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.