ALBANY, N.Y. -- It was the best of times for charter schools. And it was the worst of times for charter schools.
For Shanay Lewis-Harry of the Bronx, one of the 11,000 who attended a pro-charter school rally at the Capitol last week, the Success Academy Charter School named Bronx 2 has been invaluable for her 10-year-old son, Tyriq. She said that when her now-fourth grade student was in public school, the students would be fighting more than learning. She found the same with her older child, too, who ended up dropping out of school before earning a GED.
"I find the curriculum better and the learning environment better," she said of Bronx 2.
Her son agreed: "I’m learning more and it’s fun."
Holding his mom’s hand, he added that he wants to be an actor one day.
They marched along State Street in Albany in support of their school expanding to include a middle school, so Tyriq can continue his education with the Bronx 2 programming. As they walked closer to the front steps of the Capitol, they could hear Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s voice at the rally: "I am committed to ensuring charter schools have the financial capacity, the physical space, and the government support to thrive and to grow."
Offering a choice
Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are run by an independent, private organization. The first charter school in Albany was authorized for the 1999-2000 school year and the first one in Troy was established in 2001.
In New York, they can be approved by SUNY, the state Education Department’s Board of Regents, or the New York City Department of Education. Charter schools start out with a five-year contract and must be reviewed and approved in the years following.
There are about a dozen now between Troy and Albany. With nearly 260 approved charter schools in the state, more than 120 are SUNY-sanctioned.
In Albany, about 19 percent of the city’s youths attend a charter school. The state’s capital has one of the highest percentages in the United States, said Ron Lesko, a spokesman for the Albany City School District.
According to Tulane University’s Cowen Institute, 78 percent of children in New Orleans attended a charter school in 2011-2012. The first charter schools in the country were in Minnesota in the early 1990s, according to Wikipedia.
"We know we have a lot of work to do to improve as a district," said Lesko about Albany schools. "We are very clear on what our shortcomings are. If we had been successful in this work sooner, charter schools would not have had the public’s support when they came about 15 years ago in the Capital District."
Just like district public schools, the success seen by charter schools has varied. Three have already closed in Albany. And one was recently recommended to close in Troy.
At the end of February, the SUNY Board of Trustees’ charter schools committee held a meeting to discuss the recent recommendation by the state Charter Schools Institute to close the Ark Community school in Troy for failing to meet state standards.
At the meeting, Steve Axelrod, chairman of the local charter school’s board, stated: "It seems pretty clear we are victims of a double standard and -- unless the [SUNY] Trustees intervene -- a renewal process that is patently unfair."
He went on to say that the Ark students have out-performed the nearby Troy City School District test results in four of the last five years. Ark has 203 students in kindergarten through grade six, with 19 teachers and 13 teaching assistants. Their principal and executive director, Mary Theresa Streck, takes pride in the school’s small classes and one-on-one student attention.
"Charter schools offer parents a choice. The money that charter schools receive are monies that belong to the child not the school district. Ark Community Charter School focuses on the whole child and provides a rigorous academic program that holds our students to high academic standards," Streck said. "Our charter school is a small child-centered environment where there are approximately 20 students and two teachers in each classroom."
Ark received $2.7 million from the Troy Central School District for the current school year, Streck said.
Troy School Superintendent John Carmello, in an emailed statement, said: "The Troy City School District is a district on the rise and we represent the best choice for parents looking to enroll their children in schools that offer a challenging educational program designed to meet the demonstrated needs of students and prepare them for success. In addition, we are confident that we are on the precipice of continual improvement in our academic achievement."
The SUNY committee has tabled a decision on the Ark charter school matter and, as of March 7, it was unclear when a decision on the possible closure would be reached, according to a spokesman for the SUNY system.
Cherry picking students
At the recent rally on Lobby Day in Albany, parents, students, teachers and other supporters wore shirts that declared "Charter Schools are Public Schools."
But officials with the Albany Central School District see the situation a bit differently.
In a letter from the district opposing a proposed additional charter elementary school run by KIPP: Tech Valley, Albany School Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said that the district has sent about $260 million in payments to charter schools for district children since 1999. She noted that the charter school transition aid has covered $30 million. Another KIPP charter school with 400 students would increase the financial "burden" by about $5.6 million annually, she said of the total $213 million annual district budget, of which $35 million yearly funds charter schools.
And, since the private charters are run differently than a school district, not all funding given to charter schools is public record, since some of it can go to private foundations.
"It’s just murky. It’s public money and taxpayers deserve to know," Lesko said.
He noted that the 19 percent of Albany students being educated at charter schools are using the equivalent of 45 percent of the district’s total state aid.
During the 2012-2013 school year, 44 KIPP students returned to district schools. And, from July 1 to Nov. 30 of the current school year, 27 KIPP students returned to district schools, Wyngaard stated.
"We report student attrition each year publicly on the KIPP school annual report. It ranges from 6 percent to 23 percent depending on the year. Last year was our highest rate, as we came in at 23 percent," said KIPP CEO and Executive Director Dustin Mitchell, about the school on Northern Boulevard that was founded in Albany in 2004 with 288 students in grades five through eight. The school has 27 teachers.
None of the charter schools contacted for this story said they had unionized teachers.
KIPP, Mitchell said, is in session from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with up to 10 Saturday sessions each year for enrichment activities. School is in session about 200 days per year compared to the normal 180. Their budget was $4.3 million for last year’s enrollment of 301 students.
"The charter schools cherry pick students they want to keep," Lesko said.
He referred to KIPP having a student population including 3.5 percent with disabilities. Albany public schools, meanwhile, has 13 percent of their students enrolled as having disabilities and the district serves another 239 disabled students in out-of-district placements. There are 8,900 total students in Albany public schools.
Along with this, Lesko pointed out that the addresses of about 100 students’ each billing period are contended as possibly inaccurate, which means the district is potentially paying for a student not residing in Albany.
A similar issue was faced in Troy when then-interim superintendent Dr. Brian Howard authorized an investigation into the addresses submitted for Troy charter students. At that time, in 2012, multiple inaccuracies were found by Troy school officials and the district, for a time, refused to pay Troy Prep.
In the 2013-2014 Troy school budget, charter schools were paid $12 million in funds from the district, representing 12.75 percent of the district’s total budget, Carmello said.
"We are continuing our efforts to ensure that the students that we are paying district money for are in fact Troy residents," Carmello said. "We are enforcing our registration policies and procedures across the board."
But Troy Prep officials say everything has now been cleared by the state comptroller’s office.
"We received a totally ‘clean’ audit from the (comptroller’s office) on the issue of student enrollment and billing, which was further confirmation for us that our practices align not only with state policy but best practice about confirming student residency and appropriately billing districts," said Anna Hall, the chief operating officer with Uncommon Schools, which operates the local school that expanded to a new South Troy location in 2011. "We are committed in this regard, as in all others, to be partners with local districts to ensure that all students receive the best possible education, while also safeguarding our parents’ right to choose where their child goes to school."
Albany schools contribute $14,072 per pupil toward charter school operations. Troy schools contribute $15,986 per pupil, officials said.
At Troy Prep, which was founded in 2009 at a downtown location, there are currently 385 students. An estimated 440 students will be enrolled next school year, said Hall. The school offers grades five through eight, and kindergarden through grade two: The elementary school just opened in 2011 and an additional grade is added each year.
Hall was at the recent rally and said a main issue facing charter schools is their current inability to house and manage universal pre-kindergarten programs.
But factors that set Troy Prep, along with other charter schools, apart from district schools include a longer school day, the student uniforms, lack of a nap time in elementary school, strict three-minute transitions between classes in the middle school, a culture of data-driven instruction and internal interim assessments, Hall listed.
Troy Prep, with a $6.5 million annual budget, has 50 staff members and next school year there will be about 60, she said.
About 92 percent of Troy Prep students are free- and reduced-lunch eligible, 12 percent are in special education courses and 2 percent are English as a Second Language (ESL) learners. In Troy district schools, 65 percent are free- and reduced-lunch eligible, and 2 percent are ESL learners, according to state Education Department figures.
With Troy Prep’s expansion in recent years, a charter high school could make sense.
"As of right now, we don’t have definite plans to open a high school in Troy," Hall said. "But we are continuing to explore options for a high school as well as growth in the region."
She added: "Urban education is hard, no matter what ‘kind’ of a school you are or where you do it. There are some things we do differently, and we believe in the power for parents to choose where their child goes to school."
Just like Tyriq and his mother at the rally, Lisa Sweet of Troy could not say enough positive things about her granddaughter’s new school for the past four months -- Ark Community Charter School.
"It was a godsend for my granddaughter," said Sweet. "It is so much different than public school and much more about each student and their own individual needs."
Her granddaughter, a 7-year-old first grader, loves her new school, Sweet said.
"What a great administration and staff. The entire program has been a life-changing event for her and us. Ark is doing great things with these kids and teaching some good moral guidelines and social skills along the way," she said.
On a recent visit to the Ark school, located on River Street in Troy, students were completing a teacher assessment. Some were working in classrooms, and others, who needed more attention, were in smaller sessions in spaces around the two story school.
KIPP and Troy Prep officials listed similar qualities for their school. And, they noted, learning is going on with special attention to new Common Core standards.
"KIPP: Tech Valley supports the increased expectations of the Common Core," Mitchell said. "And has worked this year to revise our internal assessments to mirror the format and structure of the New York State Testing Program. Additionally, we have partnered with other schools through the state dissemination grant to discuss the 12 key shifts and to share best practices in ELA and mathematics."
Several revisions were made in the KIPP curriculum, he said, including increased Lexile levels on all reading passages and materials to equal the Lexile bandwidth released by the state Education Department, and more research-based writing, as well as additional text-dependent questioning and the prioritization of informational reading.
"We have done a lot to revisit and realign our scopes and sequences, have done a lot of professional development for teachers around rigor, questioning, close reading, and cognitively driven instruction," Hall said. "We have also revised all of our internal interim assessments, which we use to gauge student progress during the year."
She said this is common with Uncommon Schools, which has charters in Boston, New York City, Rochester, Newark and Troy.
But district schools are also changing with the Common Core times.
"All teachers have had comprehensive professional development in teaching to the more rigorous Common Core state standards," Carmello said. "And our district ELA and Math curricula are fully aligned to those standards. We have a newly-renovated Troy Middle School and the recent passage by the voters of a technology bond for upgrades in every school in the district. This means that every classroom in the district will be equipped with the latest technologies including interactive Smartboards, projectors, document cameras, video-conferencing ability and wireless internet. These technologies will essentially transform our teaching and learning to include worldwide access for our students leading to 21st century learning that prepares our students to be college and career ready."
To say that the topic of charter schools in the field of education is controversial would be an understatement. There are passionate advocates for both sides.
Dina Williams, a former employee at Ark, observed: "I worked there, and at the after-school program the founders ran for a number of years. Personally, I think the Ark is a great school with an innovative curriculum. It would be a shame if it closed."
But area school districts, like Troy and Albany, continue to cope with the impact of charter schools on their budgets and programs.
"There are absolutely no benefits," said Lesko, about the charter schools. "We don’t begrudge the parents or families in any way. Having a choice for them is valuable. Our contention has nothing to do with the students or families. It has to do with the larger organizations that have brought charter schools to the Albany community."
He said that, before the first charter school in Albany, there were 17 publicly-funded schools serving 10,500 Albany students. Now, there are 25 publicly-funded schools serving the same population.
The goal of many charter schools, not just in the Capital District, is to instill a love of education and a dedication to graduate to eventually move on to higher education, charter advocates emphasized.
"Ultimately, and most importantly, we commit to our families that we are working to ensure that their children will not only go to, but will graduate from college," said Hall.
But, as it stands now, Lesko contends, the financial formula is not working for charter schools and some district schools to co-exist -- especially considering the possibly imminent fiscal insolvency of many school districts.
"Until the state of New York finds a different way to fund this experiment, there will not be anything resembling a truce between charter schools and our district in Albany," Lesko said. "This is devastating our district. This is becoming a contentious environment in which only the children will lose."