CityViews: DOE is Letting Charters Undermine its Plan for Struggling Schools

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The chancellor and mayor have a detailed and costly plan to help  struggling schools. But  some worry that other DOE policy moves are making that job harder.

Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

The chancellor and mayor have a detailed and costly plan to help struggling schools. But some worry that other DOE policy moves are making that job harder.

An analysis of Significant School Utilization Changes since the rollout of Mayor de Blasio’s multi-million dollar Community Schools Strategic Plan reveals a disturbing trend: Buildings with Community Schools are 18 times more likely than buildings with non-intervention schools to lose space to charter co-locations and expansions. Public school advocates fear this trend undermines the Community Schools Strategic Plan.

In November, 2014 the de Blasio administration made good on a campaign promise to lift up public schools in extra need of support by first announcing the Renewal School program and  shortly after the fully fleshed out Community Schools Strategic Plan.

The Community Schools Strategic Plan is a beautiful (and costly) blueprint for improving roughly 130 schools with low rates of academic achievement and graduation. De Blasio was quoted in a press release saying: “We believe in investing in the whole child. Every student comes to class with different challenges that can make it difficult to learn. Community Schools respond to families’ needs in innovative ways so that students become more likely to attend class, and better able to focus and succeed. We know that when this model is done right, it has a proven track record of strong academic results.”

The point is to do it right. Why? Two reasons: 1) it is our moral duty in a city of abundance to devote all possible resources to set every child up for success in life; and 2) so no one can say, “I told you so. Investing millions to boost graduation rates for struggling public school students is a waste of money.”

Doing it right would mean removing the barriers that will keep the Community Schools Strategic Plan from succeeding.  Two significant obstacles are standing in the way. The first is the harmful use of high-stakes standardized tests to label schools and determine their eligibility for needed resources, discussed in this article. The second is the co-location and expansion of charter schools in buildings undergoing the Community Schools intervention process.

Our analysis of the last two years of approved charter co-locations and expansions suggest that Community Schools are being targeted for these measures. Charter co-locations are known for being lousy roommates, often compromising a school’s ability to function. They co-opt space that is already in use by a school. This practice is in part due to the failure of the Building Utilization Plan’s formula to correctly account for how much space is actually needed to house general education classes, special-education classes, and school-based support teams that include speech, occupational and physical therapy.

Jim Donohue teaches English at Renewal School JHS 145 in the Bronx. His school fought to prevent a charter co-location during high-stakes standardized testing season in 2015. According to Donohue, “Success Academy came into our school last year and pointed out the classrooms they wanted. The DOE welcomed them with open arms and told us to get packing. We have been scattered across four floors of the building, and Success Academy has beautifully renovated the 19 classrooms that they staked a claim to. This is defined as ‘renewal’.”

Proving the failure of public schools is a full-time profession for paid charter-school advocates like Jeremiah Kittredge, CEO of Families for Excellence in Schools (FES). Kittredge recently came under fire by civil rights groups who have been fighting for years to end the school-to-prison pipeline. In a new ad campaign FES shamelessly dehumanizes students of color to craft the false narrative that opening charter schools leads to ending violence. Sadly, so often the opposite is true. While charters prey on the urgent demand for better schools their tactics are more aligned with improving the real estate and financial assets of their corporate funders than the life outcomes of New York City children.

Violence can be insidious and manifest in hidden or delayed ways. We charge charter violence when the only option for families living in gentrifying neighborhoods to improve their child’s education is to swap their public school with a charter that has the legal authority to then turn around and bar them from entry. Privileging enrollment to certain residents and denying it to others is one way to displace families from a neighborhood. Charters are notorious for leaving out English Language learners and students with special needs.

We charge charter violence when a Community School discovers it is under threat of losing a room dedicated to art or special education because a charter school is looking to co-locate.

We charge charter violence when public-school students are made to plead for the Panel for Educational Policy not to take their space while they watch as charter operators stand before the other microphone issuing thank you’s for the gift.

We charge charter violence when public schools deprived of financial resources are pathologized with labels like “failing” and subsequently euthanized to clear the way for a charter school.

Aixa Rodriguez taught at Foreign Language Academy of Global Studies (FLAGS), a Community School in the Bronx. It was closed and replaced with Academic Leadership Charter School at last month’s PEP meeting.  She had this to say about her experience: “A dry and scripted culturally irrelevant curriculum was forced on the teachers of FLAGS which resulted in dry delivery. Incidents of misbehavior due to boredom with the delivery of the EngageNY curriculum increased. No full books were taught. Teachers felt blamed, unsupported and frustrated.”

The proliferation of exclusion-based charter schools that only welcome certain pupils deepens the entrenchment of our two-tiered education system. We want to see the proliferation of schools with inclusionary practices that cut against segregation and inequality. There is precedence for such visionary public education. Rodriquez stood before the PEP to defend the rights of her students.  According to her, “We need to stop re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. That mayor needs to make it clear what his plans are regarding closing small schools and restoring comprehensive schools. He needs to promise that money from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity owed to closed schools will be sent to the district where the school was located. This constant change is the Shock Doctrine.”

No member of the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) would confess to having disdain for the many children who are being sacrificed like pawns in a game of real-estate chess, although that would seem to be the case. So often the most vulnerable schools are asked to shoulder the burden of giving up space to charters, a practice begun under Mayor Bloomberg and carried over with sharper teeth by Gov. Cuomo.

A heroic liberal ethic is the order of the day, but now is the time to align the deed with the word.  Opt-out leader and candidate for president of the United Federation of Teachers Jia Lee believes: “There can be no justification for the punitive mandates placed on schools struggling, not because of poor academic instruction, but because of the weight of supporting the immense needs within the community. The truth is that schools are working under dwindling resources while there is increased pressure on all the wrong things.”

We ask the PEP, Chancellor Carmen Farina, Mayor de Blasio and elected officials to commit to creating the conditions for the Community Schools Strategic Plan to thrive by voting “no” on charter school co-locations and expansions in these schools.

Marilena Marchetti is a member of Movement Of Rank-and-file Educators and Jane Maisel is a member of Change the Stakes.