Last month, Radha Radkar expressed her excitement for a new year at Fahari Academy Charter School by discussing a task that, for most teachers, is an annual rite.
“I’m decorating my own classroom,” said Radkar, a second-year English teacher.
For Radkar and her Fahari colleagues, however, it was an unknown luxury. Last year, teachers didn’t have their own classroom and had little time to prepare for their lessons. Instead it was teachers who rotated — while students stayed put — a small, but significant component of a broader culture that staff said contributed to the school’s demise.
Much has changed this year at Fahari as part of a comprehensive attempt to keep the school from closing. On Aug. 27, the Department of Education officially placed it on probation, primarily because of the sky-high teacher and student attrition rates that have plagued the school since it opened in 2009.
Radkar said the school was anticipating the probation notice for months and had spent the summer preparing to open with many new programs and policies. Now, they have less than a year to show the school is taking steps to improve. By Monday, the school must submit an improvement plan detailing the changes underway at the school.
“We are definitely in the middle of transition,” said Radkar, who helped develop new reading and writing curriculum over the summer. “At the same time, our leadership is trying to figure out a direction this year.”
The board officially hired Dirk Tillotson to take over the school as executive director in July, though he had been working day-to-day in the school since January. Tillotson had previously consulted for Fahari, but when the school’s struggles intensified last year, he said he felt a responsibility to take on a larger role.
“I love the school,” said Tillotson. “To not throw myself into this would be walking away from an opportunity to do something special.”
With a quickly hammered-out union contract almost in hand, Tillotson has brought on a new principal and academic director from his consultancy organization, New York Charter School Incubators, to help with the turnaround.
The problems that they have inherited are severe and will not be easily fixed. At least 100 students left the school since it opened in 2009, including 58 during a seven-month span last school year, according to the city’s probation letter.
“This level of change within a relatively small population of students is disruptive to the school’s culture and may be symptomatic of other issues,” Paymon Rouhanifard, who oversees the city’s diminished charter school portfolio, wrote in the probation letter.
Rouhanifard was right, say former staff who clashed with the school’s founding executive director, Catina Venning. They said that her student disciplinary system was overly harsh and inflexible. Last year, the school reported 91 out-of-school suspensions, according to city data.
Students received demerits for minor infractions, including speaking out of turn, a former administrator said. If they didn’t bring a signed letter from parents the next day, the administrator said, they were given an automatic Saturday detention.
“It’s taking ‘no excuses’ too far,” said the administrator. “It was like a militaristic boarding room style.”
The probation letter also cited lagging test score results in the probation letter. But Tillotson said it did not take into account the gains made on the 2012 tests, when 62 percent of students scored proficient on math and 47 percent were proficient in English.
Tillotson and the current staff declined to comment on Venning’s tenure, which officially ended at the end of the 2011-2012 school year. Venning, a former New York City Teaching Fellow who served fellowship stints at Building Excellent Schools and at Achievement First Bushwick before founding Fahari, did not respond to requests for comment for the story.
The former Fahari administrator, like most staff that joined while Venning ran the school, left after a short period of time. Just two of nine founding teachers returned for a second year and another eight teachers left last year, according to city data.
“Teachers came in one day and went out the next day,” said Marie Valentin, the mother of an eighth grader at the school.
Early on in the 2011-2012 school year, the new teachers voted to unionize, something that Tillotson said has actually helped stabilize the school.
“When we came into this as charter people, we felt this was going to increase our costs, just one more thing to deal with,” Tillotson said. But he said that both sides had a “shared interest” to rescue the school from closure, “and that was the approach to the bargaining.”
Tillotson’s counterpart at the United Federation of Teachers, Leo Casey, also said the unionization process went unusually smoothly. Casey has encountered fierce resistance from charter school managers in the past after teachers voted to unionize. He said he expected similar conflict with Fahari’s administration.
“What was interesting about Fahari was that it wasn’t a school thinking that a union would be an impediment toward improving,” Casey said. “Through the process they realized that the union to a real partner in stabilizing the school.”
Casey said it took less than a year to come to terms on a new contract, a record for negotiations. The contract is not yet ratified, but it includes a salary structure that offers teachers 20 percent more than the city average.
As the school year got underway in August, teachers who worked at the school last year said that they already sensed it was a new day at the school. Tillotson was also optimistic but said he expected bumps along the way.
One morning, the heat was smothering and students struggled to focus in the fourth floor classrooms of the school, which shares space at M.S. 246 in Flatbush. The hallways were bare, resembling a hospital more than a school, but new principal Joann Falinski said she hoped to fill them soon with student work soon.
In her classroom, Radkar had set up a “reading nook” in the back of her room to allow students time for personal reading each day.
“What we noticed last year was that kids didn’t have enough time to read,” she said. “You could just tell that the kids needed more practice.”