Chronic absenteeism is lower in New York City charter schools than in district schools, report finds

It’s a common adage among educators: Students can’t learn if they don’t come to class.

A new report suggests some New York City schools are doing a better job of getting students through the door. On average, charter schools have better attendance and dramatically lower rates of chronically absent students, according to an analysis by the pro-charter group Families for Excellent Schools.

Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year. Research has shown that chronically absent students are less likely to read on grade level by third grade. By high school, they are more likely to drop out.

In New York City district schools, about a quarter of the overall student body was chronically absent last year. That means about 200,000 students in district schools met the definition, according to Families for Excellent for Schools.

In local charter schools, the average rate was a little over 13 percent, FES found.

Charters also reported better attendance rates: an average of almost 95 percent in 2015-16, or roughly three percentage points higher than district schools.

“I think attendance is a measure of school culture and school quality more than anything else,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, who heads Families for Excellent Schools. “Charters offer the most supportive learning environment, particularly for our highest needs kids and our families.”

But charter schools are often criticized for not taking on a proportionate number of needy students. For example, recent reports have found that district schools serve a higher percentage of homeless students than charters. Homeless students, in particular, often struggle to keep up with school attendance.

“Releasing a report which compares charter and district attendance and absenteeism numbers without controlling for their different student demographics is irresponsible,” Alison Gendar, a spokeswoman for United Federation of Teachers, wrote in an email.

The city has made only modest improvement in reducing its rate of chronic absenteeism, which has decreased by about 2.5 percentage points over the last three years, according to Department of Education data.

By contrast, schools in the city’s Renewal turnaround program have improved at a much faster rate. Chronic absenteeism at those schools fell by approximately 8 percentage points. Despite the gains, the rate at Renewal schools — about 39 percent — still remains much higher than the district average.

“We’re focused on improvement,” said Christopher Caruso, executive director for the Department of Education’s office of community schools. “Our schools are doing an incredible job in building relationships and culture.”

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted a parade of students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help fundraise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will be the zone’s new leader, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.

all clear

Newark’s North Star Academy charter schools are cleared after discipline probe

PHOTO: Hafsa Razi

New Jersey’s largest charter-school network did not violate state regulations when it disciplined students with disabilities, according to a state investigation triggered by an advocacy group’s complaint.

The complaint, which was based on parent reports and state data, alleged that North Star Academy charter schools suspended students with disabilities for minor infractions, causing them to miss class and be separated from their general-education peers in violation of federal disability law.

After interviewing North Star officials and reviewing school documents, state investigators concluded that the network of 13 charter schools followed the appropriate procedures when disciplining students with disabilities, which includes continuing to provide required educational services after suspending students.

“North Star was able to demonstrate compliance with the procedural regulations for disciplining students with disabilities,” according to the Oct. 15 investigation report.

The report does not address North Star’s suspension rate for students with disabilities, which the complaint alleged was among the highest in the state during the 2016-17 school year. The complaint, using state data, said the rate was 29 percent; North Star said it was 22 percent. The report called that data “informational” but said it was outside the one-year timeframe of the investigation.

Esther Canty-Barnes, director of the Education & Health Law Clinic at Rutgers Law School in Newark, which filed the complaint in August, said the report did not delve into all the issues raised in the complaint. For instance, it called for an investigation into how North Star’s special-education students are affected by suspensions and how often they are forced to repeat grades.

“It only addressed whether the charter school followed procedures,” Canty-Barnes said, “which is a very limited scope of what we asked them to do.”

North Star serves nearly 5,000 students at its Newark sites. Founded in 1997, it is one of New Jersey’s top-performing charter-school networks. Part of the national Uncommon Schools organization, the Newark campuses are known for their rigorous academics and strict discipline policies.

About 9 percent of North Star students had disabilities last school year, according to the report — just over half the rate in Newark Public Schools, where it was 16 percent.

Thirty-eight North Star students with disabilities served 10 or more days of suspension during that 2017-18 school year, the report said. The network gave in-school suspensions to students who disrupted class or refused to do work. It issued out-of-school suspensions to students who used threatening language, stole staff property, or displayed “defiance and aggressiveness.”

The investigators found that North Star administered the suspensions properly. For instance, records indicated that schools held legally required meetings to determine whether students’ disabilities contributed to the behavior that triggered suspensions. The schools also came up with plans to help de-escalate the students’ behavior or give them “break time” to refocus or talk to a school staffer.

When North Star did suspend students with disabilities, it made sure they continued to receive their legally mandated support services, the report said. When students were suspended for 10 or more consecutive days, North Star sent teachers to the students’ homes to provide instruction.

Barbara Martinez, a North Star spokeswoman, said the network takes “great pride” in the education that it offers students with disabilities. Those students perform in the 75th percentile or above on the state PARCC tests, she added.

“We are glad to have the NJ DOE official confirmation after their thorough investigation that these baseless and biased allegations are unfounded and that North Star is fully compliant with all procedures surrounding discipline for students with disabilities,” she said in a statement.

Michael Yaple, a state education department spokesman, said the agency’s special-education office does not have any other open investigations into North Star. He added that complainants can appeal the office’s decisions.

The federal education department’s Office for Civil Rights currently has three open investigations into North Star’s special-education practices that were launched in July 2015, according to the agency’s website. Martinez, the North Star spokeswoman, said the agency “fully investigated” a complaint from 2015 involving one student and made no determination “that we are aware of.” The agency did not immediately respond to a request for information about the investigation.

Lauren Morando Rhim, executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, said that some schools’ strict discipline policies deter families of children with disabilities from enrolling. She added that even though North Star appears to be following special-education laws, it still serves a relatively small share of students with disabilities and has had a high suspension rate.

“It does raise questions as to why that’s the case,” she said, “and what could they do to increase access and success.”