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.

History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes


Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”