exclusive

Under pressure, charter schools nix cash-for-applicant tactic

A city charter school network abruptly abandoned a recruiting effort today that would have paid families cash rewards for bringing new students to its schools. The retraction happened two and a half hours after I reported the effort on Twitter earlier today.

Screen shot 2013-10-04 at 9.20.17 PM
A screenshot of the bulletin posted to Girls Prep charter school’s web site, offering cash to parents who recruited students. Girls Prep’s network later removed the page after canceling the program.The network, Public Prep, yanked an bulletin for the offer on the website of two of its charters.

The tweet caused a “firestorm,” said Public Prep CEO Ian Rowe, and even prompted a worried call from the Department of Education. “Given the way it’s been framed and received, we decided to pull it,” he said.

The cash reward was available at two Girls Prep Lower East Side schools, which have vacant seats in their kindergarten through sixth grades. Public Prep promised to give current parents a $100 cash card and a $100 contribution to a college savings plan if they found students to enroll at the schools and stay for at least three months.

Rowe said the program was part of an aggressive recruiting strategy required by the Lower East Side’s competitive school marketplace. Besides attracting students, he said, another goal was to “incentivize our families to start saving for college.”

The recruiting tactic drew scrutiny from people in and out of the charter school community who said it undermined a core value of charter schools. Charter schools are supposed to compete with district schools based on the quality of education they offer students, and families are empowered to make a choice based on that. The bulletin also suggested that the schools do not truly have the same level of demand that supporters often boast about.

“It looks like you have to be paying people,” said a charter school official who requested anonymity so that he could speak openly. “So what kind of demand are you talking about?”

City school officials also took notice of the tweet. A department spokesman said he notified the city’s charter school office after seeing the tweet.

“As soon as we became aware of the program, our charter office contacted both the network and SUNY to notify them,” said the spokesman, Devon Puglia, referring to the organization that authorized the charter school. “As always, if we see something we believe another authorizer or charter network needs to be aware of, we contact the appropriate people. That’s exactly what happened here.”

When I first spoke to Rowe about the bulletin, he explained the program and didn’t mention any plans to cancel it. After speaking to the department, Rowe called me back to say he was abandoning the plan.

The recruiting tool was similar to another one used by a different charter school in 2010 that drew criticism from charter school advocates.

The episode supports one side of a debate about demand for charter schools in the city.

Charter school supporters point to long waiting lists as evidence of the large number of parents who want to send their children to charter schools but can’t find a spot. This year, more than 50,000 students are on waiting lists to attend charter schools, according to the New York City Charter Center.

But critics argue that marketing tactics inflate the numbers artificially, making the number of families who want charter schools but can’t get into them seem bigger than it really is.

Indeed, even as Public Prep was actively recruiting new families to fill vacancies, Rowe said the two schools currently have 182 students on their waiting lists.

How can schools with such a long waiting list also have vacancies? Rowe explained that enrollment is a challenge for his schools because they are housed in one of the city’s un-zoned districts, where families can pick which school they want to attend.

“We feel like we need to constantly recruit on the Lower East Side,” Rowe said. Public Prep also operates a school in the Bronx and plans to open another there next year.

But Lisa Donlan, president of the district’s Community Education Council, said Rowe’s problems weren’t unique to his charter schools.

“We have an all-choice district so our schools are always struggling for enrollment,” Donlan said. “It’s something that many of our schools have to deal with.”

The ability to offer a cash incentive as a recruitment strategy struck Donlan as an unfair tactic that swayed the competitive playing field in the favor of charter schools, she said.

“It reinforces for me the differences that exist between the charter schools and district schools,” Donlan added.

This story was originally published Oct. 4 at 9:36 p.m.

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.