NEW YORK—One out of every 10 New York City school students will be enrolled in a charter school by fall 2017, according to a report by the New York City Charter School Center.
Charters present an alternative to traditional, or district, public schools by implementing different ideas, such as giving teachers more control over the curriculum and having longer school days.
The majority of the 221 charter schools in the state are in New York City. Twenty-four new schools have opened in the city in the last two weeks, the second-highest number of new schools opening since legislation made charters a reality in New York in 1999. Including the new schools, a total of 159 charters will be serving more than three percent of New York City students, or 56,000-plus.
Charter schools typically start off with one or two grades and expand one grade level each year.
The schools have a lengthy process for approval, according to interviews with those involved, and they operate under five-year contracts that require renewal.
Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School, which opened last week in Brooklyn, will have 112 sixth-graders this year and expand one grade each subsequent year until it reaches 12th grade. Geoffrey Roehm, executive director of the school, said from conception to opening the doors took three years.
“It’s a challenging process … that takes a lot of perseverance,” said Roehm.
Yet the rigorous standards make the charter sector in New York City strong.
“To get to the point where the state will say, ‘Yes, this is a school that is going to be a really great option for kids,’ that shouldn’t be something that’s easy. And it wasn’t easy, and I think we felt good about that, and I think we feel good about the fact that we’ll be held accountable,” said Roehm.
The State University of New York (SUNY) and the State Education Department approve charter schools, while New York City’s Schools Chancellor helps authorize NYC schools. SUNY approved 12 new charter schools in June 2011 and nine others in June 2012.
Charters With Special Focus
The Staten Island Green Charter School for Environmental Discovery is one proposal of 19 before SUNY right now. More charter schools are continually being proposed. A portion of these are continually being approved. This round of 19 will be decided upon through next year.
Dr. Carole B. Reiss leads the proposal for the environmentally focused school. Her work began in 2010. A large part of the work includes connecting with the community.
“Communities don’t completely understand what a charter school is really about and why you need money,” she said. Though charters receive public funds, they typically need more money and must raise it themselves.
Seeking to be the fourth charter school on Staten Island, Reiss has a vision of a school where environmental awareness is intertwined with core subjects, including having an adjacent urban farm and teaching about toxic dumping, which has happened on Staten Island’s North and South shores.
“We really feel that adding this component to our curriculum will produce a … student who will be more aware of the effects of what goes on in our environment,” said Reiss. Her motivation stems from when she ran an organic co-op because one of her children, due to health issues, needed organic food. “We know the importance of having this kind of program, and it should have been done a long time ago,” she said. “But I guess now is as good a time as any.”
Charter Issues and Characteristics
Charter schools are intended for trying new things, said Michael Regnier, director of policy of research for the New York City Charter School Center. “The authorizers know that and approve schools that are trying something new,” he said. However, “When that doesn’t work out, charter schools can be closed because they didn’t live up to the promises they made for academic achievements.”
A source of contention for the schools has been when they are co-located in an existing public school building. Assemblywoman Joan L. Millman was part of a coalition that fought a recent co-location in Cobble Hill by Success Academies, which operates multiple charter schools. The charter, without much public notice, shifted its proposed location, according to Millman.
“Part of the problem is that it precludes the existing school or schools in the building from expanding,” said Millman. “It’s kind of a squeezed situation, if you will.”
Yet the opposition was overcome by Success. “It’s coming in and they may do a good job,” said Millman. “I certainly hope that they do.”
One of the most vocal critics of charter schools, the United Federation of Teachers, didn’t return a call to their office asking for comment.
While charter school students have slightly higher test scores, based on the charter school center’s report (pdf), they have a higher turnover for teachers and principals. One reason, the report states, could be that 29 percent of charter schoolteachers in the 2010–11 school year had no more than three years of teaching experience, compared to 5 percent of district teachers.
Meanwhile, the charter school population is predominantly black (61.9 percent) or Hispanic (30.9 percent), according to data from state report cards analyzed by the charter school center, though students are chosen through lottery. One possible reason for this, the report states, is that many charter schools are in neighborhoods where residents are predominantly black or Hispanic, such as Harlem and the South Bronx.
Also, fewer English Language Learners, or students who have a first language other than English, go to charter schools, but those that do fare better transitioning into English fluency, according to the center’s report.
More Charters Coming
Regardless of statistics, however, more charter schools are coming every year, with the statewide cap being raised in 2010 to allow up to 114 more in New York City. And almost seven-tenths of the existing schools still have grade levels to add, equaling 24,000 seats, which could help with the more than 51,000 students on waitlists.
“The main question for parents is not whether a public school is charter or district, it’s really whether it’s a good school or not,” said Michael Regnier of the charter school center. “And if charter schools can provide more high quality schools then they’re doing their job.”For Geoffrey Roehm, co-founder of Launch Expeditionary Learning Charter School, the charter model allows a teacher-driven approach to the expeditionary learning model, which focuses on hands-on learning about real-world issues.
“When you engage kids and you show them that learning is something that is useful and meaningful—and something that they can actually apply in the real world—that’s really when education sticks for kids,” Roehm said. The school received almost 500 applications for 112 slots this year, its first year.
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