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.”

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.“

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

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.