City Council Charter Schools Hearing Testimony

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?

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Letter to Testing Families

March 28, 2014

Dear parents of third, fourth and fifth graders,

As you know, the English Language Arts test is next week—Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

You have probably heard about all the controversy of parents “opting out” of the test and all of the fear and wrangling that’s going on. If you haven’t, ask around and get up to speed on the current debate in education, because we are in historic times and you can empower yourself and our community with information.

To summarize, many families are taking the extraordinary step of refusing to have their child take the state test because they are worried that there is too much emphasis on the “high stakes” test.

I very much agree with why those families that are protesting—but I think that opting out is the wrong way to approach it. Tests, good and bad, are a part of life.

At our school, we make our own decisions about teacher evaluation and student promotion. Test scores are only a part of those decisions. Our relationships with students and all of the in-class data we collect weigh much more heavily. We put the tests in their proper perspective, and they only serve to confirm or enhance what we already know about how we are doing.

I know that our scholars are ready for the test. We won’t be perfect, but we are going to do our best and use the test to show how much we have learned.

I want you to know that we have a number of incentives for doing well on the state test. If students hit their target test scores, they get to attend the Laser Tag trip coming in the fall. But even better, if they try their hardest and do their best (they will judge that with their teachers’ help), no matter their score, they will have a special dress-down day and outdoor ice cream party on a sunny day later in April. We are more interested in effort and improvement than we are in going crazy over high stakes scores.

Please support your child to do his or her best—get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy breakfast and be ready to focus and attack that test like a tiger!


Steven Evangelista

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Enrollment: The Central Issue in Today’s Charter Debates

Charter News on Fire
Charter schools are all over the news these days, and the cool reception to charters by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is at the center of all this attention.

The media has had a field day with the high drama of de Blasio, the new progressive standard bearer, putting dozens of black and Latino children out of district public school buildings by reversing the facilities plans for Success Academies.  Unless Success can broker a deal or find some other space on short notice, the kids may be booted entirely out of their schools, which are well-known for attaining high scores in standardized tests.  (Update: the city may in fact help them find space.)  To add to the drama, the governor has pitched his tent with the charter networks, promising to “save” charters and setting up a proxy war between the state Capitol and City Hall.

Reading the past couple of weeks’ news articles, one would think that two opposing sides in the Democratic Party and in the charter movement have evolved and are looking for a showdown.

What’s Really Going on Here?
As an insider, I reject the “two sides” description of this debate because I happen to agree on at least some points with both of the so-called sides.  Instead, my view is that we the people have created this monster by developing and endorsing a patchwork of reforms to address the crisis faced by our schools.

Specifically, I believe that the lack of a school system-wide and society-wide agreement about how enrollment should work is the main cause of this controversy.  We have had at least 60 years to come up with such agreement; the Brown decision in 1954 desegregated schools and led to everything from “magnet” schools to busing kids across town and even to school vouchers and charter schools.

In New York City, I don’t think we have even come close to a shared civic understanding of how enrollment ought to work.  People with integrity and passion for the same goals are fighting each other instead of the shared problems of inequity in education, lack of access to high quality educational environments for certain communities and a stratified post-secondary enrollment profile that mirrors our widening society wide income inequality problem.  Since we don’t agree on the first principles required to form a strong set of enrollment policies across the city—and because of that, we have a dizzying variety of procedures and rules that are at best confusing and intimidating to parents and at worst unfair and polarizing—we are all trying really hard to accomplish entirely different things and getting angry at each other for not having our efforts and accomplishments recognized and valued.

Charter Enrollment: School Choice
Why would I argue that this debate boils down to enrollment?

When charters were introduced to New York State in 1998, a different enrollment structure based on school choice was a key, though not the only, innovation promised.  Never have the implications of this simple switch been fully debated in the public sphere, yet after 15 years of charters, we now have a lot of information about the pros and cons of this version of school choice.

Who signs up?  Who stays? Who leaves and does anyone replace them?
No one can argue with the incredibly high test scores of the Success network, as well as those of charter networks across the city. However, critics argue that because they are schools of choice, either (a) only motivated parents sign up or (b) only really motivated parents finish because the others either transfer out in frustration or are purposely pushed out by the schools.

Whether those observations and assumptions are true or false, what we know as fact is that most of the highest performing charter schools (the Icahn network, I think, is a notable exception) do not enroll new students after a certain point, something like first or second grade.

At our school, which continuously enrolls students all the way to fifth grade, we know the challenge of integrating new students to our school years after kindergarten, when everyone else has been with the program, understands the rules and has made great academic progress.

Time and again, new students in the upper grades absorb a hugely disproportionate amount of time and effort from classroom teachers and intervention specialists alike.  We are constantly robbing Peter (our longtime students who are doing well but could do much better with more attention) to pay Paul (the new kids who require enormous effort just to get up to the baseline).  It would be much easier—and better for our test scores—to keep the kids we have, shrink the cohorts over time as students whose families are less stable or less invested move on to other neighborhoods and schools, and work with the “survivors.”  Given this choice legally available to charter operators (that is, not to replace those students who leave in a process inhumanly called “backfilling”) there does not need to be anything nefarious at work in order for school choice-enabled enrollment changes to positively impact student test scores at a school.

A parallel issue—that is, separate but related—is the narrowing of the curriculum.  We the people agreed through our democratic process to enact No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, despite vociferous opposition from many educators.  The rules became explicitly about standardized test scores.  Who can blame Eva Moskowitz for achieving the incentives set before her by NCLB, and for playing by the rules while doing so?

The pink slime mandate
Let me illustrate the quandary faced by charter operators with a personal story.  The family of a friend of mine owns a farm that produces, among other things, the pink slime meat product that made headlines a couple of years ago.  Pink slime, called “lean finely textured beef” by the industry, consists of the “leftover” bits of meat, or trimmings, that are left on the bone after a cow has been butchered to make higher value cuts.  These sinews, tendons, and connective tissue are mechanically stripped, then heated and separated from the fat in a centrifuge, and ground up and recombined into a sort of paste that is used as filler for ground beef.  Along the way ammonia gas or citric acid is used to sterilize the meat product (perhaps giving it the eponymous pink tint), and it is soon ready to appear at fast food chains and school cafeterias.

When activists complained about the frankly disgusting nature of this process, the presence of ammonia in school food, and the lack of transparency over what is otherwise called “ground beef,” school districts and fast food companies responded and dropped the product from their kitchens.

Farmers, according to my friend, are livid. To paraphrase him: “They complained that we were wasting a lot of meat, that we were inefficient because we were leaving edible parts of animals on the bone and only selling the higher value stuff, and mostly that we were not producing enough lean beef because Americans were eating too much fat.  We worked hard to innovate and now we are told they don’t want it after all.”

Farmers perceived a mandate—sell leaner beef, and do so efficiently—but it was an incomplete one, and when the results of their efforts came out, the public reacted with distaste.

Charter operators have taken up our own mandate: close the achievement gap. Give poor families the chance to send their kids to college, by any means necessary.

Haves and have nots
One reason why we haven’t come to a consensus, as a nation or even as a city, on how enrollment should work is that it’s darn complicated.

Every time I talk to a parent who says, “Thank you for providing a safe and structured environment for my child,” I find myself saying, “Thank you for looking out for a safe and structured environment, and for being supportive of our expectations.”

And when I hear a parent with the opposite attitude say, as I have on more than one occasion, “I don’t think my child needs to show up to school on time or follow all y’all’s rules,” I know that despite all of our positive outreach, relationship building and co-planning, this parent may eventually choose to head out the door and enroll in the zoned school in his or her neighborhood, where the reality or the perception is that “that school won’t bother me all the time with this crap.”  The zoned school will see a predictable pattern and say, “There goes another charter school, sending us the kids that they don’t want,” and we will shake our head and say, “What could we have done differently?  We can’t lower our standards.”

In these tug-of-war scenarios, the youngest people involved often have the least input.  But when their educational environment shifts beneath them or turns out sub-optimal, it’s those little people who suffer, not the grown ones arguing.

I’m not blogging to say that I have any answers; I don’t.  I’d like to hear the conversation focus more on the first principles behind what fair and equitable enrollment looks like, so we can move away from that patchwork of inconsistent plans, and use our uniquely American talent for coming up with a compromise that moves us, inch by inch, closer to a truly fair and equitable system.

After all, fair and equitable describes the system our kids and families—all of our kids and families—deserve.

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Charter vs. Public: Misconceptions

I’m writing with Margaret Ryan on the eve of a forum about inequities in public education that we are hosting at Bank Street College of Education.  We chose specifically to focus this panel discussion and roundtable on public school education, and not just charter school education, even though we have been running a charter school for the past nine years.  We have heard some concerns such as, “So this is a charter school panel.  When is the public school panel?”

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way: inequity in public education is not a charters vs. public issue (it’s much bigger); and charter schools are public schools.  Charters and district schools are indeed administered differently, and charters can do some things that district public schools cannot do.

Below are a baker’s dozen of popular misconceptions about charter schools that we would like to clarify.

Claim 1: Charters aren’t publicly accountable

This misconception usually falls into two categories: concerns that district schools are in danger of closing more easily and thus are under more pressure to achieve; and concerns over lack of transparency on how public funds are spent.

Prior to the Joel Klein era, closing a district schools was a near impossibility.  But charters have been closing around the state since the movement was in its infancy.  While Mayor de Blasio has declared a moratorium on district school closures, charters continue to face a high level of scrutiny and must meet achievement goals in order to stay open, every five years; in fact, it’s written into the law.

At its best, since it is written into the law this way, charter school accountability is predictable, straightforward and reasonable.  At Harlem Link, our authorizer helped us write an Accountability Plan in 2004.  We used it in 2010 when we received a three year renewal and a revised version last year when we gained our five year renewal.  Even with tweaks based on changing state standards, expectations laid out 10 years ago by our authorizer are still in effect.

Regarding finances, much has been made about the state comptroller’s attempt to audit charters four or five years ago, an attempt that was thrown out in court as an overreach of the office’s duties.  Why?  Because all charter school board meetings are public meetings, guided by the state’s Open Meetings Law, and charters are required to submit themselves to an external, independent audit each year.  Unlike individual district schools, charters also file a 990 tax return with the Internal Revenue Service every year, which is available publicly online.  Figuring out how charter schools spend their public dollars is a heckuva lot easier than doing the same for a district school!

Claim 2: Charters can kick out students

Charter schools are bound by the same statutory laws and common law that district schools face with regard to suspensions and expulsions.  Within these laws, charters are free to establish more or less liberal policies with regard to expulsion, but that is a matter of policy and not law.  Districts adopting “zero tolerance” policies over the years is an example of how this issue comes down to following the law and making a choice—the same laws and choices faced by both charters and districts.

One key difference is that charters, as individual districts, make their own policies, while districts make policy decisions for the dozens (or hundreds) of schools within their district.

Charters that “kick out” or “counsel out” students without following through on the due process protections and procedures built into the law and described by Goss v. Lopez are simply breaking the law.  Is there any accountability for this possibility?  Yes – remember that charter board meetings are public, open meetings, and groups such as Advocates for Children can point to or provide legal resources to protect children’s rights, the same as they would for abuse by traditional school districts.

At Harlem Link, we went through a lengthy and wrenching expulsion process during the last school year.  We worked with our attorney, and a Legal Aid attorney, to ensure that the process was fair and legal.  We did nothing differently than any school district is able to do in order to enforce its code of conduct.

Claim 3: Charters don’t serve special education students or English Language Learners

Charters are in fact required to serve special education students as well as English Language Learners.

This issue is a complicated one, because the very definition of a special education or English Language Learner student, which governed by law, is potentially fuzzy.  Charters and districts have varying approaches to identifying and serving students so that they enter and exit these categories.

Generally, our state has recognized that this issue is enough of a concern regarding charters that when the charter law was reauthorized a few years ago, the new version required charters to ensure their percentages of students in these categories reflected the local community.

In some cases, charters actively seek students in these categories, giving them preference in the annual student enrollment lottery because of the school’s mission.  Examples include Mott Haven Academy Charter School and Opportunity Charter School; the latter has a charter mandate of a nearly 50% special education population.

At our school, we have a comparable rate of special education to the local district schools—around 17% of our population (and, with Collaborative Team Teaching on every grade level, most of those students are in the “high cost” category of receiving special education services more than 60% of the day).  This fact is true despite the fact that we have multiple protections in place through our Response to Intervention process, preventing over-referral.  We rarely refer students to the Committee on Special Education (CSE) for special education services, and one year we actually de-certified more students than we referred.  Our ELL students tend to exit out within a couple of years of enrolling in our school.

Claim 4: Charters raise millions of dollars, while district schools can’t

This claim is simply and unequivocally not true.  Charters are 501(c)3 nonprofits, meaning they can raise philanthropic dollars—but the same is true for school districts, as well as Parent Associations.

It’s true that some charter schools, notably the larger networks, are able to raise millions more than almost all parent associations.  It’s also true that some parent associations are able to raise millions; they just do so less publicly.

District school principals and school district officials are also able to go out and write grant proposals, bring in major donors, etc.  The star entertainer Vanessa Williams “adopted” PS 46 in Harlem some years go.  Why not?

Do you think that district school principals and officials are stretched thin with limited resources?  The same is true for charters, but charters have the flexibility for strategic planning and, when they choose to seek philanthropic support, organize and plan around it.  Districts and principals choosing not to do so is not a valid excuse for feeling left out of the philanthropic community.

Harlem Link had a fully functioning fund development department when we opened in 2005, but strategic decisions led to us closing it down a few years ago.  (These are the kinds of decisions about resource allocation that facilitate charter schools’ focus on their missions, impossible in a district setting.)  With renewal as well as the Common Core transition behind us, and a long-term goal of being in a private space in view, our fundraising department is back—so click here if you’d like to give.

Claim 5: Charters have budgetary flexibility for things like smaller class sizes or co-teaching in every class

When comparing charter schools to individual district schools, this claim is absolutely true, and is one of the great advantages of running a charter school.  Comparing charters (which are separate, single-school districts) to traditional school districts, it’s not true at all.  Districts make budgetary decisions; they have the same range of choices charters have.  Budgets express priorities; it’s up to districts to be flexible and creative in their budgeting.

This past year, the NYC public school pie was about $25 billion, for about 1.2 million children.  In other words, the city spent over $20,000 per child.  In comparison, charters received $13,527 per child.  The Independent Budget Office estimated the additional benefit of charters in district building space (something like two-thirds of charters in the city) as about $3,000 per child, not even close to closing the gap.

Where are the rest of the district dollars going?  As noted above, it’s darn hard to tell.  At our school, we have jealously guarded our personnel expenses, but also budgeted conservatively over the years, to the point where we were able to run a deficit in 2012-13 for the first time (and budget for one in 2013-14), knowing that we will come out of the recession soon and continue to build our small base of reserve funding.

Claim 6: Charters can hire whomever they want

This is another claim that is, generally, absolutely true.  Charters are not bound by complicated negotiated contracts that require the “dance of the lemons.”  Staff members aren’t working out, or do things to harm children?  They are fired.  Staff members don’t like the working conditions?  They can organize and collectively bargain.  Labor laws require charters to be fair (and the National Labor Relations Board has been involved to ensure that’s true).  But that does not mean that charters have to agree to obtuse policies that erect barriers to getting the best personnel possible in front of children every day.

Like Claim 5, this issue is a key reason that many educators choose to work in and start charter schools.  At our school, we receive hundreds of resumes for each position we hire.  We have the luxury of watching between five and ten demonstration lessons (depending on the year) before making a hire, so that we know a candidate will truly fit in with our mission and vision.

Claim 7: Charters can “cherry pick” or target certain populations of students

The state law requires that all students have equal access to admission to charter schools, with preference given to siblings and to residents who live close by the school.  Similarly to Claim 2 above, charters can choose to break the law just like any district school could do so, but there are layers of accountability: the school’s board of trustees, the state authorizer, and any private citizen including parents or members of the press who can attend any of the 10 to 12 open, public board meetings that occur every year.

Much has been made about charter schools marketing their schools, including buying advertisement slots and sending out mass mailings.  One idea behind the charter law was that parents would vote with their feet, but charters don’t have a natural constituency or “zone” from which to draw students.  Charters need to make themselves known in order to become an option for members of the community.

At Harlem Link, we try to distinguish ourselves by sending out an annual mailing and visiting day care centers and school fairs.  However, word of mouth is by far our most powerful recruiting tool.  Certain buildings in certain housing projects, and certain families among West African immigrant groups, have pooled enrollment at our school as people pass on the word to their families and friends.

Districts, by the way, are also free to market, brand, advertise and otherwise target potential students.  The fact that a “zone” usually exists for district schools while none exists for charters is often another impetus for charter schools to spend their time and budgetary resources raising philanthropic dollars, so as to compete for students’ and parents’ attention.

Claim 8: Charter teacher evaluations aren’t public, but district schools’ teacher evaluations are

This claim comes down to a matter of local policy as well.  Some charter schools chose to participate in the value-added teacher evaluation analysis program that was published—name by name—in the New York Times and other media outlets.  Some charters (like Harlem Link) chose not to participate, for a variety of reasons.

Our understanding is that New York City opted in.  At Harlem Link, we did not; we found it marginally relevant to our work, since we have our own teacher evaluation tool that satisfies the state law but doesn’t reduce a human being to a number.  If we’re remembering right, it’s a simple policy decision whether or not to opt in to this system.  If not, there’s another reason why we’d rather work in and run a charter school than a district school!  (But don’t blame us for bad policy decisions; tell the chancellor, the mayor or your state senator.)

Claim 9: Charters can demand things from parents that district schools cannot demand

Examples of this claim include signing contracts, showing up to school on time, showing up for detentions including parent detentions, and school uniforms, among others.  Like Claims 5 and 6, this issue is a policy one.  Charters are bound by the same education laws that district schools are.  If districts choose not to enforce their attendance policies by focusing time and attention to it, that’s their choice.

Our understanding of the law is that charters cannot force parents to sign contracts.  If they do (and exclude admissions on those grounds), they are breaking the law.

Our sense is that district school folks who make this claim are frustrated by the overwhelming nature of the work we all face, and have not allocated resources adequately to express basic priorities to families and follow up to ensure that there is compliance and understanding.  At Harlem Link, we struggle to keep up with the enforcement of our own policies for things like uniforms and attendance, and we like it that way because it means that the policies are strict and that the follow-up required is laborious and thorough.

Claim 10: Charters don’t work with district schools; they adopt a “holier than thou” attitude

We can’t argue with this claim, in many cases, but then again, we don’t know the history of every district-charter relationship.  We know that in the case of our school (and in the cases of many of our colleagues) we have adopted a collaborative, shared ethic around school improvement.  We have received a reciprocal approach in return at times, and we have received the cold shoulder at other times.

There are examples all of the city of charter schools that have reached out to their co-located or district partners to work together.  When Joel Klein put on an event to mark the 100th charter school to be approved in New York City a few years ago, he chose Brooklyn Charter School to host.  The principal, Omi Escayg, asked the co-located principal of P.S. 23K to attend the event, and to stand up and receive a standing ovation from the charter school crowd for her support in their collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship.

Members of the media like to portray the angry fights, but this example is the tip of a very collaborative iceberg.  At Harlem Link, we have a supportive co-location, with four other school sharing our campus.  Three are district schools, including a District 75 school site.  We have found ways to work together with, and learn from, each of them.

Claim 11: Charters are all part of cold, businesslike networks that don’t care about communities

It’s true that something like half of charters in NYC are members of networks—contracting with Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) like Uncommon Schools or the Success network, or Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) like Victory Schools or even Edison Schools.  But that doesn’t preclude individual schools from interacting with community institutions and members of the community at large.

It seems to us that some charters (like us – see the word “link” in our name, and the many charters with the word “community” in their names) make a point in their mission statements and practices of working to establish community ties and to use community resources to support their aims.  In our view, choosing not to do so is not very different from district schools shutting out members of the community and erecting signs like “No Parents Allowed Past This Point,” which proliferate in underserved communities like Harlem.

Claim 12: Charter leaders make more money than the chancellor

While some charter school leaders (particularly those who head networks of upwards of two dozen schools) earn salaries that look like they belong to a lower tier executive of a Fortune 500 company, most of us labor in the shadow of our schools’ meager resources.  Remember: $13,527 per child is not a lot of money.

Here’s one point about the stratospheric salaries of some charter network leaders.  They bring resources to public education.  You can’t tell us that New York City does not benefit from the 500-seat building built with private resources for Harlem Village Academies Charter Schools, led by Deborah Kenny, whose compensation is one of the most oft-cited examples of excessiveness.  Taxpayers should be thanking Ms. Kenny for bringing in the resources to build a presumably state-of-the-art building with those seats that would otherwise not be available for low income New York City students.

At Harlem Link, we have a fair compensation program in place, but no one is confusing any of our employees or school leaders with Bill Gates.

Claim 13: Charters are seen as a silver bullet

Anyone who thinks this is true is probably not fully engaged in the fight to eradicate educational inequity.  Charters are only part of the complicated answer to our shared problems.  On our Bank Street panel, you will find three people who have founded charter schools, but you will not find one who believes this claim is true.

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Rules, also known as conventions

Most rules are simply conventions.

It’s a hard fact to understand.  Maybe it was my Roman Catholic upbringing, but when I first grasped it—probably during high school but maybe as late as college—I was surprised.  I thought: You mean we fallible humans agree on these conventions, and we all accept the consequences for breaking them of our own free will?  You mean not all rules are like the Ten Commandments, or Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion?

Over time, it has come to make sense, but I still occasionally lapse into the assumption that rules are immutable and fixed.

I snapped out of it again this weekend, when I was driving south on the FDR Drive and approaching the Brooklyn Bridge exit.

While growing up in Staten Island and commuting to Manhattan for school for six years and in the many years since, I’ve driven—or was driven by my dad or an express bus—over that stretch hundreds of times. The Brooklyn Bridge has always been a bottleneck.  With two or all three lanes of traffic heading into the exit, but with only one lane in which to exit, the choice has frequently been to cut ahead of the other cars by exiting illegally from the middle lane.  Of course, that maneuver only serves to exacerbate the problem by slowing down the cars that are following the rule and exiting from the right lane.

This year, the Department of Transportation did an ingenious thing.  It gave in to the cheaters—now there are two lanes from which one can legally exit.  Overnight, what was against the rules became part of the rules:


How does this apply to schools and to education reforms?  Policymakers need to be flexible and have an open mind.  Practitioners need to be patient, try out reforms and give measured, careful feedback to influence future changes.  The so-called experts need to learn from the practitioners, see what works and adopt it to the extent possible.

At our school, I’ve seen this notion play out in a dramatic way this year.  This year, as in every year, we have introduced a number of initiatives meant to improve instruction through the use of data.  One example is a new assessment tool called the DRA Monitoring System (this is a different tool than, but complementary to, the DRA system that we have used for almost 10 years).   Another is a new set of expectations for grading, scoring and discussing unit-end assessments.

In both cases, teachers had strong and in some cases visceral reactions to the expectations, mostly centered on timelines but also around the clarity of expectations.  Our leadership team worked assiduously to fill in gaps in what was expected and was adamant that we would not make any changes to the initiatives in the first couple of months.  Naturally many teachers were frustrated but gave the new approach the old college try.  We knew that making changes right away would only increase the confusion that comes along with any initiative, and ultimately lead to more frustration down the line.

After a couple of months of trying out these systems, we have responded by adopting some of the changes recommended by teachers, and while the systems are not perfect (and probably never will be), they are now more achievable and flexible.  And I have no doubt they will continue to improve.  Like using the center lane to exit from the FDR Drive, what was not allowed yesterday is part of the expectation today.

It’s important that the members of our leadership team have seen themselves as learners along with the teachers.  We are not perfect experts who have all the answers, but professionals who have the benefit of experience and have been trusted with the responsibility to determine the boundaries of conventions we all have to follow.

What’s needed for successful initiatives?  Among other things (notably the conditions for success and able, prepared teams), clear expectations, vocal constituents and open-minded policymakers.  And all parties must understand that conventions have to be followed consistently to be effective, and they must see that, after a period in which patience is required of all sides, the rules can change, that they aren’t immutable—unless of course, they fall into the realm of the ethical or the scientific!

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