chartering territory

With clock ticking, a charter school tries to turn itself around

Fahari Academy Charter School opened the school year with many new teachers and administrators as part of an effort to improve quickly.

Last month, Radha Radkar expressed her excitement for a new year at Fahari Academy Charter School by discussing a task that, for most teachers, is an annual rite.

“I’m decorating my own classroom,” said Radkar, a second-year English teacher.

For Radkar and her Fahari colleagues, however, it was an unknown luxury. Last year, teachers didn’t have their own classroom and had little time to prepare for their lessons. Instead it was teachers who rotated — while students stayed put — a small, but significant component of a broader culture that staff said contributed to the school’s demise.

Much has changed this year at Fahari as part of a comprehensive attempt to keep the school from closing. On Aug. 27, the Department of Education officially placed it on probation, primarily because of the sky-high teacher and student attrition rates that have plagued the school since it opened in 2009.

Radkar said the school was anticipating the probation notice for months and had spent the summer  preparing to open with many new programs and policies. Now, they have less than a year to show the school is taking steps to improve. By Monday, the school must submit an improvement plan detailing the changes underway at the school.

“We are definitely in the middle of transition,” said Radkar, who helped develop new reading and writing curriculum over the summer. “At the same time, our leadership is trying to figure out a direction this year.”

The board officially hired Dirk Tillotson to take over the school as executive director in July, though he had been working day-to-day in the school since January. Tillotson had previously consulted for Fahari, but when the school’s struggles intensified last year, he said he felt a responsibility to take on a larger role.

“I love the school,” said Tillotson. “To not throw myself into this would be walking away from an opportunity to do something special.”

With a quickly hammered-out union contract almost in hand, Tillotson has brought on a new principal and academic director from his consultancy organization, New York Charter School Incubators, to help with the turnaround.

The problems that they have inherited are severe and will not be easily fixed. At least 100 students left the school since it opened in 2009, including 58 during a seven-month span last school year, according to the city’s probation letter.

“This level of change within a relatively small population of students is disruptive to the school’s culture and may be symptomatic of other issues,” Paymon Rouhanifard, who oversees the city’s diminished charter school portfolio, wrote in the probation letter.

Rouhanifard was right, say former staff who clashed with the school’s founding executive director, Catina Venning. They said that her student disciplinary system was overly harsh and inflexible. Last year, the school reported 91 out-of-school suspensions, according to city data.

Students received demerits for minor infractions, including speaking out of turn, a former administrator said. If they didn’t bring a signed letter from parents the next day, the administrator said, they were given an automatic Saturday detention.

“It’s taking ‘no excuses’ too far,” said the administrator. “It was like a militaristic boarding room style.”

The probation letter also cited lagging test score results in the probation letter. But Tillotson said it did not take into account the gains made on the 2012 tests, when  62 percent of students scored proficient on math and 47 percent were proficient in English.

Tillotson and the current staff declined to comment on Venning’s tenure, which officially ended at the end of the 2011-2012 school year. Venning, a former New York City Teaching Fellow who served fellowship stints at Building Excellent Schools and at Achievement First Bushwick before founding Fahari, did not respond to requests for comment for the story.

The former Fahari administrator, like most staff that joined while Venning ran the school, left after a short period of time. Just two of nine founding teachers returned for a second year and another eight teachers left last year, according to city data.

“Teachers came in one day and went out the next day,” said Marie Valentin, the mother of an eighth grader at the school.

Early on in the 2011-2012 school year, the new teachers voted to unionize, something that Tillotson said has actually helped stabilize the school.

“When we came into this as charter people, we felt this was going to increase our costs, just one more thing to deal with,” Tillotson said. But he said that both sides had a “shared interest” to rescue the school from closure, “and that was the approach to the bargaining.”

Tillotson’s counterpart at the United Federation of Teachers, Leo Casey, also said the unionization process went unusually smoothly. Casey has encountered fierce resistance from charter school managers in the past after teachers voted to unionize. He said he expected similar conflict with Fahari’s administration.

“What was interesting about Fahari was that it wasn’t a school thinking that a union would be an impediment toward improving,” Casey said. “Through the process they realized that the union to a real partner in stabilizing the school.”

Casey said it took less than a year to come to terms on a new contract, a record for negotiations. The contract is not yet ratified, but it includes a salary structure that offers teachers 20 percent more than the city average.

As the school year got underway in August, teachers who worked at the school last year said that they already sensed it was a new day at the school. Tillotson was also optimistic but said he expected bumps along the way.

One morning, the heat was smothering and students struggled to focus in the fourth floor classrooms of the school, which shares space at M.S. 246 in Flatbush. The hallways were bare, resembling a hospital more than a school, but new principal Joann Falinski said she hoped to fill them soon with student work soon.

In her classroom, Radkar had set up a “reading nook” in the back of her room to allow students time for personal reading each day.

“What we noticed last year was that kids didn’t have enough time to read,” she said. “You could just tell that the kids needed more practice.”

2012 Fahari Academy Letter of Probation

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”