Charter School, Struggling, Hired Leaders' Kin

Photo by: Marc Fader
Darren, a student whose mother says he left Equality Charter School after required special education services were not provided to him. The school says it provides all mandated help.

After a tough first year, the Equality Charter School brought on two new deans—who happened to be the life partners of two of the school's administrators. The move raised questions. It also got results.

By: Helen Zelon

On a recent October morning, as students moved between classrooms at the Equality Charter School, teachers and school leaders took up their regular hallway posts to wrangle the flow of adolescent traffic. One boy, Kintchen, was without his school uniform, prompting a gentle scold from the principal, JoAnn Myers. But speaking with a visitor, Kintchen took the long view. "Last year, a lot of kids got in trouble. This year, there's more rules," he said. "We know what to do so we don't get in trouble."

When the Equality Charter School, on the third floor of PS 160 in Co-Op City, the Bronx, opened its doors to sixth and seventh graders last year, with 141 rambunctious middle schoolers and a corps of 10 teachers and staff, it joined the growing universe of charter schools that comprise the broadest school reform movement in American history.

But at its location along the Hutchinson River Parkway, Equality's experience hasn’t much resembled the theoretical debate among reform advocates, teachers unions, parents, and policymakers over the pros and cons of charters.

Instead, it's been about how to create from scratch a disciplined environment, how to provide team-teaching while firing instructors who didn't perform to standards and how to offer legally mandated services to special needs kids.

To these un-pretty problems, there were inelegant solutions, like the decision to hire as deans the husband of one co-founder and the fiancé of another—an awkward, if perfectly legal, arrangement.

In politicians' speeches and much-hyped movies, charter schools can sometimes seem like a panacea. For the students and staff at Equality, their charter school has been a day-to-day reality of challenges and responses.

Change as a constant

In their charter application to the city and the state, the school's co-founders Myers (who serves as principal), Margaret Hoey and Caitlin Franco cited long expertise as educators, data-managers and disciplinarians in institutions, schools and other settings that serve troubled youth.

Equality Charter's first year was marked by near-constant change in staffing patterns and enrollment: Co-founder Hoey left midyear to spearhead efforts to establish yet another New York City charter school, the Swedish-styled Kunskapsskolan school, which aims to open in 2011. Board members and two board chairmen were replaced, numerous teachers were fired and replaced or invited not to return, and nearly two dozen students left the school, many well before the end of the school year, according to Myers.

The year was also marked, parents and students say, by student rough-housing that often got out of control. On the Department of Education Learning Environment Survey conducted during the school's first year, parents, teachers and nearly all of the school's students identified safety as a real concern. Half of the teachers and a third of parents expressed fears about bullying, safety and school discipline. Bullying and threats were an issue for 84 percent of students, who also reported that teachers yell at students (81 percent) and that student get into physical fights (93 percent).

"There is no doubt in my mind that these things happened," current board chair Ehri Mathurin tells City Limits. "I'm surprised that there weren't more upsetting stories." But Mathurin credits Myers and her staff with rising to the challenge of establishing a new school. "It's incredible to come in and ground a group of sixth and seventh graders," he says. "I'm pretty sure those unfortunate things [also] happen in traditional public schools."

(They also happen at other charter schools. All three Equality co-founders worked previously at the Opportunity Charter School, a school established to serve both mainstream students and students with special academic and emotional needs. Opportunity was censured in May 2010 by the Department of Investigation for aggressive disciplinary practices that "could be considered condoned assaults and abuse of schoolchildren." But none of the Equality co-founders were linked to those questionable practices.)

Challenges in the classroom

In addition to discipline difficulties, there were academic problems. A collaborative teaching model was supposed to be in place last year, when the school opened.

"We didn't have CTT [collaborative team teaching] last year," Myers says. "We started with the plan to do one CTT class, but we ended up making some switches," as when school leaders elected to fire a sixth grade math teacher last fall and the special-ed co-teacher was pulled out of sixth grade science to cover math.

Equality's charter application describes the school's commitment to working with all students, including those with special education needs. Local Community Education Council official Monica Major says the school's commitment to special education helped it overcome initial misgivings in the community. "We said, this organization will give special-education students the chance to go to a charter school," she says. "And at the time, they claimed they had extensive experience with special education."

But reconciling reality with high expectations proved a challenge. "By the time they got there, it was just one thing after another," Major says. "We had so many high hopes. The most disappointing was the special education piece—that's the overall concern. They'd promise us one thing, we'd sign papers and close the door—then, nothing would come of it. The disappointment set in."

Some parents of students with special needs say the school did not deliver mandated services to their children. (DOE statistics show that charters citywide generally enroll fewer special-education students than traditional public schools, a gap the state's new charter law aims to address.)

One parent, Lori Gill, enrolled her two sons at Equality Charter school in August 2009, after the lottery was drawn and the school’s wait list was created; the boys got priority because one son had special needs.

But both boys moved to a traditional public school this year, Gill says, largely because her son Darren received many fewer services than the school first promised and that he was legally mandated to receive.

"My son was supposed to have occupational therapy, speech, counseling, and resource room. And he was also supposed to have a paraprofessional with him, because he's an epileptic, with ADHD and anxiety disorder. He's always had a para with him, for safety and for academics. That was on his [individualized education plan] as well."

Gill says that Darren did receive speech therapy, but none of the other services. She took her concerns to school leaders and to special education advocates; there was a meeting to review her son's situation in November 2009, which District 11 superintendent Elizabeth White attended, among many others. But Gill says her son was so ground down by his experience that she chose to move him to another school.

Principal Myers strongly differs with these complaints, saying "I can tell you with confidence that our kids received all of their mandated services."

Indeed, school leaders say that most parents are satisfied with the school's support of special-education students, citing a survey conducted by the school of parents whose children have individualized education plans. But as the survey was undertaken in June 2010, its results effectively exclude the parents of the 21 children who left the school before that date.

Parents and students also agreed that the curriculum lacked enrichments, like art, music, theatre and dance.

A second try

As Equality moves through its second year, much has changed.

On a visit to the school's tidy classrooms this month, energetic students chanted "5-4-3-2-1!" with their teachers in class-discipline drills, and cheered their peers' efforts at mastering the scientific method. Two teachers worked together in the science classroom, one a science teacher and the other, a special-education instructor, an example of Collaborative Team Teaching that school leaders Myers and Franco say is now the norm in science and social studies (each offered two or three days a week) and in Read 180, a computer-based reading recovery program designed to help struggling readers make literacy gains.

Consistent with its Bronx district, many of the school’s students arrive woefully unprepared: Nearly half of Equality Charter's students in 2009-2010 scored in the lowest third on state standardized ELA exams; a third of Equality students scored in the lowest third in math.

This year, to fulfill a state-mandated foreign-language requirement in eighth grade, students will begin to learn Latin as part of their English classwork. "It's woven in," explained Assistant Principal Franco. "The teacher is not a Latin teacher, but is very excited to begin." Franco says that the school has supplied the teacher, who is in his first year at Equality Charter, with books and resources to prepare his Latin curriculum.

Students at Equality, on the day City Limits visited, said life at their school is better this year than it was last year. "There's more standards," said Andres, a seventh-grader working at a table with three classmates. "They're teaching us more stuff. Plus, there's more sports: We have flag football, volleyball, basketball and track." On the DOE's 2009 Learning Environment Survey, parents and students noted a narrow curriculum that lacked arts and sports, and the school has responded by bringing in more electives, arts and afterschool sports.

Andres' classmate Kiana said the school takes "no excuses" for bad behavior or unprepared students, which keeps things a lot calmer. All students have four, 90-minute classes a day, but Kiana likes the changing mix of students in her classes, another change since last year.

The school's focus on structure and positive behavior extends to the stairwells, where laminated posters are meant to inspire decorum, and at lunch, where each station—at the entry, the lunch line, the cafeteria tables, and the return to class—is monitored by school administrators and staff.

Meanwhile, teachers and staff say that the school's leaders set a tone of collegial respect. "The leadership in this building is phenomenal," says guidance counselor Lisa Winter. Another teacher, Sheri Wenzel, praised the school's ample technology resources and smaller class sizes, saying, "I have resources here than a normal NYC DOE school doesn't have," like "ten laptops and my own Smartboard," along with "better support and more observation."

A family effort

Some of the changes in atmosphere and instruction are the result of changes in personnel. By this September, the school had hired 15 new teachers and staff—many from out of state and suburban districts, school leaders say—and two new deans, to better anticipate and address student behavior challenges.

One dean, Devon Myers, is married to the principal. The other, Mark Hines, is engaged to Assistant Principal Franco; his daughter was, briefly, a student at Equity Charter School, until she enrolled at Truman High School this September.

Winter, the guidance counselor, and Principal Myers say that began contemplating getting more help last year, when Winter's caseload swelled to 140—too much for one person.

"Devon and Mark came to school last year," Winter said in an interview in October. “They just popped in.”

Both men quickly formed bonds with some Equality students, including one boy who had earned a reputation as a troublemaker, and Hines helped with peer mediation, Winter said.

"The kids were just flocking to them," Winter said. "I saw with my own eyes. I said, 'Hey, why don't these two come on board?' "

Last spring, Winter posted an ad on Craigslist for two new dean positions at the school, and culled about 70 responses to a group of five candidates invited to interview, including Devon Myers and Hines. No specific academic or professional certifications were required for the job, Winter said, "I was looking more for someone who 'gets' the kids."

Myers' husband grew up in difficult family circumstances in the Bronx and was a ward of the state until he turned 21. In an interview in October, he said his experience for the job "is the two-three months I’ve been here. It’s the natural knack.” To keep kids focused, “you need the background, the environmental background. We came up in that background, we know how to fix the environment.” Myers added that teachers unfamiliar with the Bronx can have unanticipated “issues with classroom management,” which he and Hines can help mediate. “My wife knows I was raised in the system. She said, ‘I think you can bring some kind of change.’”

Hines is from Jamaica, and has more than a decade's experience working with teens on behavior modification, discipline, and management. He was a behavior specialist at the Opportunity Charter School, and says that Principal Myers encouraged me to apply for the position.”

The principal says the men's background loomed large. "We were a predominantly female staff of 20, with only two men, both white males in a school that is 100 percent minority," she says. "We're always looking for male minority staff. My husband is a black male, and the assistant principal's fiancé is a black male. That's not the sole reason they were hired. One, we needed more behavioral support. Two, we needed help putting out the fires before they began."

Neither Principal Myers nor Assistant Principal Franco participated in the vetting of potential applicants. After conducting interviews, Winter says, "I truly believe they were the two best candidates," and Devon Myers and Hines were hired.

Calming conflict, or creating one?

Charters determine their own recruitment and hiring processes. Unlike traditional public schools in NYC, city charters have no central hiring organization or clearinghouse; they can hire uncertified teachers (up to 20 percent or five teachers, according to DOE spokesperson Jack Zarin-Rosenberg) and "are free to decide how to best handle teacher recruitment."

Equality Charter's charter application, filed with New York City, its original authorizer, and with New York State, dictates that "the Board shall make available in written form its hiring and personnel policies and procedures," but current Board Chair Ehri Mathurin, current Dean of Students at the Harbor Charter School in East Harlem, who was named to the board in May 2010 and became chair in June, did not have knowledge of written hiring protocols.

New York's General Municipal Law permits school districts to hire family members, including spouses. This provision is in place to protect large districts; in New York City, for example, 80,000 teachers work in the schools, and it's entirely possible that siblings, spouses or children may be employed by the Department of Education. The Law's language predates the creation of charter schools, so each independent charter is considered its own "district," and thus is permitted to hire family members of current staff.

"Nepotism per se is not a violation of the General Municipal Law," according to the NY Charter Center's FAQ.

But actions that are fully legal may raise questions in the community, as has occurred at Equality Charter—and can distract attention away from the school's main work of serving the children who are its students.

"Hiring a relative can complicate matters," says James Merriman of the New York Charter School Center. "If the person doesn't do a good job, you have created a problem which distracts at the board level. … These things can become distractions in an environment and a job that is so important that distractions can't be allowed."

In the hallways of Equality Charter School, however, the deans' presence has helped to eliminate distractions, rather than causing them. Students and teachers say that school is better this year than last year, and many credit the two deans with helping to solve problems before they flared into serious conflicts.

"They have phenomenal relations with the kids," Principal Myers says of the deans. "They understand where the kids came from. They came from the same settings."