Saturday, December 14, 2013

Highland Park Senior Faces Controversy In His Schools And Community Head On

The below article is cross posted, with permission, from the Tumbler of Highland Park High School student Gabriel Trevor. I had the pleasure of presenting alongside Gabriel last weekend at an event sponsored by the Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War. 

Gabriel did a fantastic job at the event, despite his exhaustion -- he had just returned from Model UN where he was recognized with an "Outstanding Delegate" award and the Highland Park students as a whole were named the "Best Large Delegation." Not too shabby for a small high school with around 400 students.

Without further ado, here's Gabriel.



Part One can be read here
Despite vast community concern about recent Highland Park Board of Education policies under new Superintendent Timothy Capone, a small contingent of residents remains dedicated to discouraging our efforts to gather information and question the Board’s policies and decisions. Concerned citizens like myself have been called misguided, aggressive, and irrational. The Board has openly classified our concerns as “emotional,” despite specific policy, budgetary, and legal questions. We are asked “Why weren’t you at any Board meetings before November 4?” The loyalists overlook substantive concerns about Board of Education policy and activities.
The Board of Education and Mr. Capone have failed to explain the logic of the November 4 Reductions in Force as they relate to the purchase of textbooks and laptops. The audit presented at theDecember 9 Board of Education meeting did show that the district has significant financial challenges, but failed to explain the recent policy changes. Although these RIFs are just one of many issues, they were the catalyst for the current public scrutiny. It has been more than a month since the RIFs, and the public has not been shown the Board of Education’s line of reasoning.
If Mr. Capone is taking a “data-driven approach,” where is the data? If we did have a shortage of textbooks and technology, where is the evidence? Some parents may have complained about a shortage of textbooks, but is this a new problem? Was the BoE justified in RIFing nine people to purchase textbooks?
Beyond pictures of old computers in a hastily-made slideshow, where is the inventory list of relevant devices and books the BoE consulted before making these decisions? The public can appreciate that “hard decisions had to be made,” but Board members need to have rational reasoning behind these decisions. Education policy is important, and Reductions in Force are bound to be controversial. The Board needs to take great care and it has had at least three separate public forums to prove it took care.
The Board of Education is a publicly elected body which controls the vast majority of property tax revenue. Volunteer or not, neighbor or not, friend or not, members of the Board of Education have a duty to represent the views of those who elected them. The public’s concern is obvious. Hundreds of residents attended the special Board of Education meeting on November 18, and the regularly scheduled one on December 9. The vast majority of speakers at each meeting took a less-than-positive stance on the Board’s recent actions. At the December 9 meeting’s conclusion at nearly 1am, at least 25 residents remained (noted by Board member Adam Sherman as more than an average meeting), still demanding answers.
Despite the public outcry, the Board of Education has chosen to ignore the specific concerns of the public and move forward, hosting a“Strategic Planning Meeting” on November 25, in which attendees were broken into groups and told to write down their aspirations for the district in the coming years. These aspirations range from the installation of a swimming pool to the extension of the school day to 5pm. Every single aspiration was categorized and put into a PowerPoint presentation. The Board of Education attempted to show the entire 31 slide presentation at the December 9 meeting, but the public’s vocal discontent with the lengthy presentation caused it to be ended prematurely, and the meeting moved to the public comment portion.
While a representative form of government is not direct democracy, the Board should seriously take the community’s concerns into consideration if it cares about its own political survival. At the December 9 meeting, the Board explored forming a “Communications Task Force” to create dialogue between the Board, Administration, and the community. While there is a communications deficit in Highland Park, communications is far from the largest problem at hand.
Ignoring policy and communications issues, various legal and ethical concerns exist. Among the nine individuals RIFed on November 4 were Sarah Vacca and Keisha Ingram, who serve, respectively, as President and Vice President of the Highland Park Education Association, the local union of faculty and staff.
One of the statements made in the Board of Education’s November 22 FAQ is that the Literacy Coaches involved in the November 4 RIF were “not hired to work with students … the district did not eliminate reading specialists who work with children”. However, at the December 9 Board of Education meeting, Francesca Bardes, the Literacy Coach at Irving Primary School,  testified that, in fact, she had been working in class with at-risk students, beginning in September 2013, and that Mr. Capone had never met with her to discuss her position.
If the Board of Education is making such decisions on behalf of Mr. Capone, shouldn’t he understand what duties those positions RIFed involve on a day-to-day basis? Shouldn’t the Board of Education verify before releasing a public document that the statements made would not be refuted in a public meeting by the very employee to whom those statements refer?
Mr. Capone’s history as a principal in Delaware raises red flags. On January 24, 2011, he was hired by the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District Board of Education as the Principal of Howard High School of Technology, a vocational-technical high school in Wilmington, Delaware. According toFebruary 28 minutes, he started at Howard High School between January 24 and February 28. April 26, 2011 minutes show that Mr. Capone had taken a leave of absence from March 28 to April 5. None of this is particularly interesting.
Then, something unusual happens. On December 21, 2011, the New Castle County Vocational-Technical School District Board of Education held a special meeting at 3:30 pm on a Friday. Yes, 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. At this meeting, the Board voted - unanimously after 50 minutes of closed discussion - to not renew the contract of Mr. Capone, meaning his employment with the district would end on June 20, 2012.  For a Board of Education to hold a meeting at this time is highly unusual.
Assume he had been scheduled to only serve one year as Principal, why was a meeting held in the middle of the school year, right before Winter Break, to terminate his contract? Why, following the termination proceedings, according to February 27, 2012 minutes,was Mr. Capone transferred from his position as Principal of Howard High School to Principal of Marshallton Education Center, an adult high school within the New Castle Vo-Tech District? August 27, 2012 minutes show Mr. Capone resigned from the district - as a Social Studies Instructor.
Mr. Capone’s resume, obtained through an Open Public Records Act request, indicates that he listed his position in the New Castle School District as simply “Turnaround Principal/Principal on Special Assignment” at Howard High School of Technology, and never listed any of his moves out of the building and within the New Castle Vo-Tech District. These discrepancies could indicate Mr. Capone misrepresented himself on his resume.
At the December 9 Board of Education meeting, Trenton Education Association President Naomi Johnson-Lafleur testified that Mr. Capone, in his position from 2012 to 2013 as Executive Director of a New Jersey Department of Education Regional Achievement Center, refused to cooperate with union leaders or allow his employees to work with them. It is important to note that at the April 22, 2013 Trenton Board of Education meeting, Ms. Johnson-Lafleur had similar concerns, stating “Someone forgot to tell Tim Capone what collaboration means because, of the other six RACs, there has been collaboration with unions. Tim Capone has refused to meet with the associations within his area.”
Given his non cooperative attitude as a Regional Achievement Center Executive Director in Trenton, and his bumpy ride in Delaware, the public must ask the Board of Education: “In hiring a new superintendent, did you take every precaution in ensuring you had found the best candidate for the job? Did you clarify his stated employment history by reviewing Board minutes from the district he worked in? Did you contact school administrators, Board of Education members, and union leaders at the districts he worked in and with? If you were aware of these issues, did they concern you?”
I want to be able to believe in my borough’s schools. I want to believe in the Board of Education and my local government. But at this point, I cannot. Too many issues with how the district functions have become uncovered. The Board allowed these issues to develop. Now that they are being questioned by the public about these issues, they are trying to make the conversation about poor communication and not the substantive issues they were elected to discuss.
If you’re interested in more information, check out The Highland Fling, a student-run newspaper based out of Highland Park High School. They have a great roundup of recent Board of Education activity with informational links and articles.

When Broad Comes To Town: Taking A Sledgehammer To Crack A Nut

Below is a guest blog from a concerned local teacher, submitted via private message to my Mother Crusader Facebook page. The author revealed his/her identity to me, but requested anonymity, which I have chosen to respect. 

Understandably, emotions are high here in town on both sides of this issue. My hope is that this distanced, dispassionate analysis of the current state of affairs in Highland Park, and how they relate to the national corporate reform movement, will help to inform everyone in the Highland Park community.

To Members of the Highland Park Community-

Good evening. I am a teacher in a nearby school district and a longtime resident of Middlesex County. Upon learning of the happenings in Highland Park schools, I have been monitoring the situation from a distance. I write to inform you regarding troubling recent trends in public education since so many of you have engaged in the work of determining the future of your school district.

In recent years, there has been a heightened public discussion as to how best to prepare our youth for the twenty-first century. Much of this discussion is necessary, as our world is changing. However, the predominant meme has been that our public schools are failing to adequately prepare students for this world. Attacks upon public education and the work done by education professionals are frequent and commonplace by politicians and the media. Granted, it’s a sexy soundbite and fear sells. But saying that our public schools are the primary problem oversimplifies the issue and redirects much of the blame from larger problems in American society that schools alone cannot solve.

Much of the attack upon public schools is based upon the United States’s ranking on international tests given by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). On the most recent test, administered last year, the United States ranking was 26th in Math, 21st in Sciences, and 17th in Reading among the thirty-four OECD countries that participated. Obviously, this sounds bad. However, much of this poor performance can be attributed to the fact that the United States has a far larger percentage (20%) of students who come from impoverished backgrounds than the other OECD countries. An extensive report from the Economic Policy Institute extensively examines how the United States’ rankings would be much more favorable if poverty was factored into the 2010 results. For a shorter summary, the National Association of Secondary School Principals compared how United States students from various socioeconomic groups performed against nations based upon poverty rate and the findings display a strikingly different picture of how our schools compare to the rest of the world.

So when articles like this and this come out to argue that we’re doing something fundamentally wrong with our public schools without mentioning the poverty effect, it means the writer hasn’t asked or looked into the fundamental question “Why are our students performing the way that they are?”

I bring this up not to downplay the need to improve our schools - there’s always room to examine and find ways to further the interests of our youth. Yes, the performance of students in many impoverished areas of our country is seriously troubling, but the result is somewhat predictable when so many students in those schools come from a background that makes attaining school success more challenging than it is for most.

Rather, I bring this up to show that the “crisis in public education” is a largely concocted meme that “corporate education reformers” are pushing and from which they have the capacity to profit.

The “corporate education reform” movement is not new. Over the past fifteen years, billionaire philanthropists have been pushing an education reform agenda for our public schools. The predominant sponsors are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Eli & Edith Broad Foundation. An article from Dissent Magazine is available for you to read here, and a number of books noted in its resources and a quick Google search on “corporate education reform” can support many of the ideas in the article.

However, I’m going to specifically focus on the Broad Foundation’s impact in shaping the public education reform movement over the last decade or so. A bit about Eli Broad - he's a billionaire philanthropist who is a major supporter of corporate reform of schools. One of his basic beliefs is that reform is best achieved through “disruption” and the shaking up of institutions in order to transform them; he wrote a bestseller on this principle. About fifteen years ago, Broad created a training academy for prospective superintendents to train them to be "disruptive forces" in their districts. Though one would think that districts would shy from hiring a "disruptive" superintendent, look at the Board of Governors of the Broad Foundation for Education Furthermore, Arne Duncan was on the Board prior to his selection as Secretary of Education. Then look at the Alumni page and scroll through some of their dossiers. How did so many of these individuals find their way into such positions of power? Influence. Eli Broad and others aligned with the corporate reform movement have sway with politicians and ensure that many graduates of the program get nice landing spots. In time, these individuals train others in their ways and the movement spreads.

Look at some of the school leadership tenures of Broad Academy - an accounting is done by Diane Ravitch here. Other prominent school reformers like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein have had likewise tumultuous tenures. An advocacy group called Parents Across America provides some background on Broad-style reforms.

Up until now, the corporate education reform movement has focused upon large cities. One of the primary efforts of the movement has been to close underperforming schools and/or replace them with charter schools, many of which are for-profit. Given your town’s recent history, I don’t need to educate you on charter schools. However, I will point to a 2009 study by Stanford University that shows that 17 percent of charter students score better than, approximately half score comparable to, and 37 percent score worse than their academic peers in traditional public schools.

A further effort by the leaders of corporate school reform is the expansion of standardized testing and the implementation of scripted, internet-based, or other instructional programs that claim that they will enhance student scores.

These efforts highlight opportunities for private business to vastly expand money-making enterprises in public education. An article from Salon furthers the point.

A fear of mine is that as private business expands into our public schools under the auspice of the corporate reform movement, positions of school leadership can become a pathway to personal enrichment. Look at Washington and the revolving door of legislators, their staffs, lobbying agencies, and corporate positions. Once individuals quit their positions in public service, they often immediately move into lucrative positions with companies whose financial interests they advanced. Do we have the ability to safeguard against school decision makers profiting or going to work for a company that benefitted from choices made? And given the high turnover ratio and short tenures of superintendents and other school leaders, how do we ensure that they are acting in the best interest in the long-term health of the school district over advancing their own career interests?

Furthermore, wouldn’t reformers who are placed in positions of power benefit by casting their schools as failing or struggling upon their arrival so that they can claim responsibility for any improvements? In such a position, it might be advisable to hire a data analyst to ensure that the reformer was able to prove his or her effectiveness as a school leader. It also incentivizes cheating to ensure results.

Here in New Jersey note that Christopher Cerf, a Broad Academy of Superintendents graduate, was named to the Commissioner of Education post by Governor Christie. Cerf is undoubtedly someone that is very tied in to the corporate school reform movement, both philosophically and financially.

As part of New Jersey’s No Child Left Behind waiver, Mr. Cerf implemented seven regional achievement centers (RACs) to boost performance in schools designated as “Priority” or “Focus”. The State didn't have the money to fund them, so the Broad Foundation agreed to pay for the initiative. As such, it would hardly be surprising that those who would be appointed to positions of authority in the RACs would be individuals who would subscribe to Cerf’s ideas about school reform in action. Somehow, Mr. Capone was hired as an Executive Director of one of these RACs following his controversial stint in Delaware. And now he’s in charge of your school district.

I do not know Commissioner Cerf. I do not know Eli Broad. I do not know Bill Gates or the Walton Family. Nor do I know Mr. Capone or the extent of his relationship with corporate school reformers beyond Mr. Cerf, though I’d be interested to know. Their beliefs about the need for widespread school reform may be well-intentioned. However, I do question the possibilities of profiteering resulting from the introduction of the corporate reform movement here in our local schools.

I likewise question their methods. I’ve already put forth my perspective that America’s schools (and those of New Jersey, as one of the strongest education states) are not in a full-blown crisis. Our schools can always improve. But advocating disruption and a wide overhaul of the way in which we deliver education to the masses of our youth could be like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Corporate school reformers’ results have been mixed, at best, but a trend of hostile labor relations and community outrage have been frequent in places where they’ve served.

But what matters most in this discussion: the students. Who knows what will result if “disruption” becomes a common approach in running our schools? If curricula are constantly changed and educational programs are adopted and quickly dropped in favor of new ones, how do we as educators know what’s actually working and what’s not? How do communities and educators ensure that things that work are left in place when a disruptor wants to institute fundamental change to justify his or her hire?

I’ve had the privilege of working as an educator for the past ten years - public service matters to me. But I’m not alone in that. I’ve found that the vast, vast majority of teachers are individuals who are constantly focused upon trying to refine their individual and collective practices in order to benefit their students. Teachers are reformers. When a child is in front of us who doesn’t understand what we’re teaching, we adapt. It’s what we do. When a school initiative isn’t working, we attempt to communicate and work with our administrators to find fixes or adopt something new. We do this not for us - we do it because it’s right for the kids.

Yes, this is but one side of the story. I’m sure there are those who can put forth a full critique and counter-argument. I only wish to inform you of information I have found in my research so that you can make decisions going forward with a full understanding of the larger forces that may be a part of what’s going on within your school community.

I end this by saying Highland Park schools are not failing. Is there room for improvement? Of course, there always is. But beware of sledgehammers.

Best of luck.

-A Friend

P.S. Good resources to keep an eye on NJ public schools and the corporate reform agenda are Bruce Baker’s blog, Diane Ravitch’s blog, and NJ’s EdLawCenter.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

SSSHHHHH! Statewide Charter Applies For Expansion, Doesn't Tell 20 Districts It Serves...

On October 5th, 2013 the Hatikvah International Academy Charter School submitted an expansion request to the New Jersey Department of Education. You can read or download the application here.

The expansion would allow Hatikvah to add a middle school (grades 6-8) and also add an additional class of 25 students per grade. (an increase from 50-75 students in each grade) This would mean that in the next five years Hatikvah will more than double in size.

And that would not be the end of their expansion either. This expansion request only fills seats in grades K-5 with 75 students by the year 2018-2019.

This certainly implies that when their charter is up for renewal in the 2018-19 school year there will be another expansion request. My guess is the next logical step would be to request to add a high school. At 75 students per grade in grades K-12 Hatikvah could ultimately serve 975 students.

One point of confusion is that Hatikvah claims, both on their website and in their expansion request, that they are already approved to serve K-8.  This is from the website:
In 2013-2014, Hatikvah serves students in grades kindergarten (full day) through fifth, growing to kindergarten through eighth grade in 2016-2017.
Except this is not true. Amy Ruck, the Director of the Office of Charter Schools, was asked directly if Hatikvah is currently approved as a K-5 school or a K-8 school. The answer?

 Yeah, they're only approved K-5.

So how is Hatikvah getting away with false claims that they already have approval from the state to serve kids in grades 6-8?? The approval to expand can only come from the Commissioner of Education, and thus far he has not granted that approval. 

And here is the other really interesting thing; East Brunswick is the only district Hatikvah is approved to serve. But I filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to find out how many districts Hatikvah currently serves. 

What did I find out? 

That Hatikvah has enrolled students from 20 other districts in 6 counties. 

Source: NJDOE 
FY 2013-14 State Charter School Aid Based on 10/15/2013 Enrollment Count

This clearly demonstrates that while Hatikvah is only approved to pull students from East Brunswick, in the four years since their approval they have morphed into a statewide charter school. Only 57% of their students come from East Brunswick, the only district they are approved to serve.

And that's not all. I also used OPRA to get access to Hativah's waiting list. Even I was shocked to learn that students from 39 different districts, as far north as Teaneck and as far south as Toms River, have applied to attend Hatikvah.

More than 70% of the students on Hatikvah's waiting list are from districts other than East Brunswick.

In my opinion, it is then a very valid question to ask WHY Hatikvah should be allowed to expand either their class size or the grades they serve. There is clearly insufficient interest in East Brunswick to fill the seats for which they are currently approved. 

In fact, even though Hatikvah is drawing students from 21 districts in 6 counties, and 39 districts are represented on their waiting list, the charter is STILL under enrolled. Their charter allows for 273 students in the 2013-2014 school year, yet they have only 263 students enrolled.

The most shocking part is that even though 43% of Hatikvah's current students and over 70% on their waiting list are coming from districts other than East Brunswick, under New Jersey's charter school law only East Brunswick was notified of Hatikvah's expansion request, and only East Brunswick is given an opportunity to submit a response to the NJDOE regarding the expansion. 

Not one of the other 20 affected districts or 18 waiting list districts was notified of Hatikvah's plans to expand. They were not notified directly by Hatikvah or by the State. How can a charter expansion, which will potentially impact the budgets of 39 districts, only be required to notify one?

If you or someone you know live in one of the 21 affected districts or 18 waiting list districts, now is the time to SPEAK UP!

Concerned citizens have only a little more than two months to make their voices heard as Commissioner Cerf will make a decision on Hatikvah's expansion request on February 28, 2014. If you are in one of the affected districts, let your friends and neighbors know and also reach out to your board of education and legislators. Tell them how much your district is losing, and let them know that this amount could double over the next five years if Hatikvah is allowed to expand

Here is a table of the current districts and their payments to Hatikvah for the 2013-2014 school year.

Source: NJDOE
FY 2013-14 State Charter School Aid Based on 10/15/2013 Enrollment Count

If you are opposed to the expansion you can also take action right now by signing this petition, which lets Commissioner Cerf and your legislators know that you want Hatikvah's request to be denied. 

Between now and the February 28th decision day I plan to blog about various issues regarding Hatikvah. I expect the conversation will get lively at times and I invite those that disagree with me to comment as well as those who agree with me. I just ask the dialogue remain respectful and on topic.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

FIX IT! Because This IS NOT How We Do Things In Highland Park. Here, We RESIST!

I've honestly never seen anything like what happened last night in my home town of Highland Park, New Jersey.

Scores of Highland Park residents and union supporters came out Monday night to the auditorium at Bartle Elementary to protest layoffs of nine staff members at Highland Park's schools, including two top union officials. 
The school board and administration were literally surrounded by critics: So many people showed up that they had to take out a partition in the wall, doubling the size of the room and letting the overflow crowd tickle into the nosebleeds. (emphasis mine)
Yup, that's right. The Board, at the recommendation of our brand new Superintendent, approved a Reduction in Force (RIF) of nine district employees on November 4th, 2013. The RIF included the President and Vice-President of the Highland Park Education Association, and came after contract negotiations reached an impasse.  (Note: A tenth employee was RIFed on October 7th, 2013 but this position is often not added to the nine RIFed on 11/4)

I didn't get an exact count, but I'd estimate somewhere between 30-40 people came to the microphone to express their concern with the current direction of our district.
And after some brief introductory remarks, including a slideshow presentation defending the layoffs, board members and school administration mostly sat expressionless as speaker after speaker alleged that the move was tantamount to union-busting and that the superintendent has hired too many top administrators at the expense of front-line workers.
Almost everyone that spoke, save one lone voice of support for the Superintendent and the Board, expressed concern on a myriad of topics. The RIF was not the only issue. The creation of two new six figure Central Office positions, including a second Assistant Superintendent and a "Data Analyst," was a hot button topic. 
"We now have almost as many superintendents as we do schools, and a data analyst to tell them how great of a job they're doing," said Samuel Shiffman, a teacher in South River whose three children attend Highland Park schools.

Superintendent Capone's qualifications for his current position were questioned throughout the evening.  Many wondered aloud if his lack of previous Central Office experience caused him to make hasty decisions in the first 50 days of his tenure that a more seasoned professional might have thought through more carefully. There were pointed comments made directly to Capone, some questioning if he is the right fit for a progressive district like Highland Park where there is deep support for our teachers and their union.

And then there was this.
Much of the dissatisfaction in the crowd surrounded Capone, who was hired in August (one speaker exuberantly called for Capone's resignation, pumping her fists to the raucous applause of the crowd).
The only chant of the evening emerged spontaneously from a direct plea to the Board to fix what they had done.

A single boisterous audience member cried out, "FIX IT!" And then another, and then another, until the entire audience began chanting and rhythmically clapping in unison. It was remarkably powerful and sent a clear message of defiance to the Board and their choice of Superintendent.

Capone was hired fresh out of one of the NJDOE's Broad funded Regional Achievement Centers.

This brief bio reveals that prior to being the Executive Director of the Region 4 RAC he was a "turnaround" principal at a Race to the Top school in Delaware. 

Capone's history was deeply concerning to me as someone who has been immersed in the state and national debate over education reform and policy for more than two years. When Capone was hired I tried to keep an open mind, but I was nervous. 

And now my community is nervous too. 

So last night I felt obligated to stand up and try to make some kind of sense out of what's happening in our tiny town by putting recent events in Highland Park into the national context . 

This is the speech I delivered at last night's meeting.

There is a simple explanation for why we are all here tonight. Highland Park is a town that prides itself on being progressive, on being inclusive, but most of all on being just and fair.

Highland Park is not a town filled with people just looking to take care of their own.  We take care of each other. When a member of our Highland Park community is in trouble, we rally together.

In just the last two years this town has tackled immigration issues, multiple development issues, and yes, even charter school issues.  We haven’t always agreed or been on the same side of these issues, and often partners in one cause are on opposite sides of another.

But all of these issues have been dealt with honesty, integrity and open discourse.

And this is why the current situation isn’t sitting well with so many people.

Where was the open discourse?  Why wasn’t the community notified there was a budget issue? Why weren’t we asked for our input? What other options did the board consider, if any, other than the now infamous Reduction in Force that cost 10 employees their jobs, including the President and Vice-President of the union, in the midst of stalled contract negotiations?

We simply don’t know, because the public was not given a seat at the table. The public was not informed when problems were first identified, the public was not informed when options were weighed, and the public was not informed when decisions were made.

This is simply not how we do things in Highland Park.

I want to talk for just one minute about how a look at national education policy may help put our current dilemma into perspective.

The current narrative of what has been dubbed the “corporate education reform movement” is that public education is failing; therefore drastic steps must be taken to disrupt the “status quo.”

We’re told data-driven instruction will improve outcomes for all children, and put them on the path to college and career.

The corporate education reform movement is bi-partisan. President Obama’s Race to the Top has replaced President Bush’s failed No Child Left Behind. NCLB succeeded only in labeling nearly three-quarters of the nation’s schools as failures, and RttT has turned education funding into a competition where the strong get rewarded and the weak are starved of funds. 
We live in a bizarre world where Governor Christie and President Obama advocate many of the same education policies. Perhaps the most destructive is the evaluation and ranking of teachers and schools according to faulty standardized testing data. Even if you don’t pay attention to education policy, as parents it is impossible for us to ignore the effect the current emphasis on standardized tests has had on our children.

Don’t be fooled - these tests are not for the betterment of our children. An over reliance on standardized testing and test prep sucks the joy out of school for our students, and the accountability measures attached to them are the stake in the heart of our teachers and schools.

The bi-partisan corporate education reform movement massages data derived from our children’s tests to create their narrative of public school failure.

Recently you may have heard rumors that our district is suddenly considered a “low performing” district. 

Don’t believe it.

We know our schools. We know our children’s teachers.  Most importantly, we know our children.

Could things be better?  ALWAYS!

But is there something so broken in our district that we need to resort to destabilizing mid-year mass layoffs that reek of union busting? Is there something so broken that this Board could not have presented the situation to the public BEFORE voting on matters drastic enough to grab the attention of the news media?

I highly doubt it.   

We all must remember -- parents, teachers, students, residents and Board members alike; public education is NOT in crisis. Highland Park schools are NOT low performing, and they certainly are not failing.

We have a strong, diverse district with students, parents and teachers who CARE.

We care about learning, and we care about each other.

Again, simply stated, this is NOT how we do things in Highland Park.

Last night Highland Park did me proud. The eloquence, intelligence and passion in my town is humbling. One of the last speakers of the evening made perhaps the most salient point. 

He urged the board to resist

To resist the state and their policies that hurt our district. I think Highland Park proved last night, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we are up to that challenge.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Diane Ravitch Is Public (Charter) Enemy Number One; or How Public Money Just Keeps On Feeding Private Greed

I literally laughed out loud when I read the woefully misguided attempted take-down of Diane Ravitch in yesterday's Trenton Times.

It was written by charter founder/leader Debbie Pontoriero.  I first came across Pontoriero when I helped the good people of Florence Township successfully defeat the expansion of the Riverbank Charter School of Excellence. Riverbank had taken root in Florence before the backlash against boutique suburban charters became vogue. 

Pontoriero, who identified herself as Riverbank's School Business Adminstrator (SBA), presented the expansion of Riverbank Charter School of Excellence to the press as a done deal.
Debbie Pontoriero, Riverbank’s business administrator, said the school’s founders are confident that the department will renew the charter and approve the proposed expansion given the school’s high performance record on standardized tests as well as other evaluations.
My, she's awfully cocky, isn't she? What Potoriero didn't factor in was that engaged parents in Florence Township were not about to lose more programs and services for their students to support the expansion of a charter that segregates and divides their community.

She also didn't bet on Florence's State Senator, Diane Allen (who just happens to sit on the Senate Education Committee) sending a letter to Education Commissioner Chris Cerf stating that Riverbank's expansion was not in the best interest of the entire community.

And she sure didn't bet on Cerf owning up to the fact that in a small town like Florence, a charter is likely not needed and can be a real burden. These are Cerf's own words when he testified before the Senate Education Committee after Senator Allen questioned him about the role of charters in a district like Florence.
The first thing I look for is whether the proposed charter would meet an unmet need.  You can define an unmet need in lots of different ways.  You can say we don't have a school that focuses on the Italian Renaissance so I'm going to build a charter that focuses on the Italian Renaissance.  I'm being overly facetious, but for me unmet need means that there are children who are being underserved in terms of their basic educational rights. Right? So, if there is, and by the way you can find this in large communities and small communities, but if there are children that, I am much more sympathetic to a charter application if there are kids that are not being educated, and the charter applicant makes a credible case that it has a solution that will fill that need. 
I also look at the economic impact on a district and one of the, um, I'm hardly an economist, but I can tell you that the smaller the district's budget is, the greater the impact a charter school has and that's because certain costs are fixed, and certain costs are variable. You have to have a Superintendent's salary whether you have one school or 50 schools and therefore when you have a charter school in a smaller community it has a larger impact. (emphasis mine)
Faced with pressure from the community, no support from their legislators, and the not so encouraging comments from the Commissioner, Riverbank withdrew their expansion request, and alas, Riverbanks' burgeoning excellence was stopped in its tracks. 

But let's get back to Pontoriero's guest opinion column. Here's the meat of it.
Ms. Ravitch erroneously criticized charter schools for using public funding that could have been used for public schools. Charter schools are public schools, and most charter schools in New Jersey are educating students for less than 90 percent of the per-pupil allocation. 
She stated that charter schools do not accept children with disabilities or who speak English as a second language in order to ensure better test results. The fact is that charter schools are open to all students on a space-available basis with preference given only to children who reside in the district where the charter school is located. According to law, charter schools cannot discriminate in its admission policies or practices —- the same as public schools.
Every single one of Pontoriero's talking points is unmitigated claptrap.  

Most charters are getting less than 90% per pupil? Show me that data, and show me that charters are educating the same population of students and actually deserve equal funding.

Charter schools are open to all students? Then, Ms. Pontoriero, how do you explain the fact that Riverbank charter has NO Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, and significantly less special needs and low income students than the local elementary school?

And whatever you do, don't miss this nugget.
Perhaps Ms. Ravitch should rouse the traditional public schools that are in danger to reach out to their local charter schools to learn what best practices they are implementing to achieve academic success.
I sure hope Ravitch can "rouse the traditional public schools" to start excluding those pesky kids with "needs" so they can start implementing those charter "best practices" tout suite! 

Pontoriero also cited CREDO's New Jersey charter school study as proof positive that charters in New Jersey are outperforming traditional public schools. I can't imagine how many times I will have to refute the recitation of the CREDO study as "proof" of anything, but here it goes...

Read Bruce Baker here and Julia Sass-Rubin here on the shortcomings of the study, and read me here for everything you need to know about CREDO's serious credibility problem. CREDO's Louisiana study has also been discredited by a blogger who previously worked inside the Louisiana DOE and actually handed the data over to CREDO for the study.

The CREDO study was bogus.  Plain and simple.

But why would Pontoriero go out of her way to write and publish a weakly argued opinion column about Ravitch, one of the most renowned education historians of our time, right on the heels of  her New York Times best selling book?

Because the charter movement has allowed Pontoriero to cash in on the poorly regulated "public" schools we call charters. That makes Ravitch public (charter) enemy number one to the likes of Pontoriero.

Allow me to explain. Note that in the byline Pontoriero identifies herself as "founder and head of school of the Pace Charter School of Hamilton."  Pace? I thought she was the SBA at Riverbank!

Yeah, well, she's pulling down salaries at both.


Yup, she's pulling down $156,750 working at TWO different NJ charter schools, and these were her salaries in 2011. Who knows what's she's making now.

The only Annual Report I can find for Pace is from 2009 (nice accountability NJDOE!) and at
that time Pontoriero was also listed as their SBA. I can not find a current reference for an SBA on the Pace website. Is it possible that she controls the finances for both charters?

Pace was founded by Pontoriero and approved by the NJDOE in 1999. Riverbank was founded in 2008 by Beth Kelley, then a teacher at Pace Charter School of Hamilton. Riverbank is little more than a satellite campus of Pace, and it appears that Pontoriero may control the finances at both charters.

Just for the heck of it, let's see how Pace's demographics compare to a local Hamilton Elementary School.

Yeah, that's what I thought.

But the truly shocking part isn't the story of yet another charter leader skimming kids and raking in mad cash. This is from Pontoriero's LinkedIn account:

Can you imagine what she rakes in as the ED of the "largest Abbott Preschool Provider in Mercer County" ON TOP of the $156,750 she makes on charters??

To make matters worse, it appears that Deborah is not the only Pontoriero cashing in on the Abbott Preschools. The director of the main office is a Patricia Pontoriero and Oh. My. God. read this from a 2006 Bergen Record report called "How Public Money Fed Private Greed."
Over and over, auditors found inflated rents -- some had doubled, tripled, even quadrupled in a single year. The owners of Little Tots in Asbury Park took home an extra $136,500 by nearly doubling the rent, auditors said. They never told the state they were both landlord and tenant. 
Rental costs at Little Kids College in Trenton shot up 31 percent. Owner Deborah Pontoriero told auditors that her landlord -- who was also her father -- had refinanced his mortgage and passed the costs on to the Abbott program. (emphasis mine)
Little Kid's College and PACE share an address at 528 South Olden Ave. 

While Chris Cerf is investigating the finances of private special needs schools that service public education students, may I suggest he add an investigation of Pontoriero's charter/Abbott empire to his to-do list?

Maybe it's all above board, but it sure looks fishy, and she sure it defensive.

So why did Pontoriero take it upon herself to write such a weak, poorly argued criticism of Ravitch's appearance in Princeton last week? Because if Ravitch keeps pointing to the "private greed" behind charters, folks like Pontoriero will keep being exposed.

Sources (completely stolen from Bruce Baker!)