Bridging the divide

Even as political battles persist, more district and charter schools join partnership program

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

Recently, Dawn Brooks DeCosta, the principal of a traditional elementary school in Harlem, was looking for way to boost her students’ social and emotional skills. Her search led her to an unlikely event: a charter school assembly.

She watched as students at the Bronx Lighthouse Charter School publicly shared life updates. Some had lost a tooth, others celebrated a birthday, still others were earning A’s in math. Later, students competed to put the scattered lines of a poem back in order.

There was “a lot of cheering, a lot of excitement,” said DeCosta, the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School. She was so impressed she decided to replicate the assembly at her school once a month.

“If it’s really good,” she said, “maybe we can do it twice.”

DeCosta was introduced to Bronx Lighthouse through the city’s District-Charter Partnership program, a city initiative kicked off in 2015 that brings together schools from both sectors to share ideas on topics ranging from classroom discipline to working with families to improving teaching.

While the political clashes between the charter sector and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration often grab headlines, behind the scenes there is a growing collaboration that — contrary to de Blasio’s occasional critiques of charter schools — his administration is trying to nurture.

“While there remain real policy disagreements,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, “there is also a very positive attempt to work across them or around them.”

For de Blasio, the program may serve as an olive branch to the charter sector, and allow him to show his concern for all students — no matter the type of school they attend. For the charter sector, it’s a chance to learn from traditional schools while also sharing their innovations, which many consider a core purpose of charter schools.

“At the end of the day,” said Jane Martinez Dowling, head of programs for KIPP NYC, “we want all of our students to rise together.”

A growing number of schools are participating in the city’s district-charter partnership. This year, 36 schools are joining the program. And this past summer — through the program — 25 rising seniors from three district high schools took part in the KIPP charter network’s Through College Summer Bridge initiative, where they learned about the social, academic, and financial aspects of college life.

Melissa Harris — the education department official tasked with overseeing the district-charter program — may be uniquely qualified for the job: Her daughter previously attended a Success Academy charter school and now attends a district school. (Harris said she switched schools because her daughter was interested in programs at the district school, not because of any problems with Success.)

PHOTO: Photo provided by the Department of Education
Melissa Harris

Harris said that even though the political fights around charter schools attract the most attention, when it comes to actual schools, cooperation is the norm.

“When you hear about district and charters having tension, usually you hear about that on a very high level,” said Harris, the senior executive director of the education department’s Office of School Design and Charter Partnerships. “But once you get down to the ground, everyone’s working together.”

The partnership program has several components: Some are aimed at smoothing the relationship between schools that share the same building, while others are designed to get district and charter school leaders to share tips about math instruction, serving students who are still learning English, or adopting less-punitive discipline policies.

A program by Uncommon Schools — a network with 23 schools in New York City — has trained 172 district school educators last year, and 500 total, on everything from how to call on students to how to check if a student understands a problem.

Some of the partnerships sprang from the ground up, Harris said. For instance, the superintendent of Brooklyn’s District 16 organized a “crawl” across the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood that encourages parents to visit the local district and charter schools.

The program has also been helpful to independent charter schools, which cannot lean on the built-in support group of a charter-school network or a traditional district. Richard Berlin, a founding member of Harlem RBI’s DREAM Charter School, which has a large population of students with disabilities, said the partnership allowed the school to compare its special-education program to that of other schools.

“As a non-network charter, we’re always looking for partners we can learn from,” Berlin said. “We have to create our own network.”

An indirect benefit of this collaboration is that it can break down charter and traditional school leaders’ preconceived notions about each other.

At the beginning of the partnership, principal DeCosta said she took part in an awkward conversation where she and some charter school leaders shared assumptions about each other. She told them she was under the impression they did not serve many students with disabilities, while they shared their negative perceptions of teachers unions.

“It was uncomfortable,” De Costa said. However, “It definitely did shift my perspective.”

Despite the ground-level collaboration, political battles continue — with most revolving around school space. Charter leaders have long argued that the de Blasio administration has made it unnecessarily difficult for charter schools to get space, while the administration argues that it is a complicated and inherently timely process.

Recently, it appeared the charter sector and de Blasio were headed for a truce after the mayor struck a deal with lawmakers this summer in exchange for their extending his control of the city’s schools. It included providing MetroCards to charter school students and streamlining the process for finding or paying for space for charter schools.

Yet, even after the deal, the charter sector is still demanding school space for this year and insisting that de Blasio hasn’t held up his end of the bargain.

Though Harris wants to focus on the relationship-building aspect of her job, she is also charged with carrying out the deal and responding to schools’ questions — and complaints — about building space. That involves acting as a liaison to Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network and the one that’s been involved in the most high-profile clashes over space with the de Blasio administration.

Harris said she is doing her best to respond to Success’ space requests, but added that the city is required to get input from community members before making space decisions — and that takes time.

“We’re in constant conversation,” Harris said, referring to her office’s interactions with the charter sector. “So I don’t think that anyone can say that we’re not meeting, answering the telephone, trying to be as honest as we can about what we can do to support their organizations.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Uncommon Schools trained 172 district school educators last year.

recipe for success

Eva Moskowitz looks back at her turn away from district schools, as she plans for 100 schools of her own

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eva Moskowitz speaks to students at the 2016 "Slam the Exam" rally.

Eva Moskowitz didn’t always aspire to be a champion of alternatives to the city’s public schools.

During an interview at a Chalkbeat breakfast event on Thursday, the high-profile — and often controversial — CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools explained her evolution from what she described as an “FDR Democrat” who believed the traditional school system was flawed but could be improved to an outspoken critic trying to lead an educational revolution from the outside.

Her transformation didn’t come from “reading Milton Friedman,” the free-market economist, she said. Instead, she described a gradual disillusionment with the traditional school system that began when she was a student at a Harlem elementary school, which she said was effectively “warehousing children,” and continued when she was a city councilwoman scrutinizing the city’s contract with the teachers union. (She claimed the union’s pushback against her contract probe made her feel like she was in one of the “Godfather” films.)

Success Academy is New York City’s largest charter school network, with 46 schools and 15,500 students. The network which mostly serves black and Hispanic children  has extremely high test scores, which critics argue are largely the result of intense test preparation and strict discipline policies that push out the hardest-to-serve students.

Moskowitz and her schools have been the target of criticism from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made challenges to charter schools a tenet of his first campaign, and Moskowitz a particular target (he said she should not be “tolerated, enabled, supported”). She has fought back fiercely, staging rallies and protests and demanding that de Blasio provide the charter sector with space for its classrooms.

Her clash with City Hall is in marked contrast with that of Michael Mulgrew, president of the city teachers union, who two years ago explained to the audience at a similar Chalkbeat breakfast what it is like to work with an ally in City Hall.

Moskowitz laid out for her breakfast audience her aggressive expansion plans  which she said she intends to pursue despite de Blasio’s resistance. She estimates the charter sector will serve about 200,000 students in four years (out of the total 1.1 million public school students in New York City) and wants to expand Success Academy to reach 100 schools.

Moskowitz recently released a memoir, which is full of personal details about her history and explains the backstory of Success Academy. She remains a pugnacious advocate for her cause, continuing to take on the unions and the mayor, while arguing that parent choice is central to making schools more equitable.

Here are some takeaways from the event, which was held at the Roosevelt House in Manhattan.  

She decided early on that many district schools are failures.

Moskowitz attended a public elementary school in Harlem, where she said she and her brother were the only white students in the school. She described what she calls the “warehousing of children” and dubbed it “expensive babysitting.” When she attended Stuyvesant High School, she said, she had a French teacher who didn’t speak French and a physics teacher who was sometimes intoxicated.

As a teenager, she started helping Cambodian refugees find schools. In the neighborhoods they could afford, the schools were “God awful,” she said, while nicer schools were in neighborhoods out of their price range.

“It did stick with me that you were totally screwed if you didn’t live on the right side of the street,” Moskowitz said.  

She believes unions and their contracts are a big part of the problem.

Ninety percent of schools “are not working at the most basic level,” Moskowitz said, a dysfunction that she argued is partly due to the rules in teacher and principal contracts.

After becoming chairwoman of the City Council’s education committee in 2002, Moskowitz held hearings on every aspect of the school system including toilet paper. But her biggest showdown came when she decided to tackle the teachers union contract, she said.

“It is not a genteel sport when you take on the teachers union,” she said. “I had never felt like I was living a ‘Godfather’ movie before I took on the unions. It was a very scary undertaking.”

She envisions continued growth for the charter sector, but would not be pinned down on how large it would grow.

Though she has aggressive goals to expand Success, Moskowitz wouldn’t say what percentage of the city’s public schools should be charter schools. She called it a “hypothetical debate” and wouldn’t make a prediction for the future, saying she doesn’t have a “crystal ball.”

Parent choice is at the heart of her philosophy.

Moskowitz said parent choice is “fundamental” and the best bet for ensuring school qualify. Parents also are a bulwark, Moskowitz argued, to ensure  that charter schools — which are run by private boards — will be responsive to the public will.  

She also thinks charter schools should be held accountable for results.

Although charter schools are freed from some bureaucracy, they are highly regulated and do not operate in “some libertarian universe,” she said. She said she holds her own schools to account, believing that she should not increase the number of Success Academy schools unless all are high-quality.

She “urged caution” about trying to engineer diversity at charter schools.

Moskowitz thinks districts can “get the social engineering wrong” when they try to integrate schools by methods such as forced admission or busing. Instead, she argued, parents should be the engine that drives integration in charter schools through their ability to choose which schools their children attend.

The city should concentrate on integrating district schools, where admission to most elementary schools is based on the zones families live in, she said.

“I’m not sure we should put our energy into fixing charters on this front when they are already a much more open, accessible system than the zoned system,” Moskowitz said.

WRONG SCORES

Scoring glitch means thousands of Tennessee students got wrong TNReady score

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Photo Illustration

Just when it seemed that this year’s state testing had gone off with minimal hitches, news has emerged that thousands of exams were incorrectly scored.

About 9,400 students in 33 districts across Tennessee received incorrect scores after the testing vendor, Questar, used a scanning program that included an error. That includes Shelby County Schools in Memphis, where the problem affected just over a thousand students at 11 high schools, school board members confirmed on Friday.

An official with the state’s Achievement School District said he wasn’t aware of the issue, but the ASD is one of 33 districts affected, according to the state.

The errors were isolated to English I and II and Integrated Math II tests for high school students, according to an email to school board members.

Shante Avant, chairwoman for Shelby County’s board, said the errors are concerning, especially after the tumultuous rollout of TNReady in 2016.

“Our kids do have to be assessed so we know how best to support them. And there’s a heightened scrutiny with test scores. But when we’re not able to provide accurate information, it breeds mistrust,” she said.

Here are the Shelby County Schools affected:

The state said tests for students in grades three through eight were re-checked and no errors were detected. “All student score results for grade 3-8 are correct and final,” according to a state email to superintendents.

It’s unclear how much the scoring errors might have distorted district averages, which the state reported in late August. About 1,700 of the changed scores statewide affected whether or not a student passed the test. 

“I don’t know if 1,000 out of 10,000 students is going to significantly impact the district,” said Shelby County board member Chris Caldwell. “But we certainly want to make sure they come out as accurate. It’s especially important for the students.”

Several districts, including Shelby County Schools, chose not to include raw TN Ready scores in student report cards, meaning student grades wouldn’t have been affected by incorrect scores. But confusion remains for board members on how exactly this will impact students as well as teachers, who are evaluated based on their students’ exam scores, Caldwell said.

What is clear is that the scores could have implications for historically low-performing schools. This year’s scores were the second year of the state’s new test for high school students — and the state will use them to decide what happens to struggling schools under its new accountability plan to comply with federal law.  

While TNReady results for individual schools haven’t been released yet, district-level scores for high schoolers showed that few were on grade-level in Memphis school districts.

Questar was new to Tennessee test-making this year and was responsible for distributing and scoring the exams. Questar took over following a string of TNReady challenges in the test’s inaugural year. After the online platform failed and numerous delivery delays of printed testing materials, McQueen canceled testing in grades 3-8 and fired its previous test maker, Measurement Inc.

 “Questar takes responsibility for and apologizes for this scoring error,” Chieff Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said in an email to the state. “We are putting in additional steps in our processes to prevent any future occurrence. We are in the process of producing revised reports and committed to doing so as quickly as possible.”

Here is the full list of district’s affected:

  • Achievement School District
  • Anderson County
  • Benton County
  • Bradley County
  • Bristol City
  • Carter County
  • Cocke County
  • Collierville City
  • Crockett County
  • Davidson County
  • Elizabethton City
  • Giles County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hardin County
  • Henry County
  • Huntingdon Special School District
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Knox County
  • Lewis County
  • Lincoln County
  • Marshall County
  • Maryville City
  • Monroe County
  • Montgomery County
  • Obion County
  • Putnam County
  • Roane County
  • Rutherford County
  • Shelby County
  • Smith County
  • Sumner County
  • Union City
  • Weakley County

This story has been updated with comments from Shelby County Schools board chair Shante Avant and Questar. We have updated the story with a full list of districts affected.