Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New Covenant Charter School Gets 1 More Year

The SUNY Board of Trustees today approved a short-term, one-year renewal for the New Covenant Charter School in Albany. They took this action against the recommendation of the Charter Schools Institute, the administrative arm of the SUNY Board that oversees charter schools.

On the one hand, it's good to see a Board not rubber-stamp what the staff wants, since a bureaucracy is not immune to having its own agenda. A governing Board sometimes has a wider lense to view a situation and make its own judgment. On the other hand, it's hard to see why after ten years in operation, New Covenant deserves more time to improve itself. Ten years is a long time to get things right, and New Covenant has done just about everything wrong at least once in a decade. The Institute had enough, understandably so. But, the case also can be made that its mediocre test scores are finally heading in the right direction. What's another year?

Closing a charter school is never easy. But SUNY has done this before in less deserving cases. Last year in Schenectady, the Institute recommended and the SUNY Board agreed not to renew the International Charter School of Schenectady, after six (not 10) years in operation. That school also had numerous problems, including firing a management company and trying to transition to a self-managing school. However, the school also made a number of promising changes and its test scores justified a short-term renewal.

By contrast, New Covenant has fired two management companies, and is on its third. Its test scores compared to the Albany school district average also are a mixed bag, with a lower percentage of students meeting standards in English for most grade levels, but higher results than the district in mathematics.

The inconsistency in treatment of these two schools within one year of each other makes one wonder: either the SUNY Trustees are inconsistent in their application of standards, or they improved from last year's baleful treatment of the only charter in Schenectady by giving more time and attention to New Covenant. For example, there were several meetings between SUNY and Institute officials and the New Covenant officials, which is a positive sign that every consideration was given to afford the school a chance to make its case. Schenectady was not so fortunate. The Institute, however, does not agree, and stands by its treatment of Schenectady.

New Covenant's current management company, Victory Schools, Inc., is in its third year of running the school. Victory took on the enormous task of trying to turn this school around and save this option for its 600 students, of which at least 400 reside in Albany and do not wish to return to district schools (which says something about Albany's schools). It made enough progress that bought the school another year, in the view of the SUNY Board.

One glimmer of hope for New Covenant resides a few miles further up the Hudson River, at the Ark Community Charter School in Troy. One year ago, the Institute recommended that school also close. The SUNY Board also disagreed with the recommendation and granted one more year. This past January, the Institute switched gears and rightly recommended a full five-year renewal, which the SUNY Board granted. That was quite a turnaround for the Ark, to go from death's door to a five-year renewal in about 10 months time, which makes me wonder what the Institute's review missed last year when it tried to close the school.

New Covenant could follow suit next year. The challenge, however, will be tougher than what the Ark faced. New Covenant is a larger, more difficult school to manage and make changes, and has a longer, more visible history of problems. Among them has been high turnover in school leadership, which makes it difficult even for an effective leader to come in and implement changes in a short time period.

Now the Board of Regents is required by law to review and comment on every charter school application, and they will get to do so on New Covenant by the summer. Never in its 10-year history has the Regents voted affirmatively on this school, so it's hard to imagine them doing so now. Instead, the Regents will vote to return New Covenant's renewal application to SUNY, after which SUNY will have to take yet another vote over the summer to keep the school open.

This ping-pong approach to charter approvals is a necessary by-product of the different authorizing entities that can approve a charter. Ultimately it's a good process, even if cumbersome at times.

Another year of mixed results at New Covenant will almost certainly not be sufficient to keep the school going, as it appears to have used up its chits with today's SUNY vote. But SUNY has talked tough on New Covenant before, and it lives on for another year's reprieve.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

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