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.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.

school security

How Chicago schools’ fingerprinting requirements are scaring away undocumented parents

PHOTO: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Demonstrators at a June rally in the Little Village neighborhood called for the elimination of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A letter circulating among public school parents warns of unintended consequences of fingerprinting school council members because of concerns over deportations.

Parents and community leaders are calling on Chicago Public Schools to back away from a requirement for fingerprinting elected school council members, in light of widespread immigrant fears of deportation. The letter, which you can read below, is addressed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district leadership.

A group of Local School Council members at New Field Elementary, in Rogers Park, started the letter in English and Spanish after a fellow council member whom they believe to be undocumented refused to be fingerprinted because of fears of deportation.

“They want to have say in the education of kids — but it’s not worth it to risk deportation or be separated from their families,” said Annie Gill-Bloyer, a New Field LSC member who is helping circulate the notice.  

Gill-Bloyer, the parent of a second-grader at the school, said that the adults on the elected councils don’t have any unsupervised contact with children. “There are always several adults in that meeting, including the principal,” she said.

Per Illinois state law, all school council members are required to undergo a fingerprint-based background check, and prospective candidates are made aware of this requirement upon filing as a candidate. But some of them told Chalkbeat that the policy was not previously enforced. Local School Councils help select principals, review school-level budgets, and monitor school improvement plans. 

The issue highlights the balancing act that is bridging communities and schools, while keeping students safe. “The district remains committed to improving efforts to bolster student safety and protections and we also remain a district that welcomes and values all families from all backgrounds,” said CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton in a statement.

Starting this summer, Chicago Public Schools began doubling down on background rechecks and fingerprinting in the wake of a series of articles from the Chicago Tribune that exposed gaps in how the district handled allegations of student sexual misconduct at the hands of adults. The district announced several new policy changes and precautions before the start of school, including new trainings for staff, hiring for a 20-person Office of Student Protections and Title IX, and a districtwide poster campaign that spells out how to report suspected misconduct.

The district also has required all employees, vendors, coaches, and other adults who spend a significant amount of time working or volunteering in schools to undergo background rechecks and fingerprinting. Snafus with background checks threatened to delay the start of school for dozens of teachers and have held up staffing in other areas, such as nurses.

Gill-Bloyer said her group decided to write the letter after they called the Office of Local School Council Relations and were told the background checks would be enforced. The group was told that council members who didn’t comply could be removed as early as this fall.    

Calling the background checks and fingerprinting an “unacceptably high barrier to participation” for Hispanic/Latinx families, whose children make up nearly half of the Chicago’s public school population, the letter asks district leadership to reclassify Local School Council members as Level II volunteers — a category that doesn’t require fingerprinting. Council members tend to meet only a few hours per month in schools, often after school hours, and are not typically alone with children.

We understand the necessity of thoroughly screening all adults who work with and around our children in light of the horrifying revelations of sexual abuse and assault,” the letter reads. But, with respect to Local School Council members, “a blanket solution has created unwanted and unintended consequences.”

A Level II volunteer is the same status conferred to a parent who volunteers to go on a field trip or who volunteers in a school for fewer than 10 hours a week. Similarly, those volunteers are not allowed to be alone with children. Level I volunteer status — which requires fingerprinting and background checks — covers coaches and chaperones of overnight field trips.

The letter says that requiring school council members to submit their fingerprints and personal information to an electronic database for background checks exposes undocumented members and their dependents to “the very real risk” of having their information shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Chicago has adopted the “sanctuary city” designation, which essentially means that city officials pledge to limit cooperation with federal law enforcement in deportation cases, unless a resident was involved in a serious crime. The letter notes that stance when asking for the reclassification of school council members to Level II volunteer status.