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.”

breaking

Breaking: Indiana didn’t set aside enough money for schools. Senate leader says a fix is ‘top priority.’

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat
Students at Global Prep Academy, a charter school, learn about comparing shapes. All schools could see less funding if lawmakers do not fix the funding shortfall.

State education officials are expecting a shortfall in school funding this year that could be as high as $9 million because state and local officials underestimated Indiana’s student enrollment.

If the legislature does not act to increase funding, districts, charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers could all get less money than they were promised this year.

Senate President David Long said new legislation to appropriate more money to schools would be proposed, though other lawmakers involved in budget-making were less certain on what a solution would look like this early.

“It’s our top priority, education is, so it’ll have our full focus when we come back in January,” Long said.

But on the upside, he said, public school enrollment increased since last year.

“It’s not a bad problem,” Long said. “We have more kids going into public schools than we did last year, but it’s a challenge for us only in a sense that we need to adjust our numbers.”

A memo from the Indiana Department of Education said the legislature’s budget appropriation was short by less than one-half of 1 percent. When the amount the legislature allocated for school funding does not line up with its funding formula, “the law requires the Department to proportionately reduce the total amount to be distributed to recipients,” the memo said.

It’s not clear how the miscalculation in enrollment numbers occurred, said Rep Tim Brown, a key budget-writer and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The budget dollars are estimated based on projected school enrollment counts from districts themselves, the education department and the legislative services agency, which helps provide information and data to lawmakers.

Brown urged people to keep the number in perspective, especially since the budget is crafted based on estimates. Brown said this was the first year since he became involved with budget writing in 2013 that projected budget allocations ended up being less than school enrollment, which was calculated based on counts from September Count Day.

“We’re looking at what our options are, but let us keep in mind it is $1.50 out of every $10,000 a school gets,” Brown said, adding that he wasn’t sure this early on how lawmakers would act to make up the shortfall.

But J.T. Coopman, executive director for the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said even small amounts of money make a difference for cash-strapped schools. Districts have already started making contracts and have obligations to pay for teacher salaries and services at this point. It’s pretty late in the game for this kind of news, he said.

“I did see that it’s less than a half a percent, but for schools that’s a lot of money,” Coopman said. “Can we get this fixed before it becomes a real problem for school districts?”

Neither Brown nor Long knew how much public school enrollment had increased. The $32 billion two-year budget passed in April increased total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, for a total of about $14 billion. Included within that was a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 last year.

The news of a funding shortfall comes as the state continues to see declining revenue. The Northwest Indiana Times reports that state revenue is down $136.5 million (2.8 percent) from what lawmakers estimated this past spring for the next two-year budget.

During the annual ceremonial start to the 2018 legislative session today, leaders discussed a need to provide more resources to schools and the state board of education. So far, many of the priorities involving education this year look to address workforce needs and encourage schools to offer more computer science courses.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma also shouted out “innovative” steps made by Indianapolis Public Schools and Fort Wayne Public Schools.

“People are trying something different and they are having great results with it,” Bosma said. “We need to give them more tools, we need to give them more opportunities.”

what's next?

Policymakers agree virtual schools should get more teachers and less money. Will they make it happen?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A view outside of Indiana Virtual School's office, located in an office park at the northern edge of Marion County.

After Chalkbeat revealed widespread low-performance and unusual spending at Indiana Virtual School, there were no immediate plans to change how the fast-growing but relatively little-known online charter school operates.

Rep. Bob Behning, the House Education Committee chairman who is one of Indiana’s most influential education lawmakers, has not commented after repeated requests for an interview.

Senate Democrats have no education priorities specified for the upcoming year.

And Senate Republicans and House Democrats haven’t yet released their 2018 plans. Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he largely thought Indiana’s charter laws were fine, although he was open to tweaking aspects of the law — such as whether authorizers of failing charter schools should be allowed to open additional schools.

But national and even local charter school advocates — including those who could affect public policy — agree changes need to be made at Indiana Virtual School and online charters more broadly across the state. Some were blunt in their assessment of the school, which since 2011 has enrolled thousands of students and failed to graduate most of them. It also has a barebones teaching force, low test scores, and two F grades from the state.

“The whole thing is a mess,” said Tony Walker, a pro-charter school Democrat on the Indiana State Board of Education.

Read: As students signed up, online school hired barely any teachers — but founder’s company charged it millions

And the school’s problems aren’t limited to academics. Walker also called out the school’s lenient attendance policy, lack of real-time teaching and choice not to provide computers to students.

“Them not having an online platform that permits them to have live courses should be a deal-breaker … You should never have an online school that exists without that,” he said. “You should never have an online school that’s chartered that does not provide the means to access the school to its students. If you’re not giving your students laptops, then you shouldn’t exist.”

What’s more, Thomas Stoughton, Indiana Virtual’s founder, previously headed a for-profit company that charged millions of dollars in management fees and rent to the school while he was school board president. Stoughton is also leading the school’s growth — a second Indiana school opened this year, and plans for Michigan and Texas schools are in the works.

Although Indiana’s legislative session won’t begin until January — and it’s looking like a year where education won’t be center stage — Democrat and Republican lawmakers indicated interest in making changes to laws governing virtual schools, but nothing more.

Doing nothing just isn’t acceptable, said Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat from Anderson and a former educator.

“Surely given the statistics the General Assembly has an obligation to take a look what’s happening,” she said.

Walker said Indiana Virtual School’s student-teacher ratio jumped out at him. At the end of last school year, Indiana Virtual had one teacher for every 222 students.

Now, Indiana Virtual and the new Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy enroll about 6,332 students, served by 40 teachers, which makes the student-to-teacher ratio 158-to-1. The national average for online charter schools is 30-to-1, according to the National Education Policy Center.

“There’s absolutely no justification or reason that I can think of to permit a school to have a 221-1 faculty-student ratio,” Walker said. “That’s just ridiculous … There needs to be substantially more of the funds appropriated in the direction of instruction than I think this school has.”

Rep. Scott Pelath, the long-time leader of the House Democrats who stepped down from that role last week, was also surprised by the student-teacher ratio, even more surprised than he was by the tens of millions of dollars the state has set aside to fund the schools.

“That struck me as just outrageous, and I would think the public would think it was outrageous,” Pelath said. “Particularly when virtual schools are used as a substitute in places where you maybe have a lot more at-risk kids that need more attention, not less.”

Indeed, more than 80 percent of the students at Indiana Virtual qualify for meal assistance, but otherwise their demographics closely mirror those of the state — majority white, with relatively small populations of English-learners and students with special needs. The school says many of its students have been expelled from previous schools, and they say their students’ struggles are part of the reason graduation rates and test scores remain low.

But Karega Rausch, a former member of the Indiana Charter School Board who now works for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said online charter schools as a whole shouldn’t use student characteristics as an excuse. The group even has an entire set of online school-specific policies states should adopt in light of their poor performance.

“Just having lots of low-income kids is not a justifiable reason to not teach them well,” Rausch said. “Just having a lot of kids that may be mobile is not an excuse for not teaching them well. Traditional public schools and charter schools are finding ways of serving those kids at high levels.”

While traditional schools should serve as a model for instruction, Indiana’s school funding formula creates problems in a virtual environment. For schools like Indiana Virtual that have few barriers to entry and inconsistent attendance reporting practices, it can be hard to know if students who are enrolled are actually being educated. Yet schools get more money for every student they enroll.

Kruse and Walker, as well as national advocates, said they would support a funding model based on how much work students do, rather than whether they are on a school’s books on Count Day. New Hampshire and Florida already use this kind of system.

“There needs to be a different funding formula for these schools,” Walker said. “They should not be funded on a per-student basis like brick-and-mortar schools … it becomes a profit mill.”

An analysis from Florida Southwestern State College School of Education last year found that funding based on students finishing classes in virtual schools cost the state less money than the more traditional per-student model. Walker called on lawmakers to consider this change and put it into law “sooner rather than later.”

Pelath said based on what he’s learned about online schools, he doesn’t see them as a good substitute for traditional education. (Former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz agrees.)

“The oversight and accountability is not anywhere close to what we would have in traditional education,” Pelath said. “It’s entirely reasonable that some virtual experiences can be part of the larger overall experience, but as a substitute they are just woefully inadequate.”

The first step is to stop growth immediately, he said. Virtual schools enroll about 12,000 students across the state — about 1 percent of all students — and the number has been growing each year.

As far as upcoming legislation, Pelath was less sure, and new House Democrat leadership will certainly play a role in the caucuses’ goals for next year. Pelath was optimistic change could happen, but he was also realistic about the fact that a Republican supermajority in the House can make it difficult to get Democrats’ bills through.

“I think there’s a very good chance of that,” Pelath said in regards to possible legislation on virtual schools in the upcoming session. “Whether those things come in the form of originally introduced bills, of which there’s a risk of them staying bottled up in committee, or in the form of amendments to alter legislation that is moving in the process …This is going to have to be a debate.”