fighting back

Battling closure, Harlem charter school enlisted a high-profile PR firm that once repped Ivanka Trump

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

When New York City tried to shut down Opportunity Charter School’s middle school earlier this year for poor performance, the Harlem charter immediately went on the offensive.

School officials and parents filed a lawsuit, claiming the education department’s decision was too focused on test scores and didn’t take into account that more than half its students have disabilities. The grade 6-12 school explored switching authorizers so that the city — which granted the school its charter and must renew it on a regular basis — would no longer control its fate.

And just weeks after the city moved to shutter its middle school grades, the school brought on a high-profile public relations team whose president has represented members of the Trump family, while also paying a separate firm to lobby city officials on its behalf.

It’s not unusual for charter schools to work with outside public relations firms. But even some charter school advocates suggested that the school’s aggressive attempt to block the city’s sanctions is in tension with a fundamental premise of the city’s charter sector: that in order to justify their existence, charter schools must show that their students are making significant progress.

“It’s not just choice for choice’s sake,” said James Merriman, CEO of New York City’s Charter Center, referring to the city’s charter schools. And while he said there’s nothing inherently wrong with hiring a PR firm, he added: “Mounting a political and public relations campaign” has not helped other schools earn extensions of their charters because New York authorizers have “focused appropriately” on school performance.

The city has repeatedly said that Opportunity Charter School is not up to snuff.

In response to the school’s bid to renew its charter earlier this year, education department officials said it had met few of its academic benchmarks, reaching just four of 22 goals over the previous two years. And few of its middle-school students demonstrated proficiency on state tests, which showed that 9 percent of students were proficient in reading and 3 percent in math — lower than similar students at other schools.

Citing poor performance, the city attempted to close the middle school, granted the high school only a short-term renewal, and rejected the school’s bid to add an elementary school. They also denied the school’s proposal to exclusively serve students with disabilities, instead of its current mix of students with and without special needs. (Five years ago, the city moved to close the school entirely.)

School officials have vehemently disagreed with the city’s assessment.

They argue that evaluators have not adequately accounted for the school’s unique population, which was 55 percent students with disabilities in 2016. Today, only two of the city’s charter schools serve more students with disabilities. In addition, most of its incoming sixth graders had scored at the lowest level on state tests in elementary school, according to the school’s charter-renewal application. The school also notes that its high-school graduation rate among students with disabilities has frequently exceeded the city average.

After the city moved to close its middle school, Opportunity sued, claiming the decision discriminated against students with disabilities. In the meantime, the middle school has been allowed to remain open while a judge considers the case.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing the school, said Opportunity isn’t trying to subvert the accountability system.

School officials’ position “isn’t that they shouldn’t be held accountable,” he said. “It’s that they should be held to a standard they could reasonably meet.”

As they fought to remain open, school officials explored the possibility of switching authorizers to the state education department.

Quinn said the school requested an application to make the state its authorizer, but did not receive one. However, state education officials said they determined that the school did not meet the legal standard to transfer authorizers. A spokeswoman did not say which requirement the school failed to meet, but the law stipulates that schools “in violation of any legal requirement, in probationary status, or slated for closure” cannot change authorizers.

Meanwhile, this March, the school hired Risa Heller Communications to manage media coverage of the city’s efforts to close the middle school and counter the city’s narrative that it is underperforming, according to a six-month contract obtained by Chalkbeat under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. Risa Heller, the firm’s president, once served as a spokeswoman for New York Senator Chuck Schumer and has previously counted Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, as clients.

Meanwhile, as the school’s battle with the city continued to simmer, Opportunity paid about $50,000 to a lobbying firm to make its case to the education department and City Hall, along with other city officials, records show.

The school’s PR firm also continued to press its case to reporters — touting the school’s graduation rates and pitching an op-ed by the school’s CEO, in which he took a swipe at the city’s record on serving students with disabilities.

The firm’s contract was for $9,000 per month. It stipulated that Risa Heller Communications would “manage media around DOE hearing” where the school made its case to stay open, and identifying “media opportunities for raising the profile of OCS.”

Neither Opportunity Charter School nor Risa Heller Communications responded to emailed questions about whether they had extended their agreement beyond the original six-month term, or used public money to finance the contract.

“Opportunity Charter School hired a public relations firm to raise awareness of our unique approach to serving students,” Jason Maymon, the school’s in-house public affairs director, wrote in an email. “As we have limited internal communications staff, we retained a firm to help with this function.”

The latest dustup with the city’s education department isn’t the school’s first public relations crisis.

In 2010, the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigation released a startling report that showed the school did not appropriately respond to allegations that staff members used force against students and verbally abused them. (The school has previously denied the report’s findings.)

In the wake of that report, the school’s legal team hired Mark Alter, a New York University professor, to help conduct an internal review of the school’s climate. Alter went on to become a member of Opportunity’s board, before leaving in 2016.

In an interview, Alter said he was attracted to the school because of its commitment to including students with disabilities alongside their typically developing peers. But the school was “always under the gun” because of its low test scores, which he says was never a fair standard to evaluate the school’s progress.

Asked about the school’s decision to go on the offensive, including hiring a PR firm, Alter said it made sense to him.

“You do what you need to do in order to survive,” he said.

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”