At Bronx Community Charter School, third graders studying Native Americans use tufts of plants to make a tiny model of a corn field. Another group threads stringbeans together the way the Lenape tribe would have done hundreds of years ago.
"Why wouldn’t they just eat it right away?" teacher Jessica Wontropski asks the children threading the stringbeans.
"'Cause they need to save it for the times when they can’t get it," a child responds, referring to the cold of winter.
When Bronx Community Charter School opened in 2008, its founders envisioned a progressive school full of hands-on activities like this to engage young learners. In many ways it has succeeded but student engagement has not translated into high test scores. Fewer than 40 percent of the pupils At Bronx Community Charter were proficient on the state’s reading tests last year. The elementary school got a D on its 2012 progress report from the city. The school was one of the few charter schools proposed for closing.
"We were tremendously disappointed," said Sasha Wilson, co-founder and co-director of Bronx Community Charter. He was a city teacher for more than a decade and says he’s certain his students were thriving, even though they did poorly on the exams, "because we know and can demonstrate in a lot of other ways the deep learning that our kids do and have done."
Wilson’s team made a convincing case and the city decided to give his charter three more years – with certain conditions. The city made the same decision about another low performing charter, Mott Haven Academy Charter School. Both were on list of struggling schools the Department of Education considered for closure in 2013.
As the city now moves ahead with plans to close or shrink 26 of those schools for low performance, some observers are raising questions about how the process applies to charters. In the past decade, the Department of Education said it’s closed five of the 74 charters it controls, or 7 percent. That compares to closing 9 percent, or 140, of all district schools.
The rest of the city's charter schools are authorized by the state education department and the State University of New York, which have closed four other schools since 2001.
"Decisions to phase out or close district and charter schools are difficult ones," said D.O.E. spokesman Devon Puglia. He added that city officials consider "rigorous, multi-year analysis of student performance."
The two charters that were spared by the city this year are elementary schools that only had a few years' worth of test score data, because they opened with kindergarten and first grade students.
"They’ve picked a few that they are closing as tokens but frankly when they get any resistance they melt away," said Noah Gotbaum, a parent leader and member of the District 3 Community Education Council on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Gotbaum is not suggesting that the Bronx Community Charter deserves to close. But he noted that the Bloomberg administration has invested heavily in opening more charters while closing other schools. "It's not about about kids, it's not about education. It's about politics and real estate," he said.
Other than closing, education officials have the option with charters to propose conditional, three-year renewals instead of the full five years. The city did that for two other struggling charters: the Ethical Community Charter in Brooklyn, another new elementary school with lower than average test scores, and the New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Trades, which has had high teacher and student turnover.
Charters can also be put on probation for performance reasons and violations such as fiscal mismanagement, which has happened in a few cases.
One charter that is not up for renewal this year got an F, the Dr. Izquierdo Health and Science Charter, for middle grades. There are also district schools that stayed open despite receiving low marks.
But charters are different from district schools when it comes to the closing process. For one thing, they start out with five-year contracts which can’t be revoked until public hearings and other legal steps are taken.
"In some ways, charter schools have more rights than [district] public schools, but the process that they had - at least up to now - was less clear," said attorney Arthur Schwartz.
Last year, for the first time, a court blocked the city from closing a charter. It was Williamsburg Charter High School, which had trouble with its board. Schwartz represented parents in that case, and in another involving Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter in Queens that stayed open after protracted litigation.
Some observers believe these lawsuits have set a precedent making it harder for the city to close charters. The Department of Education denies that. "We take this evaluation process incredibly seriously," Puglia said, of the annual visits and the renewal recommendations.
But several sources, who did not wish to be identified, said SUNY is known for being far more rigorous than the city in setting strict academic benchmarks when renewing charters.
The world of charter schools is often complex according to Alex Medler, vice president of policy and advocacy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. "Sometimes the policies are weak, sometimes the practices of the authorizer are weak," he said.
In general, his organization opposes three-year renewals for charters, preferring to give them either another five years or no renewal at all. He said the best charter regulations are clear to the public and to the schools, so they know what to expect.
At Bronx Community Charter, co-founder Sasha Wilson is relieved his school is getting three more years to prove itself. But like many other city principals – at charters and district schools - he’s bewildered by a system that puts so much emphasis on test scores. The city, the state education department and SUNY all use test scores along with other data in deciding which schools to renew.
"If any of us are looking for place to teach or a place send our own children we would be foolish to judge it in a way to just look at numbers and letters on paper," he said. "Because that doesn’t reflect truly what a school is."
Next month, a few charters authorized by SUNY are coming up for renewal, including one that’s run by the teachers union. Those renewals are being closely watched because SUNY is considered so demanding, and because the U.F.T. Charter school already won a three-year renewal so it must now prove that it's good enough to deserve five more years or it will be one of the few charter schools to actually close.