Future of Schools

Advisory group questions ‘voucher charter’

CASTLE ROCK – Five parents who serve on Douglas County’s district accountability committee asked lots of questions Tuesday about the voucher charter school slated to open this fall.

Kevin Leung, a member of Douglas County's district accountability committee, at Tuesday's meeting.
Kevin Leung, a member of Douglas County's district accountability committe, questioned staff about the Choice Scholarship School.
The charter school will serve as the administrative home of the 500 students awarded vouchers – worth $4,575 in state and local tax dollars – to private schools in Colorado’s first district-driven voucher pilot.

But the students won’t actually attend classes in a charter school – instead, they’ll be enrolling in the 19 or more “private school partners” approved by the district to accept vouchers in 2011-12.

“As far as we know, nothing like this has been done anywhere,” Robert Ross, the district’s legal counsel, said Tuesday in response to questions. “There is not a pattern for this, we’re creating it.”

District leaders say they’re creating the Choice Scholarship School because it is the most efficient way of tracking the achievement, attendance and funding for students enrolled in the voucher pilot.

Questioning the legality of admissions policies

The idea of using the state’s Charter Schools Act to further a voucher program clearly sparked concern for some members of the district accountability committee.

Learn more

Kevin Leung, a committee member who also is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed to stop the voucher pilot, repeatedly cited sections of the law in questioning district staff.

For example, Leung pointed out that state law prohibits a charter from discriminating against students on the basis of religion and the need for special education services.

But 15 of the 19 approved “private school partners” to date are religious and many weigh a student and parent’s religious affiliation in their admissions policies. Some schools state they’re not a good fit for students with disabilities.

For example, Southeast Christian School in Parker “reserves the right to deny admission to any student whose needs we cannot meet or who compromises the expressed mission, goals, purpose, safety or philosophy of Christian education,” its application states.

And Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, in its application, notes ““We do not have a special education program or resource program at Valor as our admissions standards preclude having a population with significant need.”

So, Leung asked Ross, how is the Choice Scholarship School a legal charter?

Ross said that the charter school itself doesn’t prohibit student participation based on religion or other factors. The few criteria to be part of the pilot include living in Douglas County and prior enrollment for at least a year in a Douglas County school.

Once a student is selected for the pilot, he said, it’s up to the families to decide which private school is a good fit: “The remainder is parental choice.”

Choice Scholarship School still needs state approval

By law, district accountability committee members are charged with reviewing all charter applications and making recommendations for approval.

But their input is advisory and school board members, who vote on the applications, have the final say.

In the case of the Choice Scholarship School, Dougco board members already approved it last month – on the condition that the committee review the application and provide input to the board within 48 hours of its meeting.

If the committee opts not to provide input, the application is deemed approved without condition. If input is provided, the board then has the opportunity to address it.

Kevin Larsen, the committee chair, said its recommendations will be sent to the school board by week’s end and then made public. School board members meet Tuesday.

The Choice Scholarship School is still subject to approval by the State Board of Education, which is expected to consider the application at its August meeting.

Ross said district leaders have met with Colorado Department of Education staff about the creation of a charter and “got favorable reviews from them.”

About 25 people attended the district accountability committee meeting and seven made public comments, with speakers for and against the voucher pilot.

At one point, Becky Barnes of Castle Rock, who supports the pilot, stood and asked whether Leung should review the charter application as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the pilot.

Leung responded that some committee members were discussing running for the school board with the county Republican Party, which backed several pro-voucher board members in the last election.

“This will be a collaborative process,” Larsen, the committee chair, said. “We’ll figure out how to do that.”

School safety

Charter schools advocates’ next push: Funding for school security

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams speaks at a press conference related to charter school security funding.

New York City politicians and charter school advocates gathered at Brooklyn Borough Hall on Tuesday to demand school security funding for certain charter schools.

Advocates are asking the City Council to revise a city law that funds security at non-public schools with more than 300 students. This minimum enrollment cap and the exclusion of charter schools, they charge, means many charter schools housed in private spaces have to pull funding for school security guards from their budgets that could otherwise be used in the classroom.

“Our tax dollars should protect all our children,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who spoke alongside members of the City Council and charter school advocates.

The push represents a new line of advocacy for the charter sector and touches on a national conversation about school safety. After devastating school shootings this year in Texas and Florida, New York’s lawmakers have been debating the best way to keep children safe in schools.

Now, the charter sector is adding its voice to the mix arguing that school security funding is a critical tool schools use to keep children safe. However, in the absence of security funds, charter schools remain committed to dipping into instructional budgets to hire school safety officers, said James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

“I don’t want anyone to think that right now charter schools aren’t safe,” Merriman said.

Charter school advocates have long argued that the publicly funded, privately managed schools, which educate more than 42,000 students citywide in private spaces, do not receive public funding equivalent to that of their district school counterparts. They have suggested a range of solutions to this problem, including altering the state’s funding formula and receiving more money to pay for private space.

If the City Council is not receptive to changes, charter school supporters said they may look to the state for help.

“We think this can pass at the City Council level,” Adams said. “If not…we’ll go to the state.”

cultural connections

This Bronx school threw a party for its African families. Now it’s grown into something much more

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Children's Aid College Prep Charter School hosts regular events for its African families, one way the Bronx school tries to make sure immigrants are welcomed and served well.

Aboudoulaye Adizetou’s phone dinged with text message after text message from her daughter. Was Adizetou bringing the right hijab to school — the one that would match the rust-orange dress she planned to change into after the bell rang?  

That afternoon, Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School transformed its cafeteria for Celebrate Africa, an event for the school’s sizeable community of immigrant families. With African music blaring, teachers and staff served a warm meal of fried fish patties, and Senegalese chicken with thick slices of tomatoes and cucumbers. Flags from Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon served as tablecloths.

“Somewhere else, Africans are the last person they think about,” said Adizetou, who is from Togo. “But I think here, we are first.”

Celebrate Africa started as a way for the school to connect with families whose needs had largely gone under the radar. Children’s Aid College Prep, in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, tracks students’ attendance, behavior, grades, and even whether students are out of uniform. On every measure, students from African families were doing well, so the school had little reason to engage with them — until the staff set out to change that.

They started by throwing a party.

Now, Celebrate Africa takes place every few months, and it seems to have grown beyond a typical evening cultural celebration. Parents at a recent event agreed: starting with sharing meals and customs, the school has transformed the way it serves its African families — an especially notable move at a time when the bitter national debate over immigration often spills into classrooms.  

“We hear from our kids. They are bombarded by different messages. And we want to be clear: We support our immigrant families,” said Laura Crowley, the school’s academic dean.

Children’s Aid College Prep’s work with African families had an unhappy beginning: the Ebola crisis that began in 2014 and went on to claim more than 11,000 lives across West Africa. As hysteria over the deadly virus mounted, so did reports of bullying of African students in New York schools, including at Children’s Aid College Prep.

For Lyrica Fils-Aimé, a social worker who coordinates many of the school’s social services, it was a reminder that there was more work to do.

Fils-Aimé estimates that fewer than 20 percent of the school’s students are African — most are Caribbean and Hispanic — but that still means almost 100 students or their families come from the continent. She recalled one boy who, despite having an obviously African name, insisted that he was Jamaican. That was before Children’s Aid College Prep started working to connect with African families.

“I said, you know what, let’s just engage them,” Fils-Aimé said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
At a recent Celebrate Africa event, students listened to a teacher read the Nigerian folktale “Why the Sky is Far Away.”

At the first Celebrate Africa about two years ago, school staff were unsure what meals to order or from where. They turned to parents, who were happy to explain where to buy traditional fabrics to decorate the tables and how to eat African foods.

The script was flipped: Parents played the role of teacher, helping classroom educators navigate new experiences.   

“It was really powerful, I think, for the families to see the teacher be in an uncomfortable space. The parents were coming to the school and being in an uncomfortable space all the time,” Fils-Aimé said. “Then the parent is the expert. Those moments are how we got people to realize, ‘These people are here. They know stuff.’”

Getting there wasn’t always easy. Adizetou’s daughter was excelling at Children’s Aid College Prep, so she decided to enroll her younger son as well. But her experience soured as she began receiving constant calls home about her son’s behavior.

One morning, a call came after he had been in class for only an hour. Adizetou had had enough. She went to the school and cried.

“That day, I said, ‘No, this is happening because of my son’s color and where we came from,’” Adizetou said.

Fils-Aimé had already noticed that teachers seemed to have a harder time connecting with African parents — something she called “disturbing.” Many African children came to school on time, excelled in class, and were well behaved. When things went wrong, however, parents and teachers didn’t know how to work together to solve them.

“They would just kind of not engage each other,” she said. “It just fell off, and the issue wouldn’t get resolved.”

The school added additional training for teachers. In one session, they thought about barriers that might make it difficult to communicate with parents who speak other languages. For example: Imagine a teacher describing a classroom activity to parents as “a piece of cake.”

“An immigrant person who, English is a second language, does not necessarily know that idiom,” said Monique Fletcher, who works on parent engagement for Children’s Aid, a . “How do you simplify that language without dumbing it down?”

There were some breakthroughs. The school no longer hosts a “Literacy Night,” which African parents rarely showed up to. Instead, they invite parents to “Reading Night,” and families come to read with their children. Literacy “means stuff to educators, not necessarily parents,” Fletcher said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students listen to a Nigerian folktale before sharing a Senegalese meal at a recent Celebrate Africa event.

Along the way, Celebrate Africa became more than a party. Food and music are constants, but now they accompany sessions on how to identify and treat mental illness and, after the school had to make a few calls to child welfare services, tips for disciplining children at home.

Now, “It’s easier to have those conversations,” Fletcher said. “We had good relationships with the families, so they understand where we’re coming from.”

Families say they started turning to staff when trouble at home affected the classroom. When Abdulaye Bathio’s wife left home with his children in tow, staff from Children’s Aid College Prep called to ask why his daughter hadn’t been in class. Worried, he went to the school to explain.

Not only did staff there help him gain custody of his children, but they accompanied him to the public assistance office to find better housing and provided fresh school uniforms.

“They take care of everyone here,” said Bathio, who is from Mauritania. “We love it.”