troubled waters

New hire a first step in effort to bridge district, charter divide

An initiative designed to ease tension between district and charter schools in the city has moved slowly and largely under the radar this spring.

In December, then-Chancellor Joel Klein joined 88 of the city’s charter schools in signing on to a District-Charter Collaboration Compact, which mandates that charter schools “fulfill their role as laboratories of innovation” and requires the Department of Education to support city charter schools. The compact, which the Gates Foundation urged and is funding, emphasizes collaboration around issues of enrollment, space allocation, and instruction.

But after more than six months — which were bookended by Klein’s sudden departure and a contentious lawsuit over charter school co-location — little progress has been made toward fulfilling the compact’s requirements. In June, the New York City Charter School Center took a first step by hiring Cara Volpe, a former Teach for America employee, to be the city’s first district-charter collaboration manager.

Later, a not-yet-formed advisory council of district and charter school employees will help Volpe set priorities, according to city and charter school officials.

Volpe “will be expected to implement the council’s vision for identifying, establishing and implementing the partnerships, policies and programs that will help tear down the boundaries between great district and charter schools,” according to advertisement for the position, which the charter center posted online at GothamSchools’ jobs board, Idealist, and elsewhere.

Volpe’s work will come at a time when tensions around charter schools are at an all-time high. In May, the UFT and NAACP sued the city to stop 19 charter schools from opening, moving, or expanding, and a fierce battle for public opinion followed.

“The rhetoric around charter versus district schools has become far too heated, and work on this initiative could not come at a better time,” said Matthew Mittenthal, a Department of Education spokesman.

A search committee that included two charter school principals, a district school principal, a representative of the nonprofit New Visions for New Schools, and the head of the DOE’s charter schools office interviewed Volpe before she was hired.

“I’m excited for the opportunity to bring together district and charter school leaders and teachers and helping them work more collaboratively toward their shared goal of improving education for all children,” Volpe wrote in an email.

But critics of the city’s education policies say they are skeptical that Volpe’s position will easily soothe tensions between district and charter schools. In fact, they say, they are skeptical even of the city’s commitment to upholding the compact’s terms.

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s appointee on the Panel for Educational Policy, said last week he had not even heard about the compact.

“I think in order to deliver on the commitments that the district signed up for, many of them would require PEP approval,” he said, pointing to a promise that the city aim to grant charter schools equal space inside school buildings. “So I was surprised I hadn’t heard about it.”

Marc Sternberg, the DOE’s deputy chancellor for portfolio planning, met with Sullivan Tuesday afternoon to discuss the compact. “Marc and Patrick had a very productive conversation yesterday, one of many they will have about the District-Charter Compact moving forward,” Mittenthal said today.

But Noah Gotbaum, president of the Community Education Council for District 3, where space-sharing has long been highly contentious, said the city’s policy of awarding space in public school buildings to charter schools would always make collaboration unlikely.

“Are you asking them to compete or are you asking them to collaborate? Because you can’t have it both ways,” he said. “If the DOE is serious about collaboration, they will first ensure, before they do any co-locations, that there is adequate space to educate the kids in the public schools right now.”

The charter center is banking on Volpe’s stints in both district and charter schools to help her bridge the growing chasm between them in New York.

After graduating from the University of Virginia, Volpe started her career teaching sixth-grade science at Jane Long Middle School in Houston, as a member of Teach for America. Her next stop was at Houston’s KIPP Academy Middle School, where she taught math. She moved to New York City to become Teach for America’s Director of Alumni Affairs, and she also joined Community Board 7, where she served on the Youth, Education and Libraries committee.

KIPP Principal Elliott Witney remembered her humor and intensity as she peppered her students with questions. “Cara showed up recently to watch the children she taught years ago graduate from high school in Houston,” Witney wrote in an email. “When the children saw her, they rejoiced. That, in a nutshell, is Cara.”

New York City is not alone is posting slow progress post-compact. Other cities that signed onto the compact are waiting for progress as well. In Minneapolis, Al Fan, executive director of Charter School Partners, said a local advisory board is hoping to hire a collaboration manager but hasn’t yet. Fan said, “I don’t think anything is going to happen in Minneapolis until this compact coordinator is filled.”

Another participating city, Denver, has had more success, according to Debbie Robinson, senior communications officer at the Gates Foundation. The city has already created committees to tackle the specific issues of enrollment, special education and funding, she said. But Robinson wrote in an email that Rochester, Hartford, and New Orleans have all had difficulties filling the collaboration manager role.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.