This has always been the case for charter schools, of which eight have been closed since 2004, when the initial schools first came up for their five-year charter renewal (another conversion charter was revoked in 2001).
In some instances, it's a close call whether or not to close a charter school. Like any school, charters can make mistakes and need more time to implement corrections to show better academic results. Charter school authorizers have typically granted additional time in the form of a short-term renewal of their charters. In most cases, short-term renewals were just the right approach, as these charters took the extra time to show better results to earn them a subsequent full five-year renewal.
We have agreed with most, but not all, closure decisions made by charter authorizers. In this case, New Covenant Charter School has been given numerous opportunities by SUNY to implement changes to improve. Now in its 11th year, it still has come up short under the latest in a long series of conditions. This school's unique set of circumstances now demands its closure.
We won't rehash New Covenant's dubious and troubled history, some of which was discussed on The Chalkboard (here). The questions confronting the SUNY Board of Trustees on New Covenant are few and narrow: in sum, did the school fulfill each and every condition imposed upon it last year--with the school's agreement--when SUNY granted it a one-year renewal?
The answer, sadly, is no. New Covenant came up short on at least two the conditions required of the school by not achieving its goals on the state's ELA exam. It came close, but the problem for the school is that SUNY was poised last year to shut it down and in lieu of doing so, made ironclad demands, each of which had to be fulfilled.
It's understandable for New Covenant to contend that other charters were renewed by reaching most of their academic goals while coming close enough to meeting the remainder. So, why should New Covenant not get the same treatment? The answer is that this charter was under a different set of conditions uniquely assigned to it last year as the only way to avert what should have been a SUNY closure decision. Moreover, these unique conditions were imposed on New Covenant after a series of authorizer actions for the last decade, inluding short-term renewal, conditional renewal, charter revision, and probation and corrective action requirements that far exceed what has been afforded to any other charter school.
It also should be noted that if SUNY closes this charter school, it is not a reflection of its management company, Victory Schools. In fact, last fall SUNY approved a new charter school on Staten Island that will be managed by Victory. Against the odds, Victory assumed management of New Covenant in 2006 with the school flat on its back and warranting closure. The school has made progress under Victory, but ultimately not enough to fulfill last year's rigorous, but reasonable conditions under the circumstances.
What About New Covenant's Students and Families?
Were that this issue was simply about meeting or not meeting charter conditions. It isn't. Closing a charter school also involves upending the lives of children and their families and teachers all of whom have been attached to New Covenant Charter School, including many students who have done well academically. Emotions run high for good reason, as was seen at SUNY's public hearing held at the school last month. These families sent their children to New Covenant because they don't want them in the neighborhood district school. Most of them will have no choice but to return to the district since Albany's elementary charter schools are full, and families cannot afford private school, nor can they move to the suburbs.
SUNY should come up with a plan to attempt to accommodate as many New Covenant students as possible, including working with the Albany City School District and the other charter schools in the area. For example, can any of the elementary charters expand for next year for New Covenant students? This would require a revision to an existing charter school's charter, which any such charter school would have to agree. Can a new, smaller contract school be approved to serve New Covenant students? The absence of some kind of transition plan, however, is not a reason to keep the school open.
The absence of a transition plan for such closures is a flaw in the whole closure process and its high time it was dealt with by authorizers, school districts and, if possible, other charter schools.
Unfortunately, New Covenant's chances nevertheless should be exhausted. There is a litany of warnings to New Covenant going back years by SUNY Trustees and the staff at the Charter Schools Institute that risk being made a mockery if they are not finally carried out. Last year's conditions and the admonition that accompanied them, were approved by the SUNY Board, including the new chairman of SUNY's Charter Schools Committee, Pedro Noguera.
If Dr. Noguera and the SUNY Board do not enforce their conditions and close the school, as the Institute now recommends based on the Board's own firm direction given last year, their authority will diminish, and charter schools across the state will be given, at best, a confusing message.
Maintaining Charter School Integrity
The closing of John A. Reisenbach Charter School in Harlem in 2004, the first non-renewal of a charter, was another difficult decision. The school's operators and parents made a strong case to be given more time. SUNY refused, which set the tone early on that it means business and takes accountability seriously. Other charter schools took notice, and improved as a result. SUNY's rigorous oversight and accountability, including its willingness to close low-performing schools also received national recognition, including by the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.
History repeats itself. SUNY must reject the renewal of New Covenant and send the proper message. It should do so not for any enjoyment of national recognition, bureaucratic process or egocentric toughness, but to ensure the integrity of charter schools statewide, which are in the business of raising and sustaining quality student achievement.
for The Chalkboard
Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.