problem solvers

From buying books to managing the lunchroom: Meet the behind-the-scenes teams that keep Success charters running

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students participate in science class at Success Academy Harlem 1.

Success Academy — New York City’s largest and most controversial charter school network — is best known for its sky-high test scores. Critics chalk up the results to intense test preparation and strict discipline policies that they say force out challenging students, while supporters credit stellar teaching and exacting expectations.

But people within the schools also point to a less flashy but just as crucial secret to the network’s success: “operations” teams embedded in each of the network’s 46 schools that handle a mix of logistical matters — from ordering supplies to managing the lunchroom — and family support. When it comes to families, they help do whatever it takes to get students to class, whether that means getting subway passes for students traveling from homeless shelters or buying alarm clocks for students who are habitually late.

The mission of these behind-the-scenes teams is to attend to the myriad issues that arise inside a school on any given day — clogged toilets, upset parents, sick students — so that the educators and students can concentrate on teaching and learning.

“The way that I like to describe my job is I’m responsible for everything besides teaching kids,” said Ashlee Scott, who as the “business operations manager” leads the troubleshooting team at Success Academy Harlem 1. “We see it as like a customer-service situation.”

To an extent, part of the teams’ work echoes the philosophy behind “community schools,” which provide social and health services for students and their families on the premise that students can’t learn when they’re in distress. That approach has been championed by the city teachers union and their ally Mayor Bill de Blasio, two of Success CEO Eva Moskowitz’s frequent antagonists. But Success has put its own no-nonsense spin on the model, approaching the countless complications that arise from poverty as problems to be solved, like missing textbooks or broken computers — in line with the network’s philosophy that the hardships students endure outside of school should not excuse underachievement in the classroom.

“It’s holding kids accountable, holding yourself accountable, and giving them all the things that they need to be successful,” said Harlem 1 Principal Danique Day-Loving. “One of the things that they don’t need is to get off the hook.”

In each Success Academy school, teams of three to five staff members manage a range of logistical and administrative duties — time-consuming tasks that the principal and other administrators at most district schools often handle themselves. In addition to the school-based operations teams, Success schools also get support from the network, which provides curriculum, finds building space, and helps with hiring. (Some of Success’ work is bankrolled by private money — it expects to raise $43.5 million in private funds during the 2017 fiscal year to go towards opening new schools, according to a federal grant application — though officials say schools’ daily operations are financed with public funds.)

At Harlem 1, the five-person operations team answers phones, partners with the local police precinct around safety issues, makes sure snacks and lunch are served, oversees the nurses and custodians, and plans school events. They also communicate with students’ families, for instance, to figure out why a student has been showing up late or to mediate a disagreement between a parent and teacher. The school’s principal and instructional team also work closely with families, but the operation team’s support frees them up to focus on educational matters.

Whether it’s a logistical or a family issue, the team’s job is to troubleshoot.

For instance, when a Harlem 1 teacher noticed her library was running low on good books, Scott figured out which ones she needed and ordered them. When a fire destroyed a family’s apartment, Scott rounded up new uniforms and gift cards for the students.

When members of a family experience domestic violence, Scott’s team informs building staff who can and cannot enter the school. Recently, she helped a student transfer schools to make sure the abuser did not know where to find the student.

While it’s unclear exactly how this troubleshooting approach contributes to student learning, students at Harlem 1 do exceedingly well on the state exams. More than 90 percent of its students are black or Hispanic, 62 percent live in poverty, and 11 percent are homeless. Yet 80 percent passed the state English tests last year and 92 percent passed math, rates far above the city average and many wealthy school districts.

Success is not alone in attending to students’ out-of-school needs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made that a centerpiece of his education agenda. Under his administration, the city has infused over 200 community schools with a host of additional resources, including health clinics, extra social workers, and even washing machines. Each has a team devoted to boosting student attendance and a full-time director to coordinate the support services.

P.S. 154, a community school that sits a short distance from Success Academy Harlem 1, offers free dental screenings for students and English classes for their parents. P.S. 154’s community school director, Karoline Alexander, said her aim is to prevent student problems as much as respond to them. And yet, her expansive view of her role is very similar to Scott’s, the Success operations manager.

Her job, Alexander said, is to provide “everything kids need to be efficient besides going to school to learn to read and write.”

Despite the overlap between the work of Success’ operations teams and the city’s community schools, Success founder Eva Moskowitz has been critical of community-school proponents.

In her new memoir, she argues that advocates for that approach sometimes use children’s poverty as “an excuse for failing to teach them.” The idea that students can only learn in schools that address their health needs is “nonsense,” she says.

“While health care should undoubtedly be improved for poor children,” she writes, “inadequate health care isn’t a substantial factor in the failures of urban district schools.”

In fact, while many charter school operators — including Moskowitz — may not identify their schools as community schools, many nonetheless offer support services to students and their families, said James Merriman, CEO of New York City’s Charter School Center.

“I think that if you were to talk with folks who have been running [charter] schools, they’d say that this was part of their program from the very beginning,” he said.

“‘Sweating the small stuff’,” he added, referring to a common refrain in the charter sector, “didn’t just mean in schools. It meant working with families.”

In the money

Here’s how Colorado schools would spend an extra $100 million from the state

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Hannah Moore, 8, shows off her moves during practice for an after school talent show that is part of the Scholars Unlimited After School program at Ashley Elementary school on March 10, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. Scholars Unlimited is an after school and summer program funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant, which is threatened to be cut entirely under the White House's budget cuts. The 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant served almost 20,000 students in Colorado between 2015 and 2016 and 76 percent of students showed academic improvement. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Legislators on the Joint Budget Committee unanimously decided this week to set aside $100 million to “buy down” the budget stabilization factor.

This number – $822 million in 2017-18 – is the amount by which Colorado underfunds its schools when compared to the constitutional requirement that spending on education increase every year based on student count and inflation. It’s more commonly known as the negative factor, though lawmakers are trying to get away from that term.

For several years now, lawmakers have held the negative factor steady, but this year, as Colorado has more money to spend than it has had in a long time, Gov. John Hickenlooper wanted to make a dent in it and requested the $100 million reduction. To be clear, a $100 million reduction in the negative factor is $100 million more that the state would send to districts. Technically, this number will be finalized in a separate piece of legislation, the School Finance Bill, which is coming any day now.

But state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, wanted to give some reassurance to educators that the money will be there in the budget. 

“It would send a message to our K-12 community that we are not spending that money and have set it aside,” she said.

And educators have been clamoring to hear that message. The Colorado School Finance Project has been running a social media campaign for the $100 million buydown using the hashtags #k12needsco and #kidsmattertoo.

The non-profit asked school superintendents around the state to say what they would do with the extra money, which translates to an additional $114 on average for each enrolled student, compared to holding the budget stabilization factor steady. The answers are identified by region, but not by district.

Here’s a small sample of the responses:

You can read all of them here.

The Joint Budget Committee has set total program spending on education at $7.75 billion before the negative factor is applied, up from $7.45 billion this year, a 4 percent increase. Of total program spending, the state will pay $4.4 billion, with the rest coming from local property taxes. This doesn’t include voter-approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides.

That translates to average per-pupil spending of $7,959, compared to $7,662 this year. A budget stabilization factor of $722 million would yield an average per-pupil amount closer to $8,074. 

The smaller budget stabilization factor is significant beyond just one budget year because state law says that this number shouldn’t get larger from one year to the next. However, Colorado superintendents are also pushing for a tax increase and change to the distribution of school money. It will take more than an additional $100 million spread among 870,000 students to address all the needs they identify in their responses to the Colorado School Finance Project.

Hickenlooper had also requested an additional $200 million for the state education fund, with the intention that that money be used to offset costs to districts from proposed changes to the public pension system and expected reductions in property tax revenue in rural communities.

The Joint Budget Committee instead voted to set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with fixing the Public Employees Retirement Association’s unfunded liability – but in the general fund rather than the state education fund and not specifically to help schools, where retirement costs account for a big chunk of the personnel budget.

The committee also agreed to set aside $30 million to help small rural districts with low tax bases and was supportive of setting aside $10 million to address rural teacher shortages, though some of the details are still being worked out.

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”