Norman Thomas High School on Park Avenue South and 34th Street, which is being phased out by the Bloomberg administration, is due to host high-school grades from charter schools in 2014.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Norman Thomas High School on Park Avenue South and 34th Street, which is being phased out by the Bloomberg administration, is due to host high-school grades from charter schools in 2014.

If all goes according to plan, about 70 proud teenagers will get diplomas when Success Academy Charter School–Manhattan High School graduates its first class in spring 2018. The moment will likely bring some sadness, though. After all, most of these students will have been together since they entered kindergarten in fall 2007.

Over the years, some students will no doubt have left the group. But, if Success sticks to its announced policies, no new students would have joined the class since 2010, when the graduates were 9 or 10 years old.

Firmly entrenched at the elementary school level, even though they educate only about 6 percent of New York City’s public school students, an increasing number of charter operators are seeking to offer a K-12 education for their students.

How they handle this expansion—whether they admit students from other elementary and middle schools—is almost certain to raise new questions and concerns about the role of charter schools and who they serve. Despite those and other questions, the Bloomberg administration is working to put as many charters into play as possible as the clock ticks down to the end of the mayor’s term.

Charting a post-Bloomberg course

By any accounts, this is a fraught time for charter operators. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who championed their cause for so many years and often backed up the rhetoric with free space in city buildings, is about to leave office. Despite efforts by many of the mayoral contenders to assuage their concerns, many charter operators fear that they will wake up on Jan. 1, 2014 to a far less friendly world.

Until then, Bloomberg is doing what he can. When the new school year starts, the city will open 24 new charter schools, for a total of 183, with spending on the publicly funded, privately run schools set to top $1 billion. And the city Department of Education (DOE) continues to allocate space in public school buildings to many charter schools, which use the rooms rent free.

But the department is also looking beyond Bloomberg’s term, carving out rooms in district buildings for schools that will not open until fall 2014. One, PAVE II, got space in a Bushwick middle school building even though the state has not yet approved its existence. And DOE also has set aside space for a charter that was supposed to open in August 2011; the plan now is for it to finally begun admitting students in September 2014.

The DOE denies there is anything unusual about assigning rooms space so far in advance. “Our focus is and has always been on strategic long-term planning,” Devon Puglia, a department spokesperson said in an email.

No one succeeds like Success

The department has continued to provided room for Success Academy—one of the city’s largest charter operators, among its most politically well connected and certainly its most controversial—to create new schools and add grades to existing ones.

Since she launched Success Academy in 2006 founder Eva Moskowitz has had a privileged relationship with the DOE, detailed in emails between her and former chancellor Joel Klein. She has been the charter movement’s lightening rod, winning plaudits for a demanding curriculum and high test scores, but attracting criticisms for her attacks on public schools and teachers. Today, her network has 14 schools with six more opening this year and plans for six more in 2014. All 4,600 Success Academy students attend school in publicly owned buildings.

Now Moskowitz is moving from elementary and middle schools into high-school grades. At its June meeting, the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), which is controlled by the mayor, voted to place high school grades from five different Harlem Success Academies in Norman Thomas High School on Park Avenue South and 34th Street, effective in fall 2014. Success 8th graders also would attend class in Norman Thomas for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.

The story of Norman Thomas has a familiar ring to those who have followed education in the Bloomberg era. When Bloomberg took office, it was a functioning high school, with a graduation rate above the city average. As DOE closed other schools in Manhattan, enrollment at Norman Thomas soared, exceeding 3,000 in a building intended for 2,000 students by 2005. Fights broke out, suspensions increased dramatically, and attendance and graduation rates dropped, according to a report by the Center for New York City Affairs. The city then decided to close the school. Like many schools shut by the DOE after being deemed “failing,” much of Norman Thomas facility will now house a charter—though few have inherited so prime a location as Moskowitz’s network will enjoy at their new space.

Schools for everyone

Success says its motivation is better serving its students and their families. “Our goal has always been college graduation and we think this will put our students on the right track toward fulfilling that mission,” Kerri Lyon, a Success spokesperson, told Gotham Schools earlier this year. The high school plan, DOE said in its education impact statement, would “increase the number of high-quality high school seats and options in Manhattan.”

But that option will be available only to those families who had the foresight to choose Success—and the luck to be admitted—when their child was very young. Success will not take students after 3rd grade. Not only does the school not hold lotteries for students entering, say, 5th or 9th grade, it also does not select wait-listed students to fill any vacancies for those grades that arose over the years. (Success, like all charters, is barred from screening students; it relies primarily on lotteries to select students, as depicted in the movie Waiting for Superman.)

The teachers union and some education activists frequently have assailed Success for pushing out students who would pull down test scores, a charge the network adamantly denies. To those critics the selection process represents another way Success manipulates the system to boost results.

“For them to say they’re providing choice and opportunity is a flat lie because they’re providing choice for a select group of kids,” said Noah Gotbaum, former president of the District 3 Community Education Council and a candidate for City Council.

It’s a “hermetically sealed student body,” said Jim Devor, outgoing president of Community Education Council 15, where “the parent makes the key decision at the age of 5.”

Success says its demanding program requires that a student attend its schools almost from the get go. By the time they reach middle school, Success spokesperson Jenny Sedlis, said in an email, “Success scholars have had thousands of hours more of instruction [and] are several levels above grade level. … We want all children to feel and be successful. We wouldn’t want the newer children to be at a disadvantage.”

An unusual approach

While no one seems to track charter admissions policies, anecdotal evidence suggests many charter schools with elementary, middle and high schools do accept students in higher grades. Brooklyn Prospect, a K-12 charter school, says its holds lotteries for admission to kindergarten and 6th and 9th grade, and accepts students from its waitlist to fill any vacancies that occur up to 10th grade. In an email, a spokesperson for the school said filling vacancies and selecting students at random helps create “an integrated school and … a healthier public school system.”

KIPP, a national organization with schools in New York, accepts students in all grades, although spokesperson Steve Mancini said vacancies are limited, because few students leave. For those admitted later than their peers, there often is “a period of adjustment,” Mancini said, but he added, “we have been able to help these kids assimilate and thrive.”

Alex Madler, the vice president of policy and advocacy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said admissions policy raises a number of issues. Charters can be loathe to admit many students later in their careers because they may be behind the other students or not have the same commitment to the school. On the other hand, he said, if everyone kept out new students after the elementary grades “there would be no place to go for a kid who just moved in. …. It’s harder for people who are transient to have good choices.”

The city’s only K-12 public school, New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math (NEST) in lower Manhattan allows students to remain as they pass to the next level but also admits new students in 6th and 9th grade.

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan representative on PEP who voted against the Success plan, thinks charters have an obligation to be accessible as well. “If we’re giving them resources like space in our building, they have to serve the public,” he said. The Success system, he said “is too exclusive with too many resources focused on a specific population.”

Success frequently points out that many of its students are black and Latino and low income and boasts that its results exceed not only those in neighboring district schools but in schools in more affluent sections of the city. Critics question the validity of the comparison, citing a number of factors, including the admissions policies.

“Charter schools are legally permitted not to replace students who transfer out of their schools,” said Christina Collins, the union’s lead researcher on charter schools. District schools are not, she said, and people should remember that difference when comparing test results and graduation rates. “It’s not an apples to apples comparison,” she said.

State policy paved the way

While the city has aided Success and other charters, it’s the state that created the charter law and authorizes individual charters. In 2010, New York changed its law to allow multiple charters to operate with a single board of trustees. Previously, every school had to be its own entity with its own board.

In a 2012 memo, Susan Miller Barker, interim executive director of the SUNY Charter School Institute, which authorizes charters, said this would allow networks to create middle and high schools.

Under the previous system, an elementary charter student wanting to go to a middle school operated by the same network would have to enter a lottery — and might not win. The 2010 amendments, Barker said, changed that, allowing students to go on to the network’s middle and high schools without having to go through an application process.

In 2012, with little fanfare, SUNY allowed Success to merge its schools into a single entity with one board of directors, paving the way for its expansion to middle and high school.

Depending on who succeeds the mayor, the relationship between charters and the city could change considerably by the time the next wave of charters is seeking approval, or space. But it’s unlikely that any of Bloomberg’s successors would actually roll back some of the benefits already extended by the current administration to charters like Moskowitz’s.

DOE says it’s just been locking in progress (“With our incredible size, it’s imperative to plan ahead in order to ensure the historic gains we have delivered over the past decade continue,” says spokesman Puglia). Others believe the Bloomberg administration has created a monster. Says Devor: “It’s a creature living inside a body and then breaking out and destroying its host.”