When the United Federation of Teachers opened its own charter school in 2005, then-teachers union president Randi Weingarten called it "an oasis." At a time when privately-run charter schools were springing up all over the city - without unionized teachers - Weingarten wanted to prove that a charter could succeed with the cooperation and expertise of labor.
But today, the U.F.T. Charter School in East New York finds itself fighting for survival. Just a third of its elementary students were proficient on this year's reading tests, and the school got a "D" on its annual progress report. It's also been plagued by high teacher and principal turnover. The State University of New York's Charter Schools Institute put the school on probation in 2010, by renewing its charter for only three more years instead of five, and will decide in early 2013 whether or not it should close.
With so much at stake, the teachers union led education reporters on a brief tour of the K-12 charter school's elementary campus Tuesday.
The school looks very much like a typical city public school. It's co-located in a school building covered with scaffolding. Student work is showcased in the hallways and a bulletin board shows off smiling photos of the students of the month. Students wear uniforms - khaki pants and polo shirts with a U.F.T. star logo.
In a third grade classroom, teachers Niambi Allen and Kathia Darius worked with 26 children, many of them students with disabilities, during a literacy lesson. They were learning how to write persuasive essays by debating a heated topic: whether or not to get a classroom pet.
"What are phrases that opinions start with?" asked Allen, the special education teacher. The students offered the phrases "I believe," "maybe" and "I think" as ways to write about an opinion.
"Here's the thing about opinions," Allen clarified. "Opinions are always going to start with 'I.' I think, I believe, I wish."
Eight year-old Maliah Harris shot up her hand when the teacher asked for transition words. "First, next, last and finally!"
Allen just started working at the school this fall. She said she's worked as a substitute at many other schools, including private schools, and believes the U.F.T. Charter School knows what it's doing.
"I think that this school is amazing because there are so many things to help students and intervene if there is a problem," she said, referring to the use of weekly assessments. She estimated that at least 75 percent of her students are "right where they should be" academically.
"I've had far more challenging kids, these guys are awesome," she said. "It's unfortunate what the test scores say because it doesn't really reflect what we do in the classroom."
The school's English Language Arts exam scores for grades 3-8 this year were the same as the average for District 19 in Brooklyn: 33 percent reading at or above proficient. Its math scores were slightly lower than the distict-wide average of 43.7 percent at or above proficient.
Elementary school leader Michelle Bodden-White agreed the scores don't tell the whole story. She's in her fifth year in charge (the school uses the term "leader" instead of principal) of the elementary school, which spans grades K-5. She was previously Vice President of the teachers union and taught in Brooklyn.
"We have over time seen our scores rise which tells us we were going in the right direction," she said, referring to the school's progress reports from the city. She attributed this year's low scores, partly, to the death of a fifth grade student from meningitis right around the time of the state exams. "The school was devastated," she said. "He had been here from kindergarten."
She also described positive changes since she started five years ago. "The teachers really work together weekly," she said, referring to the regular math and reading assessments. "We've put a lot of emphasis on reading non-fiction and responding and understanding informational text because that's a very big focus of the Common Core." And each K-3 classroom has two teachers.
In 2010 the U.F.T. brought in Shelia Evans-Tranumn to oversee both the elementary and secondary campuses. Evans-Tranumn is a veteran of the city schools. "There were many problems," she acknowledged, noting "teacher absences and teachers not focusing during the workday on the work at hand" as well as a "culture of failure" among students and lack of discipline. She said the secondary school campus is located about a mile away in a neighborhood rife with gangs.
But when asked why other charter schools get better results with low-income students at risk, Evans-Tranumn suggested they have some advantages.
"Right now in this building, our level 3 and 4 students are being recruited by other charter schools, out of the fourth grade," she said. "We don't go in and rob another school of their top learners. But many charter schools have an aggressive on-the-ground campaign to get the better students."
Other principals around the city have made similar complaints, but those accusations are tough to prove.
Evans-Tranumn also said struggling students may feel more welcome at her school than in some of the "no excuses" charters, which have rigid disciplinary systems. Whole classrooms are rewarded when students behave well, to encourage cooperation. And Evans-Tranumn said students at the U.F.T. Charter school are rarely suspended.
As in district schools, the U.F.T. Charter promotes students to the next grade with a level 2 on their state exams (just short of proficiency), though it requires them to do extra work. Some of the more demanding charters demand level 3's. And while those schools often have 9-10 hour school days, the U.F.T. Charter's day is similar in length to that of regular district schools - while also offering after school support.
SUNY's Charter Schools Institute is expected to decide in the next month or two on whether the U.F.T. Charter School will be allowed to stay open after June 2013. Critics of the teachers union often point to the school as a sign that the union doesn't always know the best ways to educate children. Evans-Tranumn acknowledged there were risks when the union opened the charter school. She gave the U.F.T. credit for trying, and for picking such a challenging low-income neighborhood.
"All of us in education can't just take the easy roads," she said. "We have to take the hard roads. We have to do what we can to transform schools in our own community, in this state, in this nation."