Disenrolled

‘Kicked out’: Newark charter school purges students in possible violation of state rules

PHOTO: Getty Images

On the second day of the school year, Malika Berry got an alarming call from her son, a 10th-grader at Marion P. Thomas Charter School.

“Ma, they told me I don’t go here anymore,” Berry recalled her son saying.

After she rushed to the school on Aug. 28, a staffer informed Berry that her son, Sahir Minatee, had been dropped from the roster over the summer. The school said Berry had failed to provide a document proving the family still lived at the same address down the street from the Central Ward school, which her son had attended since ninth grade. (Berry says she sent the school a bank statement with her address in May or June, and offered another one in August, which the school refused to accept.)

“He was basically kicked out,” Berry said.

Sahir wasn’t alone. Marion P. Thomas, a pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade network of schools, removed 30 students from its roster over the summer for failing to submit proof of their address, school officials said.

The purge came over two months before Sept. 28 — the deadline Newark Public Schools gave families in charter and district schools to submit residency forms. It appeared to violate state regulations, which require districts to notify families and hold public hearings before removing enrolled children.

“The school can’t just throw a kid out,” said Elizabeth Athos, senior attorney at the Newark-based Education Law Center, adding that state regulations typically apply to all public schools — district and charter alike.

Marion P. Thomas officials, who originally sent Sahir to the district enrollment office, which reassigned him to a district high school, now say they erred in forcing out families who failed to provide the residency paperwork. But more than two weeks into the school year, only five of the 30 students have re-enrolled at the charter school, according to the school’s chief administrator, Misha Simmonds.

“We should not have disenrolled them,” Simmonds said Wednesday. “And that’s why we’re accepting them back.”

The purge adds to the recent controversy surrounding the 19-year-old charter school, which turned away dozens of high-school students on the first day of class for minor uniform infractions. Videos of the students hanging out in a nearby park after being blocked from school quickly went viral, prompting an online backlash and an apology from the school.

Last week, the Education Law Center filed a complaint with the state education department asking it to investigate the uniform crackdown, which it said led to “blatantly illegal exclusions of students from school.” It also asked the department to investigate Berry’s claim that the school disenrolled her son in retaliation for his speaking out about the uniform incident, not because of missing paperwork. (The school denies that claim.)

Marion P. Thomas, like all New Jersey charter schools, gets its funding from the districts where its students live. (Most of the school’s students live in Newark, but a small number live in surrounding districts such as East Orange and Irvington.) The districts, including Newark Public Schools, require charters to prove their students are district residents before they hand over the per-pupil allowance for charter students.

New enrollees at any Newark district or charter school must submit three residency documents — which can include copies of utility bills, bank statements, or a driver’s license — while current students must provide one each year showing their address hasn’t changed. The deadline is Sept. 28.

Marion P. Thomas began sending home letters in February reminding families of this requirement, according to Simmonds. In May, it hired extra workers to call families. The school originally set a June deadline to turn in the documents, but extended it to July.

In mid-July — two months before the district’s deadline — the school disenrolled any students who had not yet provided residency documents, Simmonds said, adding that the charter informed the district of its purge. (A district spokeswoman did not respond to a request to confirm that.)

Simmonds said families received letters notifying them that they would be removed from the rolls if they failed to verify their addresses by the deadline. But he was not sure whether they were notified again after they missed the deadline and before they were removed.

According to state regulations, districts must provide notice in writing to families if their child is deemed ineligible to attend school in that district because of where they live or because of missing paperwork. Families can appeal that decision, and students have a right to remain enrolled in their school during the appeals process. The district’s board of education must then hold a hearing before removing any student.

In New Jersey, the state education department is the sole authorizer responsible for overseeing charter schools. Michael Yaple, a department spokesman, said “it wouldn’t be appropriate” for him to comment on a specific school, but noted that “there is a process for un-enrolling students that is set forth in the state regulations.”

In recent years, Marion P. Thomas and other Newark charter schools have faced growing pressure to prove their students live in the city — and are thus entitled to Newark’s education dollars.

In 2016, Newark Public Schools conducted an enrollment audit of all the city’s district and charter schools. The goal, as former Superintendent Christopher Cerf wrote in a letter to families that year, was to “ensure that the funding designated for Newark’s public schools is serving Newark residents.”

All students, whether current or new, had to submit three proofs of address that year. Some 1,300 charter students who could not prove Newark residency were told to “find another district to fund their seat at the charter or register in their home district,” according to minutes from a Dec. 2016 school board meeting.

After the audit, the district had to pay for 1,295 fewer charter students than it had originally projected, according to the board minutes. Cerf later said the audit saved the district $2 million.

Since then, Newark Public Schools, like other districts, has required families to re-submit residency documents each year. Simmonds, of Marion P. Thomas, said the requirement leaves charter schools “in a pickle” if families fail to provide the paperwork.

“If districts don’t get that, they don’t pay,” he said. “Every charter has had experiences with districts that have not paid.”

Gabriella DiFilippo, chief operating officer of KIPP New Jersey, which operates eight Newark charter schools, agreed that it can be an “enormous amount of work” to ensure families submit residency documents. For instance, families who share apartments may not have utility bills registered in their names. (The state regulations include special provisions for homeless and immigrant students.)

For that reason, she added, the network goes out of its way to help families round up the necessary paperwork.

“We would never tell a student that they couldn’t come to our school because they didn’t get their residency verification in,” she said.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.