Friday, November 20, 2015


Original Story:

From the time Folake Ogundiran’s daughter started kindergarten at a Success Academy charter school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the girl struggled to adjust to its strict rules.

She racked up demerits for not following directions or not keeping her hands folded in her lap. Sometimes, after being chastised, she threw tantrums. She was repeatedly suspended for screaming, throwing pencils, running away from school staff members or refusing to go to another classroom for a timeout. A Lexington education lawyer assists clients with policy development for employment, student health, and disability accommodation.

One day last December, the school’s principal, Candido Brown, called Ms. Ogundiran and said her daughter, then 6, was having a bad day. Mr. Brown warned that if she continued to do things that were defiant and unsafe — including, he said, pushing or kicking, moving chairs or tables, or refusing to go to another classroom — he would have to call 911, Ms. Ogundiran recalled. Already feeling that her daughter was treated unfairly, she went to the school and withdrew her on the spot.

Success Academy, the high-performing charter school network in New York City, has long been dogged by accusations that its remarkable accomplishments are due, in part, to a practice of weeding out weak or difficult students. The network has always denied it. But documents obtained by The New York Times and interviews with 10 current and former Success employees at five schools suggest that some administrators in the network have singled out children they would like to see leave.

At Success Academy Fort Greene, the same day that Ms. Ogundiran heard from the principal, her daughter’s name was one of 16 placed on a list drawn up at his direction and shared by school leaders. A Harrisonburg education attorney is following this story closely.

Nine of the students on the list later withdrew from the school. Some of their parents said in interviews that while their children attended Success, their lives were upended by repeated suspensions and frequent demands that they pick up their children early or meet with school or network staff members. Four of the parents said that school or network employees told them explicitly that the school, whose oldest students are now in the third grade, was not right for their children and that they should go elsewhere.

The current and former employees said they had observed similar practices at other Success schools. According to those employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs or their relationships with people still at the network, school leaders and network staff members explicitly talked about suspending students or calling parents into frequent meetings as ways to force parents to fall in line or prompt them to withdraw their children.

Last year, for instance, the principal of Success Academy Harlem 2 Upper, Lavinia Mackall, told teachers not to automatically send annual re-enrollment forms home to certain students, because the school did not want those students to come back, two former members of the school’s staff said. Ms. Mackall said that her comments had been misinterpreted and that she was trying to encourage parents to take the school’s requirements seriously, but that she also did not believe the school was right for all students.

In another example, a current employee said, a network lawyer in a conversation with colleagues described a particularly unruly student’s withdrawal as “a big win” for the school.

In a written response to questions, Success Academy’s spokeswoman, Ann Powell, said that the “Got to Go” list was a mistake and that the network quickly got wind of it and reprimanded Mr. Brown, the principal. An Idaho education lawyer provides professional legal counsel and extensive experience in many aspects of education law.

Ms. Powell said that Success schools did not push children out, and that what might look like an effort to nudge students out the door was actually an attempt to help parents find the right environment for their children. Some on the list required special education settings that Success could not offer them, she said.

Mr. Brown said in an email that he thought the disruptive behavior of the students on the list was dragging the whole school down, and “I felt I couldn’t turn the school around if these students remained.”

Once he was reprimanded, though, he and his staff tried to work with those students, he said.

Even so, five left before the end of the school year, and four more departed over the summer.

As to the child’s withdrawal being a “big win,” Ms. Powell said, “if we have a parent whose child really needs to be in a different school, which was a better learning environment for him/her to succeed in and the parent had trouble accepting their child’s needs, might that be characterized as a ‘big win?’ Yes.”

On Thursday, after this article was published online, Eva S. Moskowitz, a former New York City councilwoman who runs Success Academy, was asked by reporters about the “Got to Go” list. Ms. Moskowitz said that given her network’s size, “mistakes are sometimes made.” She declined to answer further questions, saying she would hold a news conference on Friday to discuss “the mistake that was made in that particular case.”

Frequent Suspensions

Success Academy is the city’s largest charter school network. It has 34 schools, and plans to grow to 70 in five or six years.

The network serves mostly black and Hispanic students and is known for exacting behavior rules. Even the youngest pupils are expected to sit with their backs straight, their hands clasped and their eyes on the teacher, a posture that the network believes helps children pay attention. Ms. Moskowitz has said she believes children learn better with structure and consistency in the classroom. Good behavior and effort are rewarded with candy and prizes, while infractions and shoddy work are penalized with reprimands, loss of recess time, extra assignments and, in some cases, suspensions as early as kindergarten. An Atlanta education lawyer is following the details of this story.

Charter schools are privately run but publicly funded and admit children by lottery. Similar to a traditional public school, a charter school must provide a seat to a child who has enrolled unless the student withdraws, is expelled, turns 21 or moves out of the state. Charter schools must follow strict guidelines before formally expelling any student, and Success has done so only once since its first school opened in 2006. But Success’s critics accuse it of pushing children out by making their parents’ lives so difficult that they withdraw.

Suspensions at Success, which typically last one or two days, are frequent compared with traditional public schools. In the 2012-13 school year, the most recent one for which state data is available, Success schools suspended between 4 percent and 23 percent of their students at least once, with most suspending more than 10 percent. According to the most recent statistics from the city’s Education Department, from 2013-14, traditional public schools suspended 3 percent of students that academic year.

Ms. Moskowitz has said that suspensions can make parents recognize the seriousness of their children’s misbehavior and that removing students who are acting dangerously from the classroom protects teachers and allows them to do their jobs more effectively.

Principals at Success, many in their 20s and 30s, frequently consult with a team of lawyers before suspending a student or requiring a parent to pick up a child early every day. It was a member of that team who described a student’s withdrawal from the Success Academy in Union Square to colleagues as a “big win,” the current employee said.

James D. Merriman, the chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, a group that advocates and supports charter schools, said it was unrealistic to expect any given school to be a good fit for every child. And Mr. Merriman noted that the city had many traditional public schools that required a test or other screening for admission, schools that by definition did not serve all students.

“I think if you asked most charter leaders they’d say that their goal is to be a fit for as broad an array of children as possible,” he said, “and they’re working very hard to that end.”

Under Pressure

Mr. Brown arrived at Success Academy Fort Greene, which shares a white-brick building with a public school in the shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, in November 2014. He was the school’s third principal since it opened a year earlier, and he said he found the school, with 224 students, out of control. Children behaved violently, he said, and teachers were overwhelmed and starting to feel hopeless.

“If the school had been better managed from the start, then we could have done better by these students and probably could have kept more of them,” he said in an email. “However, it is also the case that for some of them, Success wasn’t the best place. Some of them needed an alternative setting with highly specialized services. And some parents just didn’t agree with our philosophy.” A Louisville education lawyer is reviewing the details of this case.

Some of the parents whose children were on the “Got to Go” list acknowledged that they did not agree with how the school managed behavior. But several also said that both before and after the list was created, they thought school and network employees were trying to push them out.

Folake Wimbish said her son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was suspended 19 times last year, in first grade, and missed 26 days. Success said her son was intellectually gifted but struggled with behavior, “often hitting, kicking, biting and spitting at other children and adults.”

In early December, while Ms. Wimbish was pushing the school to evaluate her son for special education services, she was called to a meeting in Lower Manhattan with the network’s assistant general counsel and its associate special education manager, Julie Freese. She said Ms. Freese told her that, because of his suspensions, her son was missing out on his education, and she needed to think about his well-being.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you just put him in another school, because he’s suffering,’ ” Ms. Wimbish said.

Ms. Wimbish withdrew her son at the end of the year, because with the suspensions and calls to pick him up, she said, “I started feeling like I was going to have a breakdown.” He now attends Public School 119 in Brooklyn, where Ms. Wimbish said he was very happy and had not been suspended once.

Monique Jeffrey said her son, who was in kindergarten last year, was suspended so many times she “stopped counting.” In the middle of the year, Ms. Jeffrey said, the school’s education manager, Rebecca Fleischman, told her that her son had emotional and behavioral issues the school could not handle and that she should look for another school. Ms. Jeffrey withdrew him at the end of the year.

Nicey Givens, the mother of another student on the list, said her son, also a kindergartner last year, was suspended many times, in some cases, the school told her, for fighting. Ms. Fleischman said in an email that a special education committee of the school district recommended that the boy be placed in a type of special education class the school did not offer in his grade. Ms. Givens recalled that Ms. Fleischman told her the school did not have the resources to serve her son and offered to help find him a placement in a regular public school. Her son now attends P.S. 287.

Ms. Powell, the Success spokeswoman, said the charter network was deeply committed to serving special education students and it was prevented from offering more special education classes because the city had not granted it enough classrooms. “Helping some students find better placements is not wrong,” she added. An Atlanta education lawyer provides professional legal counsel and extensive experience in many aspects of education law.

Around the time the “Got to Go” list was created, Mr. Brown and the school’s dean spoke with the principal of another Success school in Brooklyn, and the dean shared with her colleagues some notes from that conversation. The notes were part of an email exchange shown to The Times by a former Success employee.

The notes describe several suggestions for dealing with families who are “not on board” and discussed 911 calls.

The notes also appear to allude to the possibility of getting one child on the “Got to Go” list classified as a 12:1:1 special education student. Those students are entitled to classrooms limited to 12 students, with one teacher and one aide, so Success Academy, which offers only five such classes in a network serving 11,000 students, might not be able to meet the needs of every 12:1:1 student.

Ms. Fleischman, the education manager, warned her colleagues in a follow-up email that the goal should not have been put in an email and that, in any case, a 12:1:1 classification “does not guarantee a withdrawal.”

Asked this month about that remark, she said that she was saying only that the parent of a 12:1:1 student would not be required to take the student out, and was not alluding to any effort to ensure the child would leave.

Mixed Messages

Some of the parents whose children were on the list said that while some school employees were advising them to leave, others were sending reassuring messages.

On Feb. 2, a teacher, Hannah Hodari, wrote an email to Ms. Jeffrey about her son’s progress in math. “I can totally tell you have been working with him, he was very enthusiastic today and his work and focus was much improved,” the teacher wrote.

In June, after Ms. Jeffrey had decided to withdraw her son, Ms. Hodari urged her to reconsider, saying in an email that she would be “so excited” to see him return and “watch him be successful” in first grade.

“However,” the teacher added, “I also understand where your concerns and doubts come from.”

Ms. Powell, the spokeswoman, said: “We make tremendous efforts to keep all children. We do this because morally once a child enters our doors, they are ours, and we want them to succeed.”

She also named three mothers of children on the “Got to Go” list who were still at the school, saying they would be able to describe the efforts that Success had made to keep their students there.

One of those mothers, Aisha Cooper, said her son, now in second grade, had struggled with his behavior because he was easily distracted, had difficulty keeping his eyes on the teacher and would sometimes call out in class. She said he was suspended once in kindergarten for throwing a snow globe across the room, and she recalled his kindergarten teacher’s once suggesting that maybe Success was not a good fit for him.

Ms. Cooper said she never felt as if the school wanted him gone. She said she liked the school so much that she was planning to send her daughter there for kindergarten next year.

But when a reporter asked if she knew that her son had been included last year on the “Got to Go” list, Ms. Cooper said she did not.

“I’m a little upset about that,” she said after a minute. “They could have let me know he was on a list that he ‘had to go.’ And I would have asked them why, because he’s not a bad child. He just talks too much sometimes.

“He doesn’t hit kids, he doesn’t knock kids over, he doesn’t scream, he just talks too much. So I don’t understand why he’s on this list.”

Friday, July 17, 2015


Original Story:

An education advocacy group sued 13 California school districts Thursday, claiming that they have ignored a state law requiring teachers’ performance evaluations to include student standardized test scores. An Atlanta education lawyer is following this story closely.

The lawsuit targets the largest school systems in the state that have barred such use of test results through collective-bargaining agreements with teachers unions. These contract provisions are illegal under state law, according to the complaint, which was filed in Contra Costa County.

The litigation represents the latest effort by Students Matter, a Los Angeles-based group that has turned to California courts to make changes in education law that were otherwise blocked at the state and local levels. The organization was founded by tech entrepreneur David F. Welch to build on other attempts to limit teacher job protections and hold them more accountable for student achievement.

Many states and school systems are using scores in instructors’ performance reviews in part because the Obama administration has offered them incentives, including grants and exemptions from some federal rules and penalties. The practice is among those favored by such influential organizations as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and typically opposed by teacher unions. An Atlanta education attorney assists clients with board governance, bylaws, and business-related issues.

Students Matter scored a victory last year when a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles ruled that several teacher job protections were unconstitutional. That case, Vergara vs. California, was watched nationally and spawned similar litigation in New York. The California ruling is on hold pending appeals.

If that decision is upheld, teachers would lose the right to earn tenure, and layoffs would no longer be based on seniority. The process for firing instructors also would be streamlined. The Legislature could pass laws restoring some of these job protections in another form, but they would have to survive court scrutiny.

The goal of the new litigation is to compel change across California. The 13 districts serve about 250,000 students of more than 6 million in the state.

“School districts are not going to get away with bargaining away their ability to use test scores to evaluate teachers,” said attorney Joshua S. Lipshutz, who is working on behalf of Students Matter. “That’s a direct violation of state law.” A Columbia education lawyer represents clients with employment and faculty matters, student discipline, and compliance with Title IX, FERPA, HIPAA, the Clergy Act, and other regulatory regimes.

The plaintiffs are six California residents, including some parents and teachers, three of whom are participating anonymously.

The suit doesn’t ask the courts to determine how much weight test scores should be given in a performance review, Lipshutz said. He cited research, however, suggesting that test scores should account for 30% to 40% of an evaluation.

A union leader called the effort misguided.

“There’s growing evidence, a ton of research, that shows the kind of evaluation system they would like to see happen is a disaster for public education,” said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers.

Over-reliance on test scores creates negative incentives that he said contributed to the exam cheating scandal in Atlanta and to “narrowing the curriculum” to material appearing on tests.

“It distorts what happens in the classroom for students and educators,” he said.

The case, Doe vs. Antioch, follows earlier litigation involving the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2012, an L.A. Superior Court judge ruled that the school system had to include student test scores in teacher evaluations. But the judge also allowed wide latitude for negotiation between the union and the district.

That decision was based on the 1971 Stull Act, which set rules for teacher evaluations. Many districts had for decades failed to comply with it, experts say.

Advocates initially went after L.A. Unified because it is the largest school system in California. Under a court-imposed deadline, the union and district signed a pact that incorporated the use of test scores; but, later, disagreements arose. The two sides are currently in negotiations over a revised evaluation.

“All the evidence points to the fact that a majority are not” complying with the law, said Bill Lucia, president of Edvoice, the Sacramento-based organization behind the previous Stull Act lawsuit.

The districts being sued are: Antioch Unified, Chaffey Joint Union, Chino Valley Unified, El Monte City, Fairfield-Suisun Unified, Fremont Union, Inglewood Unified, Ontario-Montclair, Pittsburg Unified, Saddleback Valley Unified, San Ramon Valley Unified, Upland Unified and Victor Elementary.

Those districts approved labor deals that don’t allow the consideration of student achievement in evaluations, according to the complaint, which contains excerpts from collective-bargaining agreements. A Portland collective bargaining lawyer is reviewing the details of this case.

The contract for the Fremont district, for example, states that standardized tests “shall not be used in the performance evaluation of a unit member, unless by agreement.”

Pechthalt defended these pacts.

“These are districts where management and teachers have developed an evaluation system that works for them,” he said. “The Stull Act doesn’t prescribe in detail how an evaluation system should happen. There is some leeway.”

The issue has percolated in the state Legislature, which considered four bills this year affecting teacher performance reviews. The most contentious ones have been pushed into next year.

The California Department of Education was not named in the suit, but could become involved because Inglewood Unified is currently under state control as a condition of a financial bailout.

A spokeswoman said the department had not reviewed the suit and could not comment.

Friday, March 13, 2015


Original Story:

ALBANY — With the political winds seemingly at its back, New York City’s charter school movement staged a splashy rally in Albany on Wednesday, with an enthusiastic mix of thousands of students, a raft of state leaders and a pinch-hitting pop star.

Organizers said the purpose of the event was to call attention to failing schools across the state. But implicitly they also came to offer themselves as an alternative to be developed, and to make their political muscle felt.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has asked the Legislature for a range of educational reforms, including one that would allow for an additional 100 charter schools, and another that could open the door for charter organizations to take over regular public schools. An Atlanta charter school lawyer has extensive experience in education law and charter school compliance issues.

“We are here to send a message,” said Kathy Hochul, the lieutenant governor, speaking from the Capitol’s snowy steps with a backdrop of supporters. “A message that failure is not an option.”

At the same time, supporters of teachers’ unions, who had also traveled to Albany in an armada of buses, gathered at a convention center adjacent to the Capitol. While their numbers were smaller than those supporting charter schools, and their mood less festive, the unions were targeted in their approach. Representatives of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City union, met with lawmakers, including the heads of education committees from the Assembly and State Senate.

Teachers’ unions have fought the spread of charter schools, arguing that they take space and resources from regular public schools. Charter schools are privately run, publicly financed and usually not unionized. The unions are also contesting Mr. Cuomo’s proposal to tie teacher evaluations more closely to students’ standardized test scores, and have forcefully pushed back against him with billboards and television ads. An Atlanta charter school lawyer is following this story closely.

As the charter supporters’ rally brought out dance troupes and booming club music, Michael Mulgrew, the New York City union’s president, raised his voice to remind more than 1,000 parents and members in attendance at the convention center that it was their day to fight.

“It is your job today to take the passion and dedication that you bring each and every day into that classroom and bring them into the halls of the State Capitol,” Mr. Mulgrew said.

The far flashier of the dueling demonstrations was the charter event, held in a park just outside the Capitol, where video screens and banks of speakers created a rock-concert atmosphere, despite gray skies and thousands of out-of-school children milling on snow-covered lawns.

A large, boisterous crowd formed just before noon to hear a succession of politicians, including the Republican Senate majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, agree with the charters’ contention that public schools are in “crisis.” (This week, a group of Assembly Democrats sent a letter to their speaker, Carl E. Heastie, criticizing charter schools.)

Despite the tension between the two groups, there was less high-level drama this year than last. In March 2014, Mr. Cuomo delivered a passionate speech to a similar grouping of charter schools and their supporters, who had gathered in Albany to stave off New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, who had been critical of some charter schools.

For all the dire talk, charter schools are not fighting any immediate threats. But the governor’s proposals could help them grow, and some of the largest networks had impressive showings at the rally. KIPP, a large charter organization with schools around the country, recruited parents and graduates to attend. Achievement First, another big network, offered most of its Brooklyn students the chance to go to Albany if their parents came along.

At Success Academy, a powerful network founded by Eva S. Moskowitz, and a driving force behind the rally, schools were closed. Success held class on buses, and if parents did not want their children to make the trip north, they had to send them elsewhere for the day.

But many children seemed more than happy to make the trip, including two 9-year-old twins, Kelvin and Kianna Moore, from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who had woken at dawn to ride to Albany with their mother, Marissa, who works as a security guard at Kennedy International Airport.

Kianna, who is in second grade at the Success Academy in Williamsburg, said she enjoyed science and recess at her school, and did not want either to be threatened. From under a red stocking cap, she said, “I want everybody to have a great school.”

Similar sentiments were also being heard at the unions’ event, where hundreds of teachers ate a light lunch before heading off to lobby their legislators. Andrew Silver, 52, a teacher at Public School 145 in Bushwick, Brooklyn, said that Mr. Cuomo was playing “the blame game” with teachers, rather than addressing the underlying problems with failing schools, including poverty, low parent involvement and a lack of resources.

“Students are not performing well because of issues in their communities,” said Mr. Silver, who teaches physical education and after-school programs. He added that weighting teacher evaluations more heavily on testing was unwise: “It’s insane. Its not pedagogically sound.”

While very well attended, the charter schools’ rally was not without hiccups: The singer Janelle MonĂ¡e had initially been set to perform for the crowd, but was scratched on Wednesday morning “due to scheduling difficulties,” organizers said.

But another popular singer, Ashanti, was able to step in to entertain. Jeremiah Kittredge, the chief executive of Families for Excellent Schools, the charter advocacy group that financed the entire event, would not comment on whether Ashanti was paid to be there.

Asked why she had chosen to come to Albany, the singer said she fondly remembered her own education — at Glen Cove High School, a public school — and seemed concerned about the next generation. “The kids,” she said, “are suffering the most.”