Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

integration conversation

Gentrification is changing Denver schools. These recommendations aim to address that.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Kindergarten students line up on the first day of school in 2012 at Whittier K-8 School in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

To address declining enrollment and combat segregation, Denver Public Schools should consider a number of steps including creating a clear and community-driven process for consolidating under-enrolled schools, according to a committee of community leaders.

The high-powered group has been meeting for months and on Monday voted to forward that recommendation and more than dozen others to the school board for consideration.

Rising housing costs and redevelopment are remaking Denver, causing decreases in the number of school-aged children in some neighborhoods and deepening sharp economic divides between others.

The committee wrestled with a challenge: that integration can be elusive when honoring both the tradition of neighborhood schools and the district’s commitment to giving families a choice of schools.

The recommendations from the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee are meant to be a starting point, so many of them are short on details.

Here is what the committee is urging the district do:

  • Provide help with marketing, planning and school design for a limited period of time to schools that are beginning to see enrollment declines with the aim of reversing that trend.
  • In areas of the city where such declines have impacted schools’ ability to provide a robust program, create a “transparent school consolidation process that allows impacted communities to reimagine their schools with the goal of strong and stable enrollment, higher quality and greater integration in all schools within the community.” DPS has not made clear how many students is too few students for a school to be sustainable, but the recommendations mention that schools with enrollment below 300 students “face particular challenges.”
  • Develop a rubric to evaluate all new school applicants on their “ability to appeal to a diverse student body and offer inclusive excellence in the classroom.” The rubric would measure things like the diversity of the staff and the cultural responsiveness of the curriculum.
  • Require school leaders to set annual goals “related to diversity and inclusive excellence,” and offer resources and financial rewards if they meet them.
  • Expand a pilot program that gives low-income students from other neighborhoods priority to “choice into” schools with more affluent student populations.
  • Create more enrollment zones, which are big school boundaries with several schools inside them, especially in areas “where housing changes are occurring.”
  • Explore holding a special election to ask Denver voters to raise more money for transportation. Prioritize spending any additional dollars on helping underserved students and those living in enrollment zones access “a greater diversity of school options.”
  • Set aside seats in all schools at all grades for students who may enroll mid-year to ensure students experiencing housing instability have equitable access to schools.
  • Create an “equity audit” for schools with restrictive enrollment policies — such as Denver School of the Arts, a magnet school that requires auditions — to figure out how those policies are impacting socioeconomic integration.
  • Develop ways to measure school culture and climate to assess whether schools are, for example, setting high expectations for all students. In addition, develop ways to measure “student learning and development over time” that take into account academic results such as test scores and non-academic results such as discipline statistics.
  • Invest money in initiatives aimed at increasing equity, such as recruiting and retaining diverse educators, and share employee demographic data for each school.
  • Develop better strategies for engaging with families and community members about issues affecting them. For example, instead of sending out a survey to collect feedback, consider compensating families and community members for providing information.
  • Set a district-wide goal for increasing the socioeconomically diversity of schools. The goal should encompass both the percentage of students attending integrated schools and “tangible measures of equity and inclusiveness for students once in attendance.”
  • Establish a set of resources “for schools to use in creating a more integrated and inclusive environment,” and encourage schools to learn from each other.
  • Work closely with city agencies, including the Office of Children’s Affairs, to address the impacts of gentrification: “There is an opportunity for DPS to increase its advocacy for students, families and teachers on important issues such as affordable housing.”
  • Launch a “meaningful public engagement and communications effort” about the benefits of socioeconomic integration and about the committee’s recommendations.

The district often cites research that shows all students benefit from integration. Due largely to housing patterns, many Denver schools are socioeconomically and racially segregated.

There are some schools, such as Fairview Elementary in west Denver, where 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for poverty. On the other end of the spectrum are schools like Bromwell Elementary in east Denver, where only 5 percent of kids qualify. Both Fairview and Bromwell are “boundary schools,” which means they primarily serve the students who live in the neighborhood immediately surrounding them.

The district has tried in recent years to increase integration by employing a variety of strategies, some of which the committee is recommending be expanded. One of them is enrollment zones, which are the big school boundaries that contain several schools. The idea is that drawing bigger boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them increases the opportunity for kids from different neighborhoods to attend school together.

There are currently 11 zones — and even before the recommendations, the district was proposing to create three more. But they’ve had mixed results when it comes to integration.

Before voting on the recommendations Monday evening, several committee members expressed concerns that some of them were not specific enough. For instance, they said, what is the district’s definition of a high-quality, integrated school?

Committee co-chairman Antwan Jefferson emphasized that the recommendations were only the first phase of the committee’s work. A second-phase committee would tackle that question, he said, as well as the nitty-gritty of how to put the recommendations into place.

The committee is set to present its recommendations to the school board Dec. 18.

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.