Future of Schools

Charter school offered $100 reward to anyone who referred students who enrolled

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Carpe Diem Meridian.

Carpe Diem Meridian charter school embarked on an aggressive plan to boost enrollment this winter.

The North side Indianapolis school wanted to grow its roster by nearly 40 students by Feb. 2 — one of two critical dates when the state uses student attendance to determine the school’s 2015 funding levels — so board members approved a strategy to get the word out that included distributing fliers to parents and day care centers, making TV and radio appearances and hosting two open houses.

That wasn’t all.

Carpe Diem also offered $100 Marsh grocery gift cards to anyone who refers a student who enrolls — an incentive that some critics say went too far.

“My concern is that instead of a parent making a rational choice about where to send their child based upon who their child is and what they see the schools doing, we’re asking parents to discount that,” said MaryAnn Schlegel Ruegger, an Indianapolis attorney who has been skeptical of charter schools. “It’s not something that should count.”

Recruitment practices like these are legal in Indiana but have been outlawed elsewhere.

Those leading the charge against such giveaways say they are an unintended consequence of the state’s increasingly competitive school marketplace where schools must compete with each other for students and the state dollars that follow them. Indiana has seen a recent expansion of charter schools in recent years as the result of new state laws that foster their growth.

“I think we’re creating something people didn’t necessarily anticipate,” said Lori Schlabach, a former Washington township school board member who currently sends her children to township schools. “Now we’ve got a situation where a lot of districts have to do advertising or big public relations efforts just to survive. Do we really want our education dollars, be they donated dollars or taxpayer dollars, going to efforts like that, or would they be better spent elsewhere?”

Carpe Diem Meridian’s interim principal is LaNier Echols, who also was just elected to the Indianapolis Public School Board. She said the gift card promotion helped capture parents’ attention about the school. The school now has 250 kids enrolled, compared with 206 at the beginning of last month.

“People are more excited to do something where they get something out of it,” Echols said. “Parents are like, ‘Oh I do have a cousin that was looking for a school.’ It’s just to encourage people.”

But she said she is confident offering a gift card wasn’t the reason the school ultimately exceeded its enrollment goals. Two more Carpe Diem campuses are slated to open this fall in Indianapolis, each aiming to eventually enroll 300 students. Carpe Diem combines traditional classroom instruction with online lessons.

“We are a blended learning school and that’s what parents love about it,” Echols said. “We have children coming from everywhere, not because of the gift cards, but because we’re offering something different. We are filling a niche.”

Though at least one other state — Colorado — has declared illegal the practice of schools offering gift cards to students as an enrollment incentive, state charter school sponsors say there are no rules restricting the practice in Indiana.

Indiana Charter School Board Director Nick LeRoy, who manages the state’s oversight of more than 10 charter schools, said he asked the board’s attorneys to look into the legality of the practice in Indiana after Chalkbeat’s inquiry. He said he was not aware of the school’s plan to use gift cards as an enrollment incentive.

“That doesn’t sound right,” LeRoy initially said.

Later, LeRoy said state law “does not limit the use of general fund dollars … and schools have flexibility to use those dollars for supplies, salaries, fundraisers, etc.  This flexibility is determined by the board of directors for the school.”

The practice of using taxpayer dollars on marketing materials is relatively common, LeRoy said, even among public schools.

“(Indianapolis Public Schools) in particular uses billboards extensively to raise awareness and support their student recruitment efforts,” LeRoy said.

Robert Sommers, Carpe Diem’s chief strategy officer, said spending money up front to attract students is worth it to reduce the cost it takes to educate students in the long run. Carpe Diem’s Indiana office budgeted $30,000 in 2015 for marketing and advertising. The gift cards came out of that budget.

“I’m not one of those folks who sees it as a problem,” Sommers said. “The real shame would be if taxpayers built the building, bought the computers and nobody showed up. That would be the ultimate abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

But who watches the spending?

LeRoy said the Indiana Charter School Board reviews Carpe Diem’s financial expenditures quarterly and completes an annual third-party audit.

“We do this for every school that we authorize,” LeRoy said. “This additional safeguard serves as a further means of transparency and accountability for how our schools use state funds.”

Another of Indiana’s charter school sponsors — Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office, which oversees more than 30 schools — requires schools have detailed plans when it comes to marketing and recruitment before they are up and running, said Deputy Mayor Jason Kloth.

“We require schools to have robust recruitment plans in both the application and pre-opening phases which is an opportunity for our team to review those practices and make sure they’re activities that are going to lead to enrollment and that are ethical,” Kloth said.

But some things inevitably slip through the cracks.

Last year, one of the mayor’s charter school drew scrutiny after it began charging an enrollment fee. Charter schools are supposed to be free public schools just like traditional public schools, which do not charge enrollment fees.

In light of cases like this, Ruegger said it may be time to clamp down harder on schools to limit how they can spend taxpayer dollars.

“We’ve over regulated, and now, at least for charters and vouchers, we seem to be afraid to regulate at all,” Ruegger said. “But in this area, we really need to. Is this really something we want our public schools to be doing?”

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enrollment woes

More students applied to Renewal high schools this year, but that won’t necessarily jolt sagging enrollment

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
August Martin High School is part of New York City's Renewal turnaround program.

High schools in New York City’s controversial turnaround program saw 1,100 more applications this year, a jump city officials touted as evidence the long-floundering schools are rising in popularity.

But overall, 3,305 students received an offer to attend a Renewal high school this year — up just 26 students from the previous year.

Education department officials said the 9 percent rise in applications over last year shows that the 20 high schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s expensive and controversial Renewal program are successfully turning a corner and attracting new students. The stakes are high for Renewal schools: City officials have closed or merged schools that have struggled with low enrollment.

But the rise in applications doesn’t necessarily mean those schools will have a flood of new students next year.

One reason for the gap between applications and actual offers is that more students are applying to a larger number of schools. Students can list up to 12 schools on their high school applications, and this year the city saw a 4 percentage point increase in the proportion of students who listed all 12 options. That means students are applying to more schools generally, not just ones in the Renewal program.

Another reason more applications might not yield big enrollment jumps is that students could be ranking Renewal schools lower on their list of choices, making it less likely they will receive an offer to attend.

“If someone ranks a Renewal school 11th,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, “is that really a reflection of the change in demand for that school?”

There are different ways students can receive initial offers. They can be matched with a school on their list of 12 choices. Or, if they don’t receive a match, they can be assigned to their default “zoned” neighborhood school.

About 140 more students received offers as a result of ranking them among their 12 preferred choices this year, which a department spokesman said is evidence of increased interest in Renewal high schools. But fewer students were assigned to Renewal schools after failing to receive an offer based on their list of 12 choices, which is why only 26 additional students overall were matched at Renewal high schools this year. (An official also noted that two Renewal high schools are closing, which also caused fewer offers to be issued.)

The spokesman added that the number of offers by itself is not a perfect predictor of next year’s enrollment, since students who were not matched to any schools during the initial round of applications can now apply again. (It’s also possible that some students who arrive to the city after admissions process ends could be sent to a Renewal school.)

Still, at some Renewal schools, the jump in applications has been significant, which Pallas said could suggest some schools are successfully changing their image. At Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology in the Bronx, for instance, the school received 945 applications this year — a 47 percent increase.

And at Longwood Preparatory Academy, which saw a 16 percent bump in applications, Principal Asya Johnson said the school has worked hard to market itself to families. The school changed its name, launched a new career and technical program in digital media, plastered local bodegas with fliers, and beefed up its social media presence. For the first time this year, school officials invited middle school guidance counselors across the Bronx for brunch and a tour.

“We have been doing a lot of recruitment,” she said. “We are constantly advertising ourselves.”

Below, you can find a list of each Renewal high school and a breakdown of how many applications they received this year compared with last year. (The list also includes “Rise” schools, which are being phased out of the turnaround program.)

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.