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.

new use

Committee picks Denver Language School to use building vacated by shuttered elementary

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Teacher Yu-Hsin Lien helps her third-grade students with classwork at the Denver Language School.

A charter middle school that immerses students in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese would occupy the northeast Denver building of an elementary school shuttered for low performance if the school board follows a committee recommendation made public Friday.

Denver Language School serves more than 700 students from across the city in kindergarten through eighth grade, although the recommendation is only for the upper grades. The school was one of seven that applied to use the building previously occupied by Gilpin Montessori elementary school in the Five Points neighborhood.

With real estate for schools scarce in Denver, the recommendation represents a win for the Denver Language School and a nod to some of the district’s priorities, including rewarding highly rated schools and collaborating with charters.

A committee of community members and Denver Public Schools employees tasked with reviewing potential occupants is recommending placing the charter’s fourth through eighth grades there next year while the school’s current building in east Denver is being renovated. After that, the recommendation is for the fifth through eighth grades to be housed at Gilpin.

In a letter to the community (read it below), the committee cited Denver Language School’s “high academic performance” and “track record of strong enrollment” among the reasons they chose it. The school has for the past two years been rated “green,” the district’s second-highest rating.

Because of the language immersion model, few new students enroll after kindergarten, which means the middle school wouldn’t draw many students away from neighborhood schools, the letter says, a concern voiced by some community members.

Denver Language School would pay the district to use the building. In a gentrifying city where real estate prices have been steadily increasing and the number of school buildings is limited, securing an affordable location is one of the biggest hurdles charters face.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg received the recommendation earlier this week. He is expected on Dec. 18 to make his recommendation to the school board, which is set to vote Dec. 21.

The school board voted last year to close Gilpin Montessori despite community opposition. This year, the building housed several programs serving students with special needs while the district decided on a long term occupant. The district’s criteria for that occupant were that it be a currently operating or previously approved secondary school with 600 students or fewer.

Denver Language School opened in 2010. Last year, it served about 300 students in grades five through eight. The letter says the school expects to enroll 365 students in those grades in future years, which means it would not fill the entire 600-student-capacity Gilpin building.

“In the future, we will revisit options for using the rest of the building,” the letter says.

The committee also noted the diversity of Denver Language School’s students as a positive. Last year, about 48 percent of students were children of color and 19 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty. Both percentages are below district averages.

The committee included four community members and five Denver Public Schools employees. They met privately five times over the course of two and a half weeks to come up with their recommendation. The district also hosted several forums to gather community feedback.

The committee members were:

  • Evelyn Barnes, parent of two students and aide to city council president Albus Brooks
  • John Hayden, president of the Curtis Park Neighbors neighborhood association
  • Katherine Murphy, parent of a former Gilpin student and a Curtis Park resident
  • Maggie Miller, member of the city’s Slot Home Task Force and a Five Points resident
  • Joe Amundsen, DPS’s associate director of school design and intensive support
  • Liz Mendez, DPS’s director of operations support services
  • Maya Lagana, DPS’s senior director of portfolio management
  • Sara Baris, DPS’s senior manager of planning and analysis
  • Shontel Lewis, DPS’s manager of public affairs

The other schools that applied included one district-run alternative high school, Compassion Road Academy, and five other charter schools: The Boys School, Colorado High School Charter GES, Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, 5280 High School and The CUBE. The last two schools have been approved by the district but are not yet open.

Read a letter the district sent to the Gilpin community below.

Indiana graduation pathways

Parents and educators worry about how new graduation rules will affect students with disabilities

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

In the wake of a wildly unpopular decision to change Indiana’s high school graduation rules, state officials must grapple with how to actually implement the plan — and students with disabilities could face more challenges following those rules than their peers.

Called graduation pathways, the goal was to ensure students are ready for life after high school, but the recommendations are complex. The system seems to overlap with existing Indiana diploma requirements and also requires additional criteria such as exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.

But there are no guidelines around, for example, what kinds of internships or community service programs would count for graduation, what kinds of supports and accommodations would be in place for students with disabilities or how the pathways would function alongside a student’s needs for special services and therapies.

The potential for these challenges was not lost on the dozens of parents and educators who tried to convince state officials last week to rethink the plan. Most of the people who commented publicly and many who sent emails to the state education department mentioned concerns about students with special needs being able to meet the new demands.

Stacey Brewer, a principal in Yorktown, talked about her own child, a 6-year-old with autism, when she addressed the Indiana State Board of Education.

“There is a very real chance that my child with autism will never be able to accomplish” parts of the graduation pathways plan that go beyond what’s required by the state’s general diploma, Brewer said. The state is “not weighing out the disastrous impact” the plan would have on students.

As she finished her passionate testimony, she walked back to her seat to energetic applause from the packed auditorium. Many with similar stories and sentiments spoke after her.

J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents said before Indiana can create graduation pathways, it needs to figure out what’s happening with its diplomas — a related issue that has vexed parents and educators ever since the federal government announced it would no longer count Indiana’s general diploma in the graduation rate the state reports. The move could exclude about 12 percent of Hoosier high schoolers from being considered graduates.

Indiana has four diplomas: The standard Core 40 diploma, a general diploma with fewer requirements, and two honors diplomas, one for academics and another for career and technical education. Most students in the state earn a Core 40.

“Don’t we need to fix the diploma statute to better serve all Indiana students before we embark on a new, untested direction for our graduates?” Coopman said.

Not all of the feedback was negative. Mary Roberson, a superintendent in Perry County, said she supported the graduation pathways plan overall, and that her district was already having students with disabilities pursue internships, where they’ve been successful.

In a newsletter sent out last week, Pam Wright, director of special education for the Indiana Department of Education, said policymakers and educators need to remember that all students with disabilities are not the same and have different needs and abilities. Some might struggle to meet the pathways requirements, but others might not.

“It is my hope that as other debates occur during this legislative session, the one-size-fits-all disability myth continues to be debunked,” Wright said in the newsletter. “Yes, definitely, students with disabilities need to be considered in any public policy change, but the uniqueness of each student’s capabilities should not be lost in the debate.”

Only about 17 percent of students with disabilities don’t earn a high school diploma, and almost half earn the state’s standard Core 40 diploma or an honors diploma.

Conversations about pathways, both as they relate to special education and to a variety of other topics, are just getting started. The pathways committee said it would continue to meet to address whether Indiana should create a single statewide diploma and how graduation waivers work in the new system.

Indiana law allows for a graduation waiver if students fail to meet pathway requirements, but the waivers are controversial, and schools are sometimes hesitant to award them. Supporters say they give opportunities to students who might face specific challenges, but critics believe the waivers give students a free pass and don’t ensure they leave high school with adequate skills.

No additional committee meetings have been scheduled at this time.

Students with significant cognitive disabilities — generally about 1 percent of students across the state — wouldn’t be affected by the pathways plan. They typically don’t earn high school diplomas, instead they receive a certificate of completion, a credential that until recently showed employers or educators little else besides that a student physically attended school. (It has since been expanded and updated to include more course suggestions and academic structure.)

Last week wasn’t the first time special education advocates came out in full force to challenge state officials on policy that could be detrimental to students with disabilities. Several diploma-related topics have garnered considerable attention, such as when the state attempted to overhaul diplomas in 2015.

The next year, when lawmakers passed legislation to ensure all schools offered students a chance to earn any state diplomas, educators, parents and other community advocates were there testifying to lawmakers, too. And as recently as last year, when an early version of a bill would have killed the general diploma, the language was amended out after pressure from the special education community.

Often, these graduation policy changes are sparked by a call for students to meet higher standards demanded either by employers or higher education. But Kim Dodson, executive director for the Arc of Indiana, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, said focusing on raising the academic bar distracts from the very real problems policies like the current graduation pathways plan could present to students with special needs.

“Most of the time, when students fall short of their expectations, it’s not because the bar wasn’t set high enough,” Dodson said. “It’s because they didn’t have the resources and accommodations they needed to be fully successful.”