Later today, the City Council Education Committee will hold a hearing regarding oversight and accountability of charter schools. While we could not attend, we were able to have a parent and a teacher attend in our place. And we have submitted the following written testimony.
Testimony of co-founders of Harlem Link Charter School
Steven Evangelista, Principal
Margaret Ryan, Founding Principal and Director of Curriculum and Professional Development
City Council Education Committee
May 6, 2014
We are submitting written testimony since we cannot attend today’s hearing in person. Our school is closed today for professional development, and our presence is needed there throughout the day.
Our school’s being closed today is significant; at certain points in the year, we make plans that differ from those of the New York City Department of Education, not to mention different policies and procedures. We do so when it serves the interest of our students and our community, and we cherish the autonomy the charter law gives us to make local decisions. Today, our staff will take important steps in planning for the 2014-15 year in curriculum, assessment and school culture.
Having both been teachers and members of School Leadership Teams in conventional public schools in four different New York City districts, we know that this type of planning would be impossible for us without the charter law’s autonomy. While as a charter we are constantly fighting to justify our existence and to scrape for resources (that the public often thinks we already have), we are thankful every day for the protection we enjoy from the political battles that constantly seem to engulf the operation of district schools.
As this is a hearing on oversight and accountability, we will share some thoughts related to each of these topics, which, of course, are related to the special freedoms we enjoy as a public school that is its own single-school district, and Local Education Authority, and can set its own hiring policies, negotiate its own work rules, approve its own budget every year and self-perpetuate its governing board.
With three examples and one final note on my experience, we shall show you that our authorizer, the State University of New York’s Charter Schools Institute (CSI), has been transparent, consistent and rigorous in holding us accountable over the years. The oversight and accountability we have had from CSI stands in stark contrast to the culture of gamesmanship, evasion and dog-and-pony-show that pervaded the DOE when we were teachers (and, we would hazard a guess, probably still does).
2006: Opening Year Accountability
In 2005, Harlem Link opened with a lot of great ideas but lacked in the leadership experience and structures it needed to be successful. Classes were not uniformly orderly, and even as conditions improved, basic student safety was still an issue. As novice school leaders, we had been putting Band Aids on some of our biggest problems and were not in complete agreement on the prioritization of steps to improve the school. But when the members of CSI’s visiting team assessed Harlem Link during the Institute’s annual inspection on March 15, 2006—a date we still remember because of the impact of their words and tone—they did not mince words. After observing every classroom, interviewing every staff member and reviewing a trove of documents, the team members came to a disconcerting conclusion about the state of our school. They threatened corrective action, demanded a plan of action to prioritize improving the most important areas of school culture and ultimately predicted that, if things did not improve, they would pull our charter and shut down our school at the end of that year or the next year.
And all of us in the room knew that despite the harsh word from CSI, our school was already safer, more orderly and richer in learning than most of the surrounding schools in the district, including the one right downstairs with which we shared space.
Since we are still open, you can guess the tale: prompted by their words, we sprung into action with a new plan, and a new sense of order that eventually led to the calm, focused and joyful school environment we currently know and love.
2007: A Contrast with DOE Accountability
The following year, the DOE expanded its initiative to hold schools accountable by providing Quality Reviews (QR) across the city. Charters could volunteer to undergo a QR, so, as part of our quest to learn as much as we can about our school, we asked for a QR, which was scheduled for the spring of 2007.
Having both taught at the district school downstairs prior to opening Harlem Link, we were surprised to see lesson plans posted outside classroom doors one day in December. We learned that that district school was going through a QR that week. When the QR ended, the lesson plans for that week remained up on the wall—for the rest of the year.
This ersatz approach to accountability made sense after we actually went through the review. The reviewer sat and spoke with one of us for about fifteen minutes and then as we recall, he said, “Sounds like you have a great school here. Which classroom do you want me to see?”
So we steered him to a classroom that, at the time, we felt was a strong one. After a brief visit and a few checklists, he was ready to go.
“Wait,” we said. “You’re not going to see the rest of the school? We only have five more classrooms. We really want to learn from you, not just show you what we already know how to do.”
Half an hour later, the reviewer was alarmed. “There is uneven quality across the classrooms,” he stated. “If I had known that every classroom wasn’t functioning the way the first one we visited was, I would have felt very different about making my comments.”
The feedback was nonspecific, nothing we did not already know, and it did not help us improve. The school downstairs received top marks. We were labeled “Developing.”
2013: Renewal Nine Years Later
Nine years after the SUNY Board of Trustees approved our charter—and nine stressful and thorough school visits later—our school found itself up for charter renewal for the second time.
Are state test scores the primary driver of our authorizer-mandated Accountability Plan? Yes, but as a CSI official told one of us and we documented on our school’s blog, “I can’t defend this system. But it’s the best one we’ve got.”
The point is, the visitors were willing to be transparent. But most of all they were consistent. The Accountability Plan agreement we drafted in 2004 was, basically, the rubric by which we were evaluated in 2013. It was like an old critical friend making good on a promise made literally a decade earlier. Is there anything in the district public schools about which that can be said?
Oversight and Fraud
In public education, as the famous Roslyn, Long Island embezzlement scandal showed, there is always the possibility of fraud. When school officials operate outside of the law, it feels like even more of a betrayal of the public trust than other instances of public corruption. We members of the public send our children along with our tax money to these institutions, and we expect them to be upstanding.
Because the vast majority of educators we know (independent, district and charter) are well-meaning, good people, we don’t think there is a greater risk of fraud in one community than another. We believe that charter school educators and board members are just as much at risk as their district school counterparts—and vice versa—of betraying the public trust and cheating our kids.
There is one crucial difference, however, and one advantage the charter system has in preventing and uncovering fraud: our model system of governance, which is the true innovation of the charter law.
Here’s the thing: with charters, it’s one board for one school; with NYC DOE, it’s one board for 1,400 schools.
Anti-charter rhetoricians complain that there is no elected official ultimately responsible for making sure charter schools are honest. We reply: does having elected officials choose the members of the Panel for Education Policy (or did having locally elected Community School Boards in past decades) ensure that officials are doing the right thing, that parents have a voice, that there is no fraud? The system is so unwieldy and large that a skilled fraud could siphon resources without anyone noticing. A parent whistleblower would have a hard time getting the attention of the PEP (and so, probably, would the marginalized Community Education Council) amid all the other business the panel has to conduct each month.
At our charter school board monthly meetings, the board reviews financial reports for our one school each month, questions me and other staff members about what’s going on and has the power to use the four committees that meet in between board meetings to question any suspected wrongdoing. Most of all, our board members are motivated to uncover fraud because they put their professional reputations on the line by representing our school. Cheating by one of us would turn their community service into a blight on their careers. And at the end of the day, CSI is there as a check on the behavior and diligence of our board.
When parents attend our board meetings, our board chair has always given them the floor and asked them to speak up on whatever issue is on their minds, within time constraints. In this public meeting (guided by the NYS Open Meetings Law), parents have direct access to my supervisors, the ultimate authorities of their children’s school.
One of our board members sat on the PEP for almost a year in 2013 and 2014. What did he have to say about parent participation in PEP meetings? “Screaming and police protection.”
Which governance model sounds more reasonable and effective to you?