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.


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”