Poor student performance, troubled finances and even a few cases of corporal punishment were cited in a harsh new review of a charter school run by the United Federation of Teachers. The report was released by the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute whose trustees will decide on Tuesday whether the struggling Brooklyn school should be closed.
Ten charter schools authorized by SUNY are up for renewal; the U.F.T. Charter School was the only one that didn't receive a green light to continue operating. The reviewers said they could not make a recommendation either way because the data "does not present a uniform case for renewal or non-renewal."
The case is highly unusual. James Merriman, chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, said he could not recall another instance when SUNY's reviewers didn't offer a recommendation one way or another for a charter school with such a long track record.
The mixed review of the U.F.T. charter school presents an awkward situation for the union. Shelia Evans-Tranumn, the school's executive director, issued a statement saying the union appreciates the SUNY Charter Institute's analysis but that it took issue with some of the assertions by its reviewers.
The union opened the school in 2005 to demonstrate that unions and charters are not mutually exclusive. The school, located in East New York, Brooklyn, serves children in kindergarten through 12th grade at two campuses. In 2010, it was given a conditional, three-year renewal instead of a full five-year renewal because of its anemic test scores and other academic indicators. But a short-term renewal like that can only be granted once, and the union has been fighting to prove the school has improved and deserves a full five-year renewal.
The reviewers who visited the school's two campuses last fall found "strong" performance on state exams in grades 3 and 4, and said they would have recommended a full renewal for the elementary school if it stood on its own. More than 60 percent of fourth graders were proficient in math last year. But that figure was cut in half among eighth graders. Reviewers labeled the academic outcomes in grades 6-8 as "poor," adding that if this was a separate middle school it would not meet SUNY's renewal criteria. They said they couldn't make a recommendation for the high school because it hadn't been around long enough to graduate any students.
Some of the other findings:
- The secondary campus has lacked stability with five principals in seven years. Teacher attrition had begun to improve, but there was "limited instructional coaching that is not targeted to improving individual teacher skills in a sustained and coherent manner."
- School leaders reported that "staff had been counseled on appropriate interaction with students following approximately 10 corporal punishment incidents." This followed a crackdown on discipline.
- The staff reported "chronic shortages of textbooks and unrepaired equipment."
- The school never reported test results for standardized national exams in math and English for its high school students. After the school administered the tests in 2012, "the student test booklets were lost and the publisher never received them for scoring." However, other high school data indicates the school is on track to meet its graduation goal.
- A review of board minutes found "numerous, apparently systemic, Open Meetings Law violations."
- "The school is in poor fiscal condition" partly because of attrition. Many elementary students did not move on to the UFT's middle and high school campus, which contributed to budget shortfalls. The school relied on interest-free bridge loans from the U.F.T. to support day to day operations. As of June, 2012 the school had $2.5 million in total liabilities versus total assets of $1.2 million.
- The school was in violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, because it had a number of students who required more restrictive classroom settings than the school offered.
- The school "was in violation of state law requiring that school personnel (and certain contractors with direct access to students) be subject to a fingerprint-supported criminal background check prior to appointment at the school. At the time of the renewal inspection visit, the school was unable to produce evidence that five individuals were appropriately cleared for employment."
- The school received a D on its last report card from the city, which covered only the elementary and middle grades. Just about a third of its students were reading at grade level overall.
The school's executive director said some changes have been made since the reviewers visited last fall. Fingerprints for all staffers are now on file, she said, and "all substantiated incidents of inappropriate discipline - often involving verbal rather than physical confrontations - have resulted in further training for the staff involved."
She also said some parents of a "small number of special needs children" decided to seek transfers to other schools that could meet their needs.
The three SUNY trustees considering the school's renewal request at their 10 a.m. meeting on Tuesday could vote to keep the elementary school open while closing the upper grades. Or they could elect to close the entire school. The U.F.T. had planned to move the middle school grades to the same campus as the elementary pupils next fall. Both locations share buildings with regular city public schools.
"I think it's pretty clear that in terms of the U.F.T. charter school itself, and any school that fails to meet any of its performance metrics, that it's really hard to make a case for renewal," said Merriman, of the city's charter center.
"In the case of the U.F.T. charter school, that's true of the middle school grades. But I think also it's becoming increasingly clear that if you look at other renewal decisions - whether by SUNY or the New York City Department of Education and the state Board of Regents - it seems to me that the standard for renewal is becoming dangerously low."
Merriman suggested that the U.F.T. might point to a charter school in Buffalo, and to the Sisulu-Walker charter in Harlem, for examples of schools that got full renewals with about the same performance as the union's elementary charter school.