talking points

With mixed messages, charter school backers lobby lawmakers

Harriet Tubman Charter School students were among several groups to visit Bronx Assemblyman Erik Stevenson's office on Tuesday.

When elected officials visit schools in their district, they generally follow a scripted routine. They cut ribbons, make speeches, and smile for pictures.

When the roles are reversed — as they were on Tuesday, when hundreds of charter school parents, students, and teachers convened in Albany to lobby lawmakers — the conversations aren’t always so predictable.

Some of the charter school advocates stuck to talking points determined in advance by the lobby day’s organizers. The New York City Charter Center and the New York Charter School Association want the legislature to give charter schools the right to operate pre-kindergarten programs, something state law currently precludes.  The agenda is a response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to give $25 million to district schools that offer more full-day pre-K seats.

But in interviews and individual meetings with lawmakers, students and parents spoke about education issues that affected them personally. Almost all said they love the schools they attend, but they expressed concerns about their schools’ safety, space, and resources. One parent from an upstate charter school said her child’s special needs were not being adequately addressed.

The range of issues and concerns raised by the more than 1,200 people who made it to Albany (via 38 buses) illustrates just how big and diverse the charter sector has gotten in New York State. There are 159 charter schools in New York City, up from fewer than 100 just three years ago. Across the state there are now 208 charter schools, and organizers said 111 of them were represented on Tuesday.

People took different paths to get their voices heard. Some used connections to speak directly with Cuomo’s top education aides. Others refused to leave offices without a meeting, even after being told the representative was busy voting on bills across the street at the State Capitol.

After waiting outside the offices of Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright, who was not there because he was in session voting on bills, dozens of students and parents from Democracy Prep Public Schools and Opportunity Charter High School were finally let in.

When Jeanine Johnson, Wright’s chief of staff, asked them what they wanted to talk about, a kindergartner was the first to reply.

“UPK,” the student fired back, referring to universal pre-kindergarten. DPPS wants add a pre-K program even if it has to set up a separate nonprofit organization to do so. It recently submitted a bid to the city to run one of its universal prekindergarten programs.

Another group from the network took their agenda straight to Cuomo’s deputy secretary of education, De’Shawn Wright. Wright’s predecessor, David Wakelyn, is now senior director of strategy and development at Democracy Prep and helped arrange the meeting. That group focused on a different agenda item: support for a state DREAM act that would give financial aid for college to students who are undocumented immigrants.

“Secretary Wright already supports the DREAM Act so we don’t have to try and persuade him to change his opinion,” said Ben Feit, a Democracy Prep official, before the group headed to the Capitol building to meet with Wright. “We’re going to thank him for his support for the DREAM Act and then we’re going to talk to him about UPK and other issues about charter schools that we’ve discussed so many times in the past.”

Reporters weren’t allowed in the meeting, but Feit said Wright said he needed to learn more about the pre-K issue before committing support. A Cuomo official later said the governor’s Education Reform Commission, which is expected to release another set of recommendations later this year, would take up the charter sector’s pre-K issues.

In a meeting with Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, a student from Harriet Tubman Charter School said her school wasn’t making a good enough effort to assign or provide books she wanted to read.

“They turned the whole library into the detention room and I felt like that was a bad thing to do,” said the student. A teacher who accompanied the students confirmed the renovation, citing space issues.

Some parents were also looking forward to air their grievances. Amy Kirklin, the mother of a student with special needs at Amani Charter School in Mount Vernon, said charter schools weren’t doing enough to serve the highest-need students. In New York City, just a quarter charter schools serve the same or a higher percentage of special education students than their districts’ average, according to the charter center.

“They’re trying,” Kirklin said of Amani. “My child is still attending, but we’ll give them three more years.”

Stevenson, whose office saw a steady stream of charter school supporters waiting to meet with him, said the full-day lobbying effort worked on him.

“Why not?” Stevenson said when asked if he’d support giving charter schools the right to operate pre-K programs. “It’s education at an early age so let’s do it. Let’s change the law.”

Stevenson, a Democrat who represents the South Bronx, added that he wouldn’t support a bill to put a moratorium on school closures, a controversial policy that in New York City has allowed charter schools to flourish but drawn criticism for concentrating high-need students in remaining large schools.

“Public schools are failing,” Stevenson said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize it.”

Many charter school advocacy groups are hoping that the city’s next mayor will adopt many of the Bloomberg administration’s hallmark education policies, including closures and letting charter schools operate rent-free in public space.

But parents in Albany on Tuesday consistently said they were ready for anyone but Bloomberg.

“Personally, I like John Liu,” said Owen McFadzean, a parent at Bronx Preparatory Charter School.

“I can’t wait for Bloomberg to get out,” said McFadzean’s wife, Therese.

Teaching teachers

How a Memphis pre-K giant is changing the way early childhood educators are taught

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath's new training program places emphasis on early literacy.

Morgan Bradley thought that teaching children at her church’s Sunday school would have prepared her to work in early childhood education.

But the recent college graduate was shocked by all she learned at a recent training at Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy.

“I thought I knew how to work with little kids, but I didn’t know how much a child’s brain develops during those years before kindergarten,” said Bradley, who will be helping in a Head Start classroom through AmeriCorps. “I’m realizing now how necessary good teaching in pre-K is to getting a baby ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to using my words to build a child’s vocabulary.”

Bradley is one of more than 500 educators who will go through Porter-Leath’s training this year in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis. Porter-Leath is the city’s largest provider of early childhood education and has a partnership with Shelby County Schools for Head Start and other services, including training.

The program comes as Tennessee grapples with a low literacy rate and mixed quality of early education programs. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has emphasized the need for better early childhood education across the state for Tennessee to improve as a whole.

Porter-Leath’s trainings are held almost monthly and revolve around four tenets: socio-emotional learning; literacy; health; and STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The socio-emotional and literacy pieces are what make the program different from usual professional development for early educators, said Rafel Hart, vice president of teacher excellence for Porter-Leath and the training program’s leader.

“When we think about professional development in early childhood, we think about training on CPR and first aid,” he said. “That’s important, but Teacher Excellence focuses on classroom practices. How do we make our quality of instruction better?”

A Memphis organization since 1850, Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 children in its preschool program and employs 670 people. It serves students in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who may be dealing with the trauma of food or home insecurity at early ages. This makes training teachers in socioemotional learning especially crucial, said Hart.

Porter-Leath’s program draws from organizations like Acknowledge Alliance that trains teachers to help students regulate their emotions and learn self-awareness.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
AmeriCorps members who will work in Porter-Leath classrooms are among more than 500 educators to go through the training.

“I’ve been in early childhood for 25 years, and socioemotional learning is rarely used,” Hart said. “That’s a tragic mistake we’re correcting. Students can’t grow to develop strong academics if their emotional health isn’t growing first.”

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators will go through this training, but it’s also open to and encouraged for longtime teachers.

Kelly Thieme, a former literacy specialist and now Porter Leath instructional coach, is especially excited to see the focus on literacy.

“A lot of people don’t understand literacy starts from birth, and speaking to children makes reading and literacy easier,” she said. “We go through current research on how young children learn to read. To me, this helps us and others understand that we’re not just babysitters; it helps us professionalize our profession.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.