About Andrea’s Blog

Welcome to my periodic musings on the state of American education, business, journalism, the consumer experience, women and food—how it is grown, cooked and eaten. A systems thinker since I wrote my first book, The Man Who Discovered Quality by W. Edwards Deming, most of my ideas and writing are informed by a systems view of the world.

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In the Age of De Blasio, A Bloomberg Era Small School Reunion

In July, I found myself back in the East Harlem cafeteria shared by Global Technology Preparatory and P.S. 7. The occasion for my visit was a reunion of Global Tech’s first class of eighth-graders, who were now, four years after their middle-school commencement, graduating from high school.

I was eager to return and see how the students had fared. I knew from my ongoing contacts with the school and its students that several had endured more than their fair share of tragedy, including homelessness, violence and depression, and yet many were getting ready to go to college.

Global Tech, as the middle school became known, was one of the first public schools that I began to follow as part of my research on how business ideas, especially those of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would influence K-12 education. I also was curious to see how a school that was seen, in many ways, as a Bloomberg-era success story was faring under the administration of Mayor Bill De Blasio, and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña. A number of changes, some driven by the new administration’s desire to merge small schools—a major departure from Bloomberg policy—may foreshadow significant shifts at the school.

Here is the story I published this week in Gotham Gazette.

Below are some photos taken of Global Tech alumni at the reunion, in July, and during their frequent visits to the school, over the last few years, where they have maintained close ties with their former teachers.

Chrystina Russell, founding principal of Global Tech with (from left) Quentin, who is going to Monroe College in New Rochelle; Travis, who is going to New York City Tech/CUNY; and Dariel who has been studying to be an auto mechanic and will attend Duchess Community College

Chrystina Russell, founding principal of Global Tech with (from left) Quentin, who is going to Monroe College in New Rochelle; Travis, who is going to New York City Tech/CUNY; and Dariel who has been studying to be an auto mechanic and will attend Duchess Community College

Kaira Bridge and Matthew1

Kaira (right) who was valedictorian at the iSchool and will be attending John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY in the fall, chatting with her former teachers at the reunion. Jhonary Bridgemohan (left) still teaches ELA at Global Tech. Matt Fernandez came to the reunion from Long Island where he now serves as a police officer.

Jackie Pryce-Harvey helped found Global Tech with Russell, and now serves as interim-acting principal of P.S. 7; the two schools share a building.

Jackie Pryce-Harvey, at the Global Tech reunion, helped found the school with Russell, and now serves as interim-acting principal of P.S. 7; the two schools share a building.


PizzaParty1 - Copy

Reunited at an alumni pizza party in 2015

Raven and Baiz - Copy

Raven gets help with her high school homework, in 2014, from David Baiz, her former math teacher, who succeeded Russell as Global Tech’s principal.

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Another Snafu At Controversial Bay State Charter

For the second time this month, construction has stopped on the controversial New Heights Charter School in Brockton, MA. Yesterday, the city of Brockton slapped a bright orange “stop work violation” order on the outside of the school’s new location at 1690 Main St. , for lack of adequate permits, according to Enterprise News.

The school already had won a four-day reduction in the school year from the state due to work stoppage at the school’s earlier site at 141 Main St., about 2.5 miles away. For more on the charter and why it has been so controversial see here .

The latest snafu comes just two weeks before the school’s delayed start date of Sept. 6. The school’s website posted the following notice to parents and families:

Dear Parents and Families,
We wanted to provide an update on the circumstances reported in the media yesterday.  We apologize for the manner in which the information was relayed to families. The media reported the situation at the same time that we were being informed. We apologize for the delay, but we wanted to confirm all facts prior to releasing any further information.

Yesterday, building officials issued a stop work order at our 1690 Main Street location. It appears that the contractors needed to submit and/or complete additional paperwork in order to be in compliance with all codes and regulations for the project. We met with the architect and the building owner, and they assure us that they are addressing all issues raised by the building officials. Our goal is to resume the renovation to the site as soon as possible. Once we are allowed to resume work, the contractors will take all necessary steps to ensure that the building will be ready. At this time, we are proceeding with our planned opening date of SEPTEMBER 6th, 2016.  New Heights Charter School of Brockton is excited that we will soon open our doors to students and families.

Please check our website for further updates. We look forward to serving all of you in the very near future.  Thank you for your patience.

Omari Walker

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Bay State Charter Campaign Gets A Black Eye in Brockton: New Heights Charter Unlikely to Open on Main St.

Merian New Heights

When New Heights received its charter from the State in June, executive director Omari Walker (second from right) posed with Commissioner Mitchell Chester (second from left) and Secretary of Education Jim Peyser (far right.)   Photo from New Heights website

The controversial New Heights Charter School won’t be moving into the space above the tuxedo-rental store and shuttered bridal shop on Main St., in downtown Brockton, MA., this September.

“They are not moving in; not coming into this building,” says John Merian, whose family has owned the building on Main St. for over 30 years. Merian won’t say more about how New Heights’ plan to renovate and occupy the Main Street space went awry, noting there are legal issues to be resolved.

As readers of this blog know, the New Heights proposal was approved by the state despite overwhelming opposition from the community, which is home to Brockton High, the states largest high school, as well as the single most successful school turnaround in Massachusetts history, which I’ve written about here and here.

So far, New Heights has said only that it is postponing its move-in date, according to The Enterprise, a local newspaper:

“New Heights recently submitted an amendment request to the Department to shorten year one of their school year from 184 days to 180 days to accommodate renovation delays,” said Lauren Greene, assistant to the chief of staff at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in an email to The Enterprise. The request is still under consideration by the state, Greene said.

The New Heights website requests that applicants send mail to a post office box, noting “our building, 141 Main Street, is under construction.”

But the phone listed on the school’s website is a non-working number.

Omari Walker, executive director at New Heights, has said of the Merians—John runs the business with his brother Paul: “They have been some of the only folks to stand beside us…. ”

Merian, by contrast, insists that the decision to rent space to the charter school was “just a real estate deal.”

Adds Merian, a compact man with black hair and carefully trimmed door-knocker goatee: “I continue to be supportive of Brockton Public Schools, always will be.”

Merian 1

John Merian with three of his four children, all of whom attended Brockton public schools, on the eve of his daughter’s Brockton High prom

Merian has become an unlikely protagonist in a years-long battle against bringing a charter school to Brockton, a once thriving industrial city that, years ago, lost its storied shoe industry to foreign rivals. Once a working-class city of mostly European immigrants, like Merian’s Armenian grandparents who fled Turkey in the early 20th century, the  city now has a large population of newcomers from Haiti and Cape Verde.

Today, Merian is the rare business leader who supports his city’s public schools. Although Merian’s parents, who started the family bridal business, sent him to a local private school, Merian chose to send all four of his children to Brockton public schools; three of his children are now in college, a fourth is still in middle school. Paul sent his two children too. “Every public school system should look at what Brockton did,” says Merian, referring, in particular, to the high school from which six Merians will have graduated.

Indeed, Merian has worked closely with two principals at Brockton High—Sue Szachowicz who led the school’s legendary turnaround, as well as Szachowitz’s successor Sharon Wolder. Merian, who rents tuxedos for Brockton proms, also runs the school’s dress-for-success day and has worked with the school’s entrepreneurship classes on developing marketing skills.

Merian Sue

Sue Szachowicz, former principal of Brockton High, stopped by the Marien’s home shortly before the senior prom, just months after she had retired in 2013.

Over the years, most local businesses have either closed—like the bridal business that was started by Merian’s mother, Alyce Reizian—or moved out of Brockton. But the Merians have doubled down on their down-at-the-heels hometown.

Each winter, Merian dons a red cap trimmed in white fur and runs the annual Holiday Day parade down Main Street as the self-appointed chief elf, a post-Thanksgiving event that he calls “the ultimate community gathering” in a downtown with little left to boast about except that it once had the first department-store Santa. Edgar’s, originator of the department-store Santa and Brockton’s last major retailer, closed in the 1980s

But the decision to stay in Brockton has been challenging. Merian recently opened a fire restoration business that helps salvage clothing damaged in fires. He has diversified and now sells suits. And he uses the internet like a teleflorist, he says, to expand sales state-wide, taking measurements of tuxedo customers online and then visiting schools to deliver the suits and do last-minute adjustments.

Leasing the 30,000-square-foot space above the family’s store to New Heights promised to bring in $281,295 annually. A steady stream of kids and teachers and families trooping through Main Street each day also would help revitalize the downtown, Merian hoped.

That doesn’t look likely now. Whatever its real estate problems, New Heights also has fallen short of its enrollment targets.  In its first year, New Heights had expected to enroll 315 students, from grades six through eight; eventually the school expected to double in size and add high school grades. But as of the July 19, the Brockton School Committee had received only 170 required transfer requests for grades 6 to 8. The school is also expecting to hold another lottery for new students on August 23, prompting one reader of the local newspaper, the Enterprise, to post: “Why are they holding a FOURTH lottery if they have only a little over ½ the seats filled. Shouldn’t it be just first come, first served at this point?”

Merian building

New Heights was to lease 30,000 square feet above the Merians’s tuxedo store and the new-shuttered bridal store founded by the family matriarch, Alyce Reizian

New Heights problems offer an ironic twist to one of the highest-stakes charter-school dramas in the country. This November, Massachusetts residents will vote in a referendum on whether to lift the Commonwealth’s cap on charter schools—a measure backed by Charlie Baker, the state’s Republican governor, and Jim Peyser, the secretary of education; both men are said to be charter-school zealots. The ballot initiative comes complete with a multi-million dollar publicity campaign designed by the firm that developed the notorious Swift-boat ads that sank John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid and financed, in part, by deep-pocketed charter advocates from out of state.

Once again, Brockton residents find themselves on the front lines of the battle over education reform. Nearly 25 years ago, a class-action lawsuit filed by a student at Brockton High, charging that Massachusetts was failing to provide “adequate” funding for its schools, led to the Commonwealth’s historic education reform act of 1993. The Massachusetts reforms, in turn, helped spark the historic turnaround at Brockton High.

Now, a new generation of reformers are convinced that what towns like Brockton need is competition in the form of charter schools. Except this time, Brockton residents are fighting the reformers. The town defeated New Heights’s first proposal two years ago, at least in part, because of the school’s failure to address Brockton’s sizeable English Language Learner population. Opponents of New Heights Charter School’s latest proposal, which was approved last February, included the local newspaper, The Enterprise, which says it is generally “supportive” of charter schools. It included, the mayor of Brockton, city council members, state representatives, members of the local school committee and, yes, parents.

The State pushed through approval of the Brockton charter, arguing in part, that there is great demand for schools like New Heights. Brocktonians beg to differ.

Posted in Brockton, MA, Business, Charter Schools, Education, Massachusetts Education Reform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Will Massachusetts Learn from Michigan’s Charter Calamity?

Jennifer Berkshire, aka Edushyster, is one of the best bloggers on education. She is no ideologue and increasingly has come to the give voice to rarely listened-to local folks, especially in poor minority communities—including kids—who are most impacted by the tsunami, er “portfolio”, of education reform ideas.

In a recent post, Berkshire interviewed David Arsen, an expert on education finance at Michigan State University, about a new study he has coauthored on the financial mess that has ensued from Michigan’s school-funding and liberal “choice” policies.

Berkshire, who writes from Massachusetts, the birthplace of public education, was interested in the implications that Michigan’s story has for other states that are looking to open lots of new charter schools. Massachusetts, which rose to the top of the nation’s education performance with an education-reform strategy that kept a tight cap on charters, is in the process of dismantling its successful reforms; see here and here.

This November, Massachusetts is facing a highly controversial ballot initiative to significantly increase the number of charter schools in the Commonwealth.

In this post, I review Arson’s key findings, as well as the highlights of his interview with Berkshire. I then segue to the escalating fight over whether, and how, to lift the charter cap in Massachusetts.

Arsen’s study addresses the crucial “tipping point” question that every municipality with a sizeable number of charter schools confronts, but that few policy makers—in Michigan, Massachusetts or elsewhere—have been willing to address: What is the tipping point at which fostering charter schools, where students are more affluent and have fewer special needs, undermines traditional public schools and the children they serve?

Arsen’s study also shows that one result of Michigan policy has been to strip local school districts of control of their finances. As a consequence, the study shows, the poorest districts, which are predominantly African-American, are disproportionately impacted; their schools are most likely to be taken over by the state and, in many cases, handed over to charter operators.

But before we get into the nitty gritty of Arsen’s study and his interview with Berkshire, here’s some cautionary context on how Michigan’s education policy has played out in Detroit, where the forces of unbridled market competition were let loose on the city’s schools years ago.

Just a few weeks ago The New York Times published a scathing investigation of Detroit schools, which found the city with “lots of choice,” but “no good choice.”

The article by Kate Zernike concludes: “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos.”

Importantly, Zernike points out, that when the charter law passed in 1993, Detroit was neither in financial nor in academic crisis. Rather, a Republican governor, John Engler, driven by free-market ideology and a hatred of unions, embraced a marketplace for schools with as much competition as a Turkish Souk. “[O]ver the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produced a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States.”

“[T]he unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.”

The charter landscape in Detroit is so bad it makes New Orleans, which has the largest concentration of charters in the country and, a decade after Hurricane Katrina, more than a few growing pains—see here and here and here and here look like a well oiled machine. While there is little transparency or regulation in either city, Detroit has so many charter authorizers that when a school’s charter is revoked for poor quality—as has often happened—they need only go shopping for a new authorizer; New Orleans, by contrast, has had only two main authorizers.

Arsen’s study, which looked at every school district in Michigan with at least 100 students and followed them for nearly two decades, found “that 80 percent of the explained variation in district fiscal stress is due to changes in districts’ state funding, to enrollment changes including those associated with school choice policies, and to the enrollment of high-cost, special education students.”

To put it simply, Arsen told Berkshire: We found that, overwhelmingly, the biggest financial impact on school districts was the result of declining enrollment and revenue loss, especially where school choice and charters are most prevalent.”

Arsen points out that Michigan has one of the most “highly centralized school finance systems” in the country. “[T]he state sets per pupil funding levels for each district, and most operating revenues follow students when they move among districts or charter schools. Districts have very limited authority to raise additional tax revenues for school operations from local sources.” Consequently, when enrollments decline, either because families move out of the district or put their children in charter schools, local authorities have little choice but to reduce spending.

Arsens study—see chart below—shows that the impact of this funding formula hits the mostly African-American central cities the hardest, with a 46 percent drop in inflation-adjusted school funding revenue between 2002 and 2013.


Poor districts suffer the greatest funding cuts

Says Arsen: “With numbers like that, it doesn’t really matter if you can get the very best business managers—you can get a team of the very best business managers—and you’re going to have a hard time handling that kind of revenue loss. The emergency managers, incidentally, couldn’t do it.”

The significance of Arsen’s study is twofold: First, the study addresses the tipping point problem, in which the state funding formula creates a zero-sum game in which increased charter penetration leads to ever greater financial stress on local public schools. Looking at districts with 15, 20 and 25 percent charter penetration, the study reveals that as charter penetration increases, the stress level on local public schools also goes up significantly. “What’s clear is that when the percentage gets up to the neighborhood of 20% or so, these are sizeable adverse impacts on district finances,” says Arsen.

One reason for this tipping-point problem is that increasing charter penetration turns the traditional public schools into “dumping grounds” for the neediest kids. Arsen’s study confirms that the number of special-education kids in public schools soars in districts with the highest charter-school penetration rates. Yet, Michigan covers less than 30 percent of the required costs of special education, so “these are costs that have to be absorbed by the school district’s general fund or through other local or county-level revenue sources.

The same thing happened in Harlem where 25 percent of kids now attend charter schools. See more on the tipping point in Harlem here and chart below:


Kids in Harlem public schools are poorer and have more special needs than their charter-school counterparts

Kids in Harlem public schools are poorer and have more special needs than their charter-school counterparts

Second, Arsen argues, the state funding policy is designed to create a fiscal argument for wresting control of school districts from local officials. Now, instead of just using the low test scores of poor minority districts, state policy has created a fiscal bind that makes it virtually impossible for the poorest minority districts to stay above water. Like payday lenders who impose exorbitant interest rates on poor clients, trapping them in a cycle of debt from which they may never escape, Michigan has locked the poorest districts into ever-accelerating fiscal crisis.

Says Arsen: “The law presumes that financial problems in these districts are caused by poor decision making of local officials, and this justifies their displacement through emergency management.  Yet our findings suggest that state school finance and choice policies were in large part responsible for the underlying financial problems. Once in control, however, emergency managers have moved aggressively to change district operations, closing schools, laying off administrators and teachers, cutting employee compensation, outsourcing services, and in two cases transferring the operation of the entire district to private charter management companies.”

Thus, the crisis of Michigan’s poorest, mostly African American school districts, are in a vicious cycle engineered, in large part, by state policy.

Berkshire’s interest in Michigan’s charter travails isn’t just academic. Massachusetts is facing enormous pressure, including a new ballot initiative in the November elections, to greatly expand its own charter sector. The charter push is led by Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, and is backed by Baker’s secretary of education, James Peyser, who helped lead a ballot initiative in 2010 that would have eliminated the Commonwealth’s charter cap entirely. That ballot question was eventually scraped; in its place the cap on urban charter schools was raised from 9 percent to 18 percent, as part of the state’s successful Race-to-the-Top bid for $250 million in federal funding.

Lifting the charter cap is highly controversial in Massachusetts because charter schools played virtually no role in improving education in the Commonweath under its 23-year-old Education Reform Act. Massachusetts has only about 80 charters—though state law permits 120.  Massachusetts charters are, for the most part, high performing, as measured by test scores, although in Boston, as in Harlem and elsewhere, charter-school demographics don’t look anything like that of their traditional-public-school counterparts. For example, charter schools in Boston still enroll only about 13 percent English Language Learners, compared to about 30 percent in public schools, according to Cara Stillings Candal, a researcher at the pro-charter Pioneer Institute.

Top line of graph shows number of English language learners is still about 17 points higher at public schools than charter schools

Top line of graph shows number of English language learners is still about 17 points higher at public schools than at charter schools, represented by bottom line

Local education experts on both sides of the charter divide argue that Massachusetts charters work as well as they do partly because authorizers carefully scrutinize charter performance and ensure that only the best charters survive. Those opposed to raising the charter cap also argue that a tight cap has created an added incentive for authorizers to closely scrutinize charter operators.

While Boston charters outshine public schools on test scores, graduates of Boston public schools are more likely to graduate from college than do their charter counterparts, according to the Boston Opportunity Agenda 2015 annual report card, which is funded by, among others, the pro-charter Boston Foundation. The study sums up traditional public school college achievement with almost breathless praise: “The 27 Boston Public high schools are making tremendous progress on college completion. Since the baseline class of 2000, the percentage of students who complete a college degree or other postsecondary credential within six years of high-school graduation has grown from 35% to 50%. Additionally, the number of students enrolling at public institutions in Massachusetts who require developmental education or remediation is also declining.

Moreover, charter schools that produced college-graduation rates of 42 percent, eight points below their public school counterparts, have graduation classes dominated by girls. Somewhere along the way, the boys disappeared. In fact, among all these charter schools, only about 15 boys took home a sheepskin, according to…you guessed it… Jennifer Berkshire, who took a deeper dive into the numbers.

The bottom line, again, is that in Massachusetts, charter schools are a minuscule part of the ed-reform story. Indeed, given their small number, and the rigorous process for approving charters in Massachusetts, the real questions is: Why are college-completion rates for charter schools so low. Also: What happened to the boys?

Long gone are the days when Democratic state legislators in a grand bargain with a Republican governor, William Weld, hammered out the 1993 Education Reform Act. The battle over how, and by how much, to raise the charter cap has resulted in legislative deadlock with no compromise between two rival bills—a House bill in 2014 and a Senate bill in 2015—which would both have raised the cap by 23 percent, though the Senate bill included more checks and balances on charters and improved funding for all schools. The result is an all-or-nothing referendum, which would authorize 12 new charters a year, mostly in low-performing districts and “exempt” all “[n] ew charters and enrollment expansions approved under this law…from existing limits on the number of charter schools, the number of students enrolled in them, and the amount of local school districts’ spending allocated to them.”

The battle over the Bay State’s ballot initiative will heat up this fall. The highest stakes are in Boston where the public schools will lose an estimated $119 million this year, and endure sharp cuts in education programs, teachers, and in some cases “resources for the most vulnerable special needs students.

The budget squeeze is due at least in part to the funding drain created by the 7,100 students who have enrolled in charter schools, about 12 percent of Boston’s 5,700 public-school enrollment. With 22 charters in Boston, and an additional four in Cambridge, the Boston metro area has over one quarter of the state’s charter schools. (A dozen additional charter schools have opened and closed since the 1990s.)

In Massachusetts as elsewhere, school funding follows the child. Because the loss of students is spread unevenly across the system, the funding cuts have large ripple effects. When a new charter school attracts, say, 100 sixth graders, the losses don’t all come from a single school. Instead, they will be spread, potentially, across Boston’s 40 elementary and middle schools with sixth grade classes, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to consolidate classes. Instead, the district has to start cutting programs. Massachusetts has put in place “shock absorbers” that are intended to provide the public-school system with a funding cushion, but these have worked “imperfectly, at best.”

In opposition to the budget cuts, Boston students staged protests last this spring. Jahi Spallos, a charter-school student and the leader of both public- and charter-school students who staged a walk out in response to the expected cuts, explained the impact on his school, Boston Green Academy, in a post on Edushyster: The school was “going to lose science classes, even though they are a core part of the curriculum and four years of science is a graduation requirement.” The school will also lose “extra curricular activities that could provide students with a full scholarship to college in the future.”

The referendum is being met with skepticism in many towns and cities that fear local schools will “lose funding when their students transfer” to charter schools. See here and here and here and here.

As the battle heats up, it is increasingly partisan. “What’s interesting is that, while charter advocates like to paint charter expansion as a progressive cause, there are signs that the issue is beginning to break along more traditional political lines,” says Berkshire.

The pro-charter lobby is backed by deep-pocketed business people, among them Abigail Johnson, CEO of Fidelity Investments, and John Kraft, president of the New England Patriots, who have pledged to spend up to $12 million on a ballot campaign.

Out-of-town billionaires are also joining the fight. Dimitri Melhorn, a DC-area venture capitalist, recently “slammed” a Boston parent who opposes the cap and blogs under the moniker “Public School Mama” likening her to opposition to that of a white supremacist.

The pro-charter lobby has reserved $6.5 million in ads for the week leading up to election day in November–ads that will be produced by SRCP Media of Washington, the firm best known for creating the “Swift Boat Veterans For Truth” campaign against John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign, which made “swift-boating” synonymous with the worst sort of underhanded attack. “The decision to hire a media firm responsible for bringing down, not just one Massachuestts presidential contender (Kerry AND Dukakis), raised some serious eyebrows,” adds Berkshire.

Meanwhile, Save Our Public Schools, an anti-referendum organization backed by a variety of labor organizations and the NAACP, is also planning to mount an ad campaign.

Whether the referendum passes or not, Massachusetts schools and children would benefit from more nuanced education policy. Notes Stanley Rosenberg, president of the Massachusetts State Senate, and his colleagues in an OpEd in Commonwealth magazine: “Ballot questions are blunt instruments. The ballot question on charter school expansion is no exception.

The OpEd authors drafted the Senate’s charter law, known as the Rise Act, which sought to address many of the problems that have dogged the charter industry, including lack of transparency and community involvement, as well as the cream-skimming of the best students. Key features included:

–Echoing the Commonwealth’s Education Reform Act, which tied significant increases in public school funding to accountability, in what became known as the “grand bargain,” the Rise Act ties a gradual increase in charter schools in the lowest-performing districts to roughly $20 million-per-year in additional school funding—for both charters and traditional public schools—over a seven-year period beginning in 2019. The bill’s sponsors argued that increasing the charter cap alone would cost the Commonwealth $1 billion and impact less than 10 percent of its children.

–The bill increases transparency, a major problem in many jurisdictions with charter schools, by requiring “public disclosure of charter school finance, contracts, policies, and board meetings consistent with disclosure requirements for traditional public schools.”

–It aims to strengthen community involvement by requiring charters and parents on their boards. And it would increase the ability of local school committees to reject charters in their communities—perhaps one of the most controversial items in the legislation.

–The bill called for an opt-out lottery, by which every child in a district is “automatically enrolled in the charter school lottery process, no application required.” But families would be permitted to decline a seat if it was offered to them.

Charter proponents have dismissed the Rise Act as merely “a statement of defiance.” But given the long-simmering charter disaster in Michigan, should the charter referendum fail and Massachusetts legislators get a second crack at crafting a new grand bargain, they would do well to revisit the draft law, which seeks to avoid some of the mistakes of other states.



Posted in Charter Schools, Education, Massachusetts Education Reform, New Orleans Charter Schools | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Baruch Students Win Journalism Award for Cuba Reporting

farm photo

My day job, when I’m not blogging or reporting on education reform, is teaching journalism at Baruch College/CUNY. Last January, I had my single greatest teaching experience when I led a group of 11 students to Cuba. Now, I’m incredibly proud to report that the package of articles my students produced during their trip to Cuba, and published on Dollars & Sense, Baruch’s online magazine, won an award for Best student business journalism of 2015, from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (the nation’s largest and most influential group of business journalists); the package was called “Cuba in 2015: Entrepreneurism on the Rise.”

Baruch College is one of the most diverse schools in the country. The majority of our students are immigrants or children of immigrants.  Many are the first members of their families to go to college. And most attended public schools. Virtually all the students on our trip relied on grants or scholarships to pay their way to Cuba.

The purpose of our journey was to report on the recent economic changes instituted under President Raul Castro, especially in the new small-business sector of so-called cuentapropistas, which, as of last January, numbered close to 500,000 Cubans, triple the number in 2010. We arrived at the most opportune time—just weeks after President Obama and President Castro announced their historic détente, which has begun to open Cuba to more American goods and visitors and is now paving the way for President Obama’s visit to Cuba, the first by a sitting American president since Calvin Coolidge visited the island nation in 1928.

Here is the blog post I wrote after our trip last January, “Adventures in Cuba with My Journalism Students.”

This year, my colleague Vera Haller traveled to Cuba with a group of students; their reporting focused on Cuban culture. You can read their report here. Next winter, I’m hoping to return with another group of students and my colleague, Chris Hallowell; we plan to report on the intersection of economic development and environmental sustainability.


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Is Politics–Not School Improvement–Behind Brockton’s New Charter?

Who doesn’t love a charter school?

From Newark to New Orleans, and Washington D.C. to Atlanta, charter schools are seen as the magic bullet not just for curing much of what ails public education, but for transforming poor communities themselves.

That’s what makes Brockton, Massachusetts, a down-at-the-heels city in Massachusetts so unusual. Brocktonians are up in arms over this week’s decision by the Massachusetts board of education to allow a charter school to open in Brockton. Opponents of the New Heights Charter School include the local newspaper, The Enterprise, which says it is generally “supportive” of charter schools. It includes, the mayor of Brockton, city council members, state representatives, members of the local school committee and, yes, parents—lots of them.

The New Heights Charter School will not serve Brockton’s diverse educational needs,  charges Tom Minichiello, vice chair of the Brockton School Committee: “Let’s look at what students the charter school wants: not our 30-plus percent English language learner population or our approximately 14 percent special education population. No, charter advocates want students from our grades 6-12 student population that testing shows are making progress. The data shows that the longer students remain within the Brockton school system, the more successful the test results.”

Indeed, Brockton is the locus of the single most successful school turnaround in Massachusetts history, which I’ve written about here and here and here. Brockton High, the largest high school in Massachusetts with over 4,200 students, is proof that, against great odds, even big once-failing public schools can be revived with good leadership, the right strategy and teamwork; proof that public school can play a vital role in poor high-needs communities. In the case of Brockton, the leadership came, initially, from Sue Szachowicz, a long-time Brockton history teacher who became principal and led the school’s revival. The strategy and teamwork came with help from Szachowicz’s teacher colleagues—the very same blackboard warriors who worked at the school when it was failing and who embraced what became a winning years-long literacy initiative.

The story of Brockton, once the country’s shoe-making capital, is a familiar saga of industrial decline. Globalization and recession battered the local economy; that and a statewide property tax cap stripped the school system of millions of dollars in funding. By the early 1990s, Brockton had become the poster child for educational dysfunction in Massachusetts. Hundreds of teachers were laid off, class sizes ballooned, teachers were forced to teach outside their subject-areas of expertise, and student performance declined.

At the same time, local middle-class Italian and Irish families moved to more affluent towns. They were replaced by new, poor immigrants, many of them from Haiti and Cape Verde; their children had English language deficiencies that were compounded by interrupted schooling and often trauma—all conditions that required extra services. Today three-quarters of Brockton students are black and Latino and two-thirds are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—about double the statewide ratio.

But the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993—a grand bargain that traded increased school funding for greater accountability—and the teacher-led restructuring sparked Brockton High’s revival. Today close to 90 percent of Brockton students go to college; a third of its graduates won the state’s Adams tuition scholarships during the last two years. In 2015, 85 percent of Brockton students scored advanced or proficient on MCAS, the state’s standardized tests; and 64 percent scored advanced or proficient in math.  Nancy Bloom, writing in the Massachusetts education blog Edushyster, notes: “Brockton has made Annual Yearly Progress in all student categories on the MCAS without sacrificing specials such as music, sports and art. That’s virtually unheard of for an urban high school, especially one in a community as diverse as Brockton.”

This is how Daniela Belice, a recent Brockton graduate who left Haiti right after the 2010 earthquake, describes her experience at Brockton High:

“The bilingual program was very good,” says Belice who started Brockton in a beginner’s English Language Learner class, in the 9th grade, in a sequence that usually lasts three years. But with the help of her teachers, many of whom spent “one-on-one time” her, Belice completed the sequence within a year-and-a-half. Even as she was getting up to speed in English, Belice was taking “Haitian” math and science courses, which were taught by Brockton teachers who spoke Haitian Creole.

Brockton has teachers who speak Haitian Creole, Cape Verdian Creole and Spanish and are certified to teach math and science.

Belice enrolled at Quincy College after graduating from Brockton and plans to become an immigration attorney.

Now, the new charter threatens Brockton High’s steady trajectory. After the charter school’s first year of operation, the Brockton school district expects to lose $10 million in funding, about 6 percent of its annual school budget; by contrast, in 1991, at the peak of the local school crisis, Brockton lost $5 million in funding. Tight budgets already have led to a net loss of funding at Brockton during the last two years. In the 2014-15 school year, Brockton High had to cut four consumer-science teachers, who taught electives in nutrition, cooking and personal finance. The school also has lost teachers via attrition.

The result, says Sharon Wolder, the new principal and long-time Brockton educator, may be larger class sizes, which for many subjects already average around 35 students per class.

Even though New Heights Charter School will be relatively small compared to the overall number of students in the district, funding for the charter school could have a large ripple effect. That’s because when New Heights draws, say, 100 sixth graders from Brockton, the losses won’t all come from a single school. Instead, the losses will be spread over more than half-a-dozen middle- and K-8 schools, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to consolidate classes. Instead, the district has to start cutting programs.

New Heights’s victory comes after its earlier plan was rejected, at least in part, because of the school’s failure to address Brockton’s sizeable English Language Learner population. Last year, a scathing 14-page analysis of the first New Heights application, which was signed by several local officials, including School Superintendent Kathleen Smith and Mayor Bill Carpenter, urged the state to reject the application noting that the proposal “lacks services and supports for English language learners and students with disabilities.”

New Heights’s latest application seems to address some of those flaws. For its first year, when the school anticipates student population of 315 kids, it plans to hire three “English Language Learner teachers”, and one lead ELL teacher who will also double as a “world language teacher,” as well as three special education teachers. But it’s doubtful that New Heights will have dual-certified Creole or Spanish speakers who can also teach science and math to immigrant kids like Belice. It’s noteworthy that for such a small school, the first year’s budget includes three deans as well as a head of school. At many charters a key mission of deans is to enforce no-excuses discipline.

Unlike the first application, which focused exclusively on Brockton, the new application tries to sell itself as a “regional charter” that will be open to students in two other towns, Taunton and Randolph, as well as Brockton. Taunton is 17 miles from Brockton, while Randoph is 6 miles away. Unlike Brockton, both towns are on the list of schools in the state’s lowest 10-percent in achievement, which is perhaps intended to answer critics who argue that Brockton doesn’t need charter schools.

But the regional designation is nothing more than a fig leaf for a school that squarely targets Brockton students. New Heights never expects to take more than about 10 percent of kids from Taunton or Randolph, according to its own prospectus.

New Heights boasts that it will offer students the opportunity to take college courses.“Our Mission is to prepare students for college. Period,” trumpets the New Heights website. No vocational training for the denizens of this industrial town!

In fact, Brockton High also offers college courses, as well as an International Baccalaureate, and an array of vocational options.

A key reason for local opposition to the charter is that New Heights doesn’t offer anything new. While Brockton High still maintains a rich array of electives, arts and sports, the New Heights budget includes not a single teacher for arts or music during its first five years of operation, and just one physical education teacher in a school that expects to grow to 420 students in its second year.

“There is size; the one thing Brockton High can never be is small,” says Wolder.

But there are those, in Brockton, who speculate that the one thing New Heights offers is a haven for families who’d rather have their kids in a school without the poorest and neediest immigrant kids.

Whatever the offerings, New Heights will be exempt from many of the rules that constrain public schools. “If a kid shows up in March and is 19 years old, we say welcome and we own that kid,” including their challenges and special needs, says Szachowicz, the former principal. “That’s what public education is. If this charter really served kids who were English Language Learners, overage, under-credited, I’d have a hard time fighting against it.”

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that politics, not education, is behind the approval of the new charter school. Politicians and “edu-crats” are its most enthusiastic backers. There’s Michael Sullivan, a Republican and former U.S. attorney who is chair of the New Heights board. Fellow Republican, Charlie Baker, the new Republican governor of Massachusetts, has been pushing to open more charters. The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a backer of the original state ed-reform legislation, is now advocating for  major expansion of the charter sector. But as The Enterprise concluded in its editorial opposing the new charter school, for Brockton, a model of the Massachusetts’s proven education reforms, little good is likely to come from the exercise:

New Heights is an example of what public school supporters predicted as the worst-case  scenario. Its aim is to skim the best students off the top of local schools, leaving those schools with less money and students who need more tending. New Heights has a website, but it is in many ways a stealth proposal. The people behind it have been very low profile. Community forums to present the idea to people? If they happened, we’re sorry, but we missed them. So take the best and brightest out of traditional public school systems and make sure those kids get into college. That’s not what American education is about.

Posted in Brockton, MA, Charter Schools, Education, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Inside Success Academy: Nose Pressed to the Window Pane

A tour of Success Academy Bronx 1 included almost exclusively charter school leaders (photo via @SuccessAcademy)

A tour of Success Academy Bronx 1 included almost exclusively charter school leaders (photo via @SuccessAcademy)

On Monday, 28 educators gathered in the Bronx, for one of the hottest tickets in town, a tour of a Success Academy school. I was supposed to be there, having received an email notifying me that I was among the lucky few who had been selected to join the tour at Success Academy Bronx 1 and that there was “an EXTENSIVE waiting list” of those who had not been chosen.

I checked the subway map for the school’s address on Morris Avenue, got out my metro card and loaded my recorder with fresh triple-A batteries. In short, I was all dressed up.

And then, suddenly, I had nowhere to go. Three days after securing my golden ticket, Success Academy disinvited me.

Luckily, I knew at least one other person who had gotten on the tour, and she agreed to give me a thorough briefing. More on her report below.

Now, there was a rich irony to both the invitation and disinvitation. When I had received the surprise Success acceptance, I had with great reluctance, and some embarrassment, cancelled an invitation to visit another charter school—one that I had long been looking forward to visiting.

Even, as I crafted an email asking to postpone my other visit, I felt my beloved late mother wagging her finger at me: “Andrea,” she would have said, her thick Hungarian accent placing the emphasis on the first syllable, “Dat is sooo rood.”

I would have tried to explain to Mom that I could not turn down an invitation to Success Academy, in large part because it is at the center of many of the most important debates about charter schools and education reform. Its political clout has made the chain the advance guard for those who wish to dismantle traditional public schools and their unions and replace them with a competitive marketplace of publicly funded, independently run and lightly regulated institutions. Indeed, where it has co-located in existing public-school buildings—Bronx 1 shares the Morris Avenue building with several public schools—there are constant complaints of the Success Academy schools grabbing prime real estate to the detriment of the children in traditional public schools.

Success Academy is known for producing high test scores. But it also has long battled accusations of creaming the most desirable students and families, an argument that gained traction recently when one of a Success Academy principal admitted to keeping a “got to go” list of students he wanted to cut from the rolls.  While Eva Moskowitz, Success’s combative founder, insists that the got-to-go list was an anomaly, the practice of charter-school “creaming” has been pretty well established by even pro-charter researchers and advocates; see here and here. And then there are the legions of unhappy former Success teachers and parents whose travails are well documented on Diane Ravitch’s blog.

I am not “anti- charter”; I have written positively about KIPP here, and even my more critical stories, here and here, have referenced the charters that distinguish themselves by making an effort to integrate, to offer varied educational experiences for their students and/or to include teacher voice. But I have written little about Success Academy itself. And, as I complete work on my new book on education reform, I continue to wrestle with what the role of charter schools should be in improving American schools.

I felt that it was time to heed those pro-charter advocates, ranging from one of Success Academy’s chief financial backers to Jonathan Alter, the columnist (and my former classmate), who have long encouraged me to visit.

So, I was dismayed when, on December 4, three days after my original acceptance arrived, Jaclyn Leffel, the director of New York City Collaborates, which was helping to organize the tour, rescinded my invitation. “In reviewing our guest list, I did see that you are currently not leading a NYC public school. This workshop is specifically designed for people in elementary school education. Unfortunately this event is only available to principals at this time. Thanks so much for your interest!” wrote Ms. Leffel.

The only problem was that to register for the event, you had to include your title and affiliation, which in my case is the Bloomberg Chair of Business Journalism at Baruch College/CUNY. It was crystal clear from my affiliation that I was not a New York City principal. Moreover, I knew that not everyone on the tour was a current principal.

So I responded to Leffel, pointing out these discrepancies, and asked that she reconsider. She responded that she would not. I followed up with a request that she include me in another tour. Again, she responded cordially to let me know that another tour would be organized in February, but has not yet responded to my request for more information about the date and location.

All this is especially puzzling since New York Collaborates is an organization that seeks to “encourage public conversation and on-the-ground partnerships between district and charter schools.” (emphasis added by me.) Nor is this the first tour organized by New York Collaborates; previous tours also have included non-principals.

Clearly, the “public conversation” at Bronx 1 was not intended to include anyone who might be the least bit critical of the charter sector. Incidentally, New York Collaborates is “spearheaded” by the New York City Charter School Center and New York City Department of Education, and receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Nor was there much partnering between district and charter schools at the Bronx 1 tour. All but one of the educators on the tour was from the charter sector. Via email, I asked Ms. Leffel about this and she responded: “We had a 50/50 signup.”

If half the registrants were from public-school, this of course raises the question: Why was the guest list for this collaborative opportunity so heavily stacked in favor of charter schools?

This is a shame, because public schools would have a lot to learn from the Success Academy tour. “Overall, I was really impressed,” said my source, an experienced, long-time educator with inside knowledge of both public- and charter-schools. The school had “extraordinarily strong systems and structures” and, most surprisingly, “few work sheets” and “strong student voice.”

What follows is a recounting of the Success Tour, mostly via my anonymous educator source.

It all began with instructions, emailed to all accepted participants, including me, before the tour and before my invitation was rescinded.
We were to read The Camel Dances, a one-page fable, and “come having jotted down a main idea.” Participants were also expected to prepare “short responses to the following questions:

1. What does the camel do to achieve her dream of becoming a ballet dancer?

2. How does the audience react when the Camel’s dance is over?

In keeping with Success’s penchant for secrecy though, the one-page fable, which is produced by PBS and is widely available on the internet here and here, came with instructions: “Do not Duplicate. For internal use only.”

The day began with a light breakfast at 7:15 a.m. and visits to Kindergarten and first-to-third grade classrooms. Class sizes are large—28 to 31 students in each classroom. The students are virtually all black or brown; the vast majority of the teachers are white.

Every classroom has two teachers—a “lead teacher” and an associate in training, the team constituting a kind of “apprenticeship model.” Significantly, the principal focuses almost exclusively on instruction and is in each classroom almost every day; a business manager handles virtually all non-instructional business.

Of the assistant teachers, my source says: “The ones I observed doing small groups knew exactly what they were doing.”

She also noted: “There was no time wasted. There was a sense of urgency you don’t see in all schools.”

Every classroom also was “well provisioned” with a rich array of art supplies and books—though the books and curricula of many traditional public schools are “more reflective” of the racial backgrounds of students. Classrooms all had smart boards. The principal, Elizabeth Vandlik explained that Success Academy schools get extra funding for their first three years; thereafter, they have to live “within the parameters of student funding.”

The school, which is over six years old, boasts a large, and again, well-stocked “blocks” room with some “interesting constructions in a corner.” There were also baskets of figures—people and animals–on top of the blocks. However, it was unclear how much time the kindergarteners spend playing in that room; during the tour, there was a group doing academic work in the blocks room.

Indeed, the kindergarteners, on this morning, were focusing on phonics. In contrast to traditional public-school kindergarten classrooms, which would typically have an array of play centers–a kitchen here, water and sand stations there, perhaps an area with computers. “I didn’t see that at all,” said my source.

The playground, which Bronx 1 shares with at least three other public schools that serve mostly middle- and upper-school students, has no equipment designed for elementary school children.

But the school does seem to do a lot with “project-based” learning. For example, the second grade class does a unit on bridges, which includes building bridges, field trips to bridges and writing about bridges.

Bronx 1 offers science and a “special”, such as art, every day, which allows the grade-room teachers to have two preps a day. Dismissal is at 3:30 p.m., except on Wednesdays when students go home at 12:30 p.m., giving the faculty an afternoon for professional development and meetings. There is no Saturday school. And homework is confined to spelling and math facts, and a half-hour of reading every night, which parents are required to keep track of via a reading log.

For teachers, the official day begins at 7:15 a.m., but many are there at 6:30 a.m. when the building opens. The faculty go home at 5:00 p.m., but typically take work home with them. Despite the grueling hours, the principal, Elizabeth Vandlik, claims she lost no teachers last year.

The school backfills in the first grade, when students leave following Kindergarten. The large class sizes suggest that the school has had relatively little attrition after kindergarten. However, there was evidence that the demographics of the student body are not the same as those of most inner-city public schools.

The visit included a stop at two ICT (integrated co-teaching) classes, which combine regular students with those who have disabilities and so-called IEPs (Individual Education Plans.) “In most ICT classes you can identify at least a few kids that have IEPs, either because of their behavior or the way they respond or don’t respond,” explained my source. “You may see some looking out the window. Their response time is usually longer.”

But, in the Success Academy ICT class there were none of those behaviors, she added, suggesting that the disabilities of the students with ICT’s were relatively mild. This conforms with an analysis of the demographic disparities among public- and charter-school students that I did about a year ago, using New York City Department of Education data. The analysis, which focused on schools in East Harlem, where close to a quarter of all children attend charter schools, found that traditional public schools had two-to-three times the number of children with disabilities and higher economic need than neighboring schools.



Success Academy and other charter schools in East Harlem have a fraction of the special-education students as nearby public schools.

During the course of the tour, one of the participants asked about discipline problems. Vandlik, the principal, said: “We do have them” and referenced a child who was “weighted with bear.”

Overall, the classrooms my source visited were noticeably devoid of “fidgets.” Students sat straight and tracked the teachers with their eyes. They answered questions in full sentences with sentence starters, such as “I would like to support so-and-so’s argument” or “I disagree with so-and-so.” And if they failed to do so, they were gently prompted to rephrase their answers.

The school uniforms were also all in perfect order, down to the dark socks for boys and brown shoes. Boys all wore orange polo shirts. The girls all wore plaid skirts. Even the teachers, most of them white and female, all wore skirts.

There was no discernable curricular focus on “civics” or grit.

Of course, the class tours were very short—five minutes per class (see class schedule below). Also, the tours took place at the start of the school day when children are most likely to be alert.

Success Academy doc 2

After an hour of class visits, the visitors attended the first-grade’s “shared-text planning meeting,” which focused on the teaching of The Camel Dances, the text distributed to the tour participants last week. The meeting came with a detailed, almost minute-by-minute agenda, for what would be discussed. (See illustration) The grade-level review was Exhibit A for what my source saw as the school’s strong structures.

Success Academy doc 1

This particular meeting was designed to figure out what questions the teachers would ask the children and “strategically, how they would get kids to share their thinking about their responses” to the story. The teachers sought to “anticipate” the responses of the students, including where they might have problems. To check their conclusions, the teachers regularly bring students into their meetings to try out an idea and to see how they will react. This approach struck my source as both creative and as one she hasn’t seen tried at other schools.

One key goal of this grade-level meeting is to promote “flexibility in thinking.” That goal was born out of a realization, following the grade’s most recent assessment, that students’ answers were too scripted, that their answers were “getting to be formulaic,” answering questions in a certain way with just two details.

Another goal was to focus on reading comprehension and thinking, but not on context. In response to a question about context, the principal acknowledged that kids might not have the kind of background knowledge they need for a story about a dancing camel, but noted: “We believe that it serves them better to work with the text and not spend a lot of time on context.”

The Camel Dances is about a camel who is so determined to become a ballerina she practices every day. Yet, she is not, ultimately, successful by conventional standards. As a member of the audience says, following one of the camel’s performances: “You are lumpy and humpy. You are baggy and bumpy… You are not, and never will be a dancer!”

It is also an advanced text—replete with multi-syllable, and even foreign, words like “pirouettes”, “releves” and “aarabesques.” So, the teachers read to the students, while the kids follow along with their own texts. Two things struck my source: First, that the goals of the reading assignment were to focus exclusively on the text, not on context. Second, the depth and detail of the planning meeting.

My source also noted that the text itself has a highly ambiguous message. The moral of the story is: Satisfaction will come to those who please themselves.

Explained Vandlik: “We say, if you work hard, you will succeed. This camel doesn’t. One reason we chose it, is we want to raise this with kids, this ambiguity, and have them consider it.”

Most conventional public schools, notes my source, would pick a far-less ambiguous fable, such as The Tortoise and The Hare.

Success Academy conducts assessments every six weeks. But they are not multiple choice. And, the school claims they do no test prep at all. “Giving tests all the time is a waste of instructional time,” said Vandlik. “We see ourselves as aligned with the progressive school movement.”

Progressive educators would no doubt recoil at the school’s focus on behavioral conformity and the lack of diversity among Success Academy children. However, my source clearly thought there was merit in many of the school’s approaches to teaching.

How should this brief glimpse of a Success Academy school influence our understanding of the role of charters within the framework of a traditional public school system? Bronx 1 clearly has an instructional approach and a culture from which other schools could learn. Yet, it is also clear that the style and expectations of the school, of both kids and parents, will not work for every child or family—or even, perhaps, a preponderance of inner-city children. Nor is it clear whether the model is scalable in terms of funding and pedagogy.

This leaves us with the central question for those who would replace a significant portion of public schools with charter schools that neither pro-charter advocates nor policy makers have yet to answer: What is the tipping point at which the charter sector gets so large that it turns nearby public schools into dumping schools for the most troubled children? What is the cost to those children, and to society, of essentially writing off the bottom 20 to 30 percent of poor children?

And, more important, is there a way to return to the original conception of charter schools—as islands of experimentation that might nurture real collaboration with, and improvement among, traditional public schools?

Let’s accept that Bronx 1 is a model school, and not a Potemkin tour. Neither Success Academy nor such highly selective tours begin to meet the promise, and obligation, of publicly funded charters–especially such large, powerful and well-funded charters as Success Academy–to serve as collaborative laboratories for public-school improvement.

Posted in Charter Schools, Education | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments