Friday, February 15, 2013

The Paterson Collegiate Charter School Application, Ascend and Sabis, Part IV

This is the final post in a four part series about the Paterson Collegiate Charter School Application. In Part III we explored how lead founder Steven Wilson figured out how to exploit New Markets tax credits to build a charter empire.  Today we will look at the program Wilson is offering the people of Paterson, in exchange for the public funds he will receive.

Community and Parent Involvement

First, it is important to note that no one from the Paterson Public School district seems to be involved in this application in any way.  The "qualifying founder" on the application is Carol Burt-Miller. This is how she is described in the Phase One application:
...the proposed school will be co-founded with a stalwart community leader of the selected school district who is also a parent and teacher. Carol D. Burt-Miller, co-founder and lead teacher of Love KidsCare II, an accredited preschool center in Paterson, New Jersey, represents the interests of parents, teachers, and community members. 
Let's look at the parent part first. While the application says Burt-Miller resides in the Paterson School District, a quick google search revealed that she is a parent member of the Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology Board of Trustees. No where is this fact mentioned in the application, not even on her resume. You'd think this would be relevant information, so why are they hiding it? Last time I checked, charter schools are not a part of the district schools.  

So how about the teacher part? Burt-Miller is a pre-school teacher, she is NOT a teacher in the Paterson school district, or even in an elementary school.  

Well then she must at least fit the bill as a "stalwart community leader." But according to page 168 of the Phase Two application Burt-Miller is falling short on this too. 

And the following revelation can be found on page 20 of the Phase One application:
To inform stakeholders in the Paterson District about the proposed school, Hannah Njoku, Ascend Learning’s community organizing consultant, led a preliminary outreach effort to speak to parents and the community about the proposed charter school.
On July 9, 2012, Njoku spent a full day in the district visiting multiple day care centers (Friendship Corner Day Care, Boys and Girls Club, and Dorothy’s Little Tots), an after-school program center (Paterson Community Gymnasium), and a church (Saint Joseph Catholic Church). On July 12, 2012, Njoku spent another fully in the school district, visiting four more day care centers: the YMCA, El Mundo Del Nino, Passaic County Community College Child Care Center, and Saint Joseph’s Child Care.
Reaction to the proposed school ranged from indifferent to positive. (emphasis mine)

If Burt-Miller is such a "stalwart community leader" why has a paid "community organizing consultant" been brought into Paterson? And why has she not worked to create even a single community partnership?

No doubt, Burt-Miller is on the application in name only. A mere formality to get through the application process. A placeholder. My guess is she will have little to no affiliation with the charter once approved. This is Wilson's show, and his show alone.  No preschool teacher from Paterson is going to have ANY impact on his charter. 

The Ascend Teacher Corps

Not only has Wilson figured out how to finance his charters, he's also figured out what kinds of teachers and students will get him the results he needs to keep his operation afloat and expanding. Teachers hired at an Ascend charter are a very select bunch. Wilson is a real fan of the Teach for America model, but realizes that this limited talent pool is a possible stumbling block.
But the reach of the "no excuses" model will be sharply constrained by the limited availability of human capital on which it appears to rely. To bring the model to scale will require one or both of two measures: a dramatic expansion in the number of elite college graduates who teach (if only for a few years) in urban public schools, or the widespread deployment of educational systems that enable a more broadly available workforce to educate students to a high standard.
Both paths--expanding the pool of top-notch candidates and making the job of teaching more manageable--should be vigorously pursued. Legislative action should be taken to encourage highly educated students to go into teaching, especially in urban and rural schools. Certification requirements that mandate education school courses should be dropped and starting teacher pay increased.
So Wilson is crystal clear that he is looking to recruit a young, highly educated teacher corps. But you know what else he wants that seems a bit paradoxical? That his teachers don't think for themselves.  Here are the "Skill/Traits" Ascend is looking for in applicants for an immediately available teaching position.
- Be passionate about urban education and closing the achievement gap 
- Be committed to education standards, statewide testing, and accountability 
- Believe in a structured, predictable environment for children, and a No Excuses classroom 
- Be willing to be the authority in the classroom and to set the rules 
- Be prepared to invest in building relationships with students 
- Value being effective over being creative 
- Have a “can do” attitude and be a team player, relentless in the pursuit of the school’s academic objectives; be hard-working and willing to take feedback and engage in a process of self-improvement 
(emphasis mine)
One Ascend teacher didn't buy into the program and dared to think for herself. She wasn't afraid to speak out either, and told her story to Jim Horn at Schools Matter.
Little do parents know what goes in these corporate madrassa hellholes, and little did anyone else know until a former teacher stepped forward to call a spade a spade.  Her name is Emily Kennedy, and it wasn't until she read the "tremendously disturbing" book by Ascend's founder, Stephen Wilson, entitled "Learning on the Job: When Business Takes on Public Education," that her unsettled feeling about the goings-on at Brooklyn Ascend began to come into sharp focus.  In Emily's initial email to me, she said that "my experience at Brooklyn Ascend has been nothing less than depressing, demoralizing, and at times even shockingly upsetting."
Here's part of Emily's account.  You can read everything she had to say about her experiences at Brooklyn Ascend here and here. They're very eye opening.
Our students, whom we were required to refer to as "scholars," were required to remain silent and sit with their hands folded in front of them for virtually the entire day. There was close to zero peer interaction at any time, and we were not allowed to plan any hands-on or inquiry-based learning activities at all (activities that are meant to spur curiosity, for example, and foster critical thinking skills).  Beginning in December, we were required to teach only test-prep lessons - which were mostly scripted by supervisors, and mostly focused on tricks they could use to get "right answers," rather than developing genuine forms understanding - until the state test, which was in May.
The more kids Wilson gets to ace the test, the more charters he gets to open. It's just that simple. Getting low-income urban kids to produce high test scores is the golden ticket for the unlimited expansion of Wilson's chain of chartery goodness. 

But how do you get a school full of kids and parents that are OK with these kinds of constraints on a child's learning? Here's a clue - this is from the Phase Two application, page 15:
For any potential new families, the school director will hold a small-group orientation session to familiarize the parents with all aspects of the school culture of the school, from punctuality to daily homework assignments. After the presentation the school director will emphasize the parents' freedom of choice when choosing a school for one's child and suggest that they carefully consider the culture fit prior to making a final decision.
This is nothing more than a carefully worded description of how Ascend counsels students out before they even enroll. Wilson is truly a diabolic genius. He seems to have figured out a way to keep his attrition rates low by scaring off parents who know their kids will never be able to sit silently for hours a day with their hands clasped before them on their desk.

The tight grip Ascend has on it's teachers and students takes a toll.  According to the New York City Report Card, Brooklyn Ascend, where Emily taught, had a 45% teacher turnover rate in the 2010-2011 school year.  Looks like Emily wasn't the only young teacher that wasn't a big fan of Ascend's practices. 

And this high turnover rate is despite the relatively high starting salary for teachers at Ascend.  Wilson is willing to put up some serious bucks for those who are willing (able?) to tow the line for him, and not surprisingly, this includes merit pay. And Wilson's merit pay system seems to be based EXCLUSIVELY on test scores.
The starting salary for teachers is $54,600; for Intensives $50,000, and leadership team members $75,000-$100,000. The base annual increase is 3 percent for staff. Moreover, should the school's board elect to establish a bonus program for the school year (and allocate money for the purpose in the school's budget), high performing teachers would also receive financial bonuses. The amount of the bonus would be based on the teacher's weighted rankings on the annual performance evaluation. The potential bonus award for each teacher would also be a function of annual policy, but the founders would regard a sum less than $2,500 to be insufficient to serve as an effective incentive or appropriate reward. (emphasis mine)
If almost half of your teachers leave in any given year, there's little chance of having to pay out much in bonuses. And since most TFA like recruits don't make teaching a career, there won't be very many teachers getting too many of those 3% bumps, which will also help keep teacher costs relatively low despite the high starting salary.

And you know where else they save a ton of money? On the number of kids Ascend crams into each classroom. The New York City report card also reveals Ascend's relatively large class size of 27 "scholars" per class.  The Paterson application confirms that large classes are an integral part of the Ascend formula.
The plan assumes four classes of 28 students each beyond kindergarten. Based on the demonstrated efficacy of the Sabis instructional model and the No Excuses school culture, the founders believe that such relatively large classes will function well in the context of the school design.
Ascend signed a licensing agreement with Sabis in 2007, and the two companies seem to have very compatible ideas on most issues, including class size. Just how big are Sabis and Ascend willing to let class sizes get? Well, according to Wilson:
Ralph Bistany of SABIS doesn’t kowtow to the myth of small classes (now enshrined in some state statutes), even when it means losing a lucrative contract. And he rightly challenges the illusive but near universal expectation that a teacher, through the magic of “differentiated” or “individualized” instruction, can effectively teach a class— of whatever size— where students arrive with many and unknown gaps in precursor skills: “That is not teaching. That is a study hall.” When all the students have progressed through SABIS' explicit, cumulative curriculum, it doesn’t matter whether the class has 10 students or 50. "In fact, 50 is better," he adds pugnaciously. “We have worked with classes of 70 in countries where it is allowed, and it has worked like a charm.” (emphasis mine)
You ready for THAT New Jersey? If we'll allow it, they'll cram 70 kids into each and every classroom. Imagine how much more that will mean for their bottom line.

Real trouble with Sabis

Sabis has had trouble for years all over the country. There were clashes in the late 90's in Chicago, in Springfield in 2000, in 2002 in Cincinnati, and in Schenectady, NY in 2003 and Greensboro, NC in 2004.  Most recently in 2011 Sabis ran into REALLY big trouble in Atlanta at the Peachtree Hope Charter School (PHCS).  The list of complaints against Sabis is staggering.

Throughout June and July, in the process of exercising its oversight responsibility, the Board learned additional disturbing facts. Significantly, SABIS: 
A. failed to meet the targeted scores on the 2011 CRCT as promised to the State of Georgia; 
B. under-reported Title I students, resulting in a loss of federal funds in-excess of one million dollars; 
C. apparently hired a Director for the school who lacked a teaching certificate, and state certification to serve as a school principal;  
D. paid a Black teacher less than a less experienced white teacher; 
E. paid staff $552,000 less than DCSS salary scale for similar positions. 
F. failed to institute a student remediation program; 
G. failed to obtain competitive bids on procurements over $25,000; and 
H. paid out thousands of dollars in expenses without authorization of PHCS.
Ascend is only licensing Sabis's materials for their network of charters; Sabis will have no say in how the Paterson charter is run. But the fact that Ascend has chosen to license the educational system of a company that engages in such practices is quite alarming. 

And apparently Sabis's materials are not a part of the 9% Ascend management fee. Sabis will get it's own piece of the Paterson Collegiate Charter School pie. According to the Phase Two application budget, Sabis will rake in $150,000 in the first year of operation, and almost $400,000 by the fourth year. This line item includes the "Sabis licensing fee, specialized literacy assessments and other external instructional services" and seems to be yet another budget item that is not negotiable.

It must be worth the money though, afterall, look at the testimonials on Sabis's website!

Clearly Sabis is no stranger to the NJDOE either...

All that's left now is to sit back and wait for the approval

It seems to be a forgone conclusion that the Paterson Collegiate Academy Charter application will get the green light later today. Lead Founder and Ascend president Steven Wilson embodies everything the current New Jersey Department of Education is looking for in a charter school operator.  The NJDOE has given up on the idea of allowing educators to open charter schools, they are looking for entrepreneurs with successful business models, and Wilson fits the bill.

Before the charter has even been approved the NJDOE is considering giving Wilson a planning grant to bring Ascend to New Jersey. In the round he was eligible for, his grant application is the only one being considered to receive funds.  Wilson may brag that he doesn't rely on philanthropy, but looks like he's not above taking all the tax dollars he can get his hands on. 

The state has been running Paterson schools for 21 years, and while there are attempts to get out from under state control, it's doubtful the state will release it's grip anytime soon. And while the NJDOE is still in control of Paterson's schools, they're going to cram in as many charters and as much reformy nonsense like merit pay as quickly as they can.  

It's my hope that this four part analysis of the Paterson Collegiate Charter Application forces  the people of New Jersey to wake up. This is not an educational model I would want for my kids, is it one you would want for yours? 

If not, please help the people of Paterson stand up to the NJDOE. The NJDOE should not have the right to force charters like this onto unsuspecting communities. Charters like Ascend will never serve ALL kids. They will serve the kids that can get the results that Wilson needs to expand his charter empire. And the rest of the kids will be left with less resources in the traditional public schools, stuck in dilapidated buildings, while Ascend kids get brand new state of the art facilities in exchange for all the testing and test prep they can stomach.


  1. Brava - great series. Paterson is the next step in the Broad-funded plan to spread reformyness throughout the state. You are right, Darcie, it's time to wake up.

  2. The current projects regarding the success of the students and various economic factors used are proving it to be at some good distance level.