first reaction

From outrage to indifference, charter school educators respond to the NAACP’s call to limit their schools

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Charter school teachers, principals and staff members gather at a rally organized by Families for Excellent Schools.

When Khari Shabazz, principal of Success Academy Harlem West, heard that the NAACP passed a resolution to curb charter school growth, he called a meeting with his teachers.

“In my school, I just brought them together. I gave them news reports if they hadn’t seen it already. I asked them to take a look at that, just read it, quietly, and then we shared,” Shabazz said. “We had a conversation. We talked about it.”

During that conversation, Shabazz said, his teachers expressed confusion. They could not understand why, after working to help educate so many students of color, they were being admonished by the NAACP, he said.

That was a common sentiment at a Wednesday afternoon rally in Foley Square for charter school teachers, principals and staff, organized by the pro-charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools. Like Shabazz, other school leaders and teachers felt compelled to facilitate either formal or informal conversations about the NAACP’s resolution.

The NAACP called for the moratorium last weekend, arguing charter schools expel too many students and “perpetuate de facto segregation” by catering to higher-performing children. Those arguments have long been made by the teachers union, which quickly praised the NAACP’s decision.

Success Academy, the largest charter network in New York City, came under fire last year after one principal was found with a “Got to Go” list featuring students’ names.

The NAACP’s decision drew criticism from the editorial boards of several major news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. But on Wednesday night, Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP, stood by the organization’s decision, saying, “We will do what we have to do.”

That is both distressing and personal to Kiah Hufane, principal at Success Academy Harlem Central.

“I grew up with family who talked about the NAACP as the next great hope for African-Americans during the civil rights movement,” she said, “and to have this organization speak for me is really just downright offensive.”

The news was distressing enough to her, she said, that she felt it necessary to have a school-wide discussion about it, which she characterized as “a hard conversation to have with my staff.” One of her main concerns is that the NAACP’s actions will cause a withdrawal of public support for charter schools. In cities other than New York, she fears it could significantly slow charter school growth.

Others say that while the NAACP’s position is upsetting, it won’t cause a tangible difference for charter schools.

“Although it makes me sad — and maybe I’m being naive — it doesn’t really worry me that much,” said Katherine Genao, a teacher at Success Academy Bronx II. “While there are people opposed, there are more and more people who are rallying for us.”

(Most teachers and staff approached by Chalkbeat declined to answer questions, but the organizers made certain attendees available to the press.)

Jacob Mnookin, executive director at Coney Island Prep, argued his own experience speaks louder than the NAACP’s criticisms.

“We haven’t talked a lot about it as a school,” Mnookin said. “We have over 2,000 families on our waiting list, and I think it’s unfortunate and sad for an organization like the NAACP with such a storied history to tell families that desperately want a better choice like that for their children, that they shouldn’t have that.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”