelath was optimistic change could happen, but he was also realistic about the fact that a Republican supermajority in the House can make it difficult to get Democrats’ bills through.

“I think there’s a very good chance of that,” Pelath said in regards to possible legislation on virtual schools in the upcoming session. “Whether those things come in the form of originally introduced bills, of which there’s a risk of them staying bottled up in committee, or in the form of amendments to alter legislation that is moving in the process …This is going to have to be a debate.”



student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.