Teachers College To Launch Its Own Elementary School

MATCH was a charter school for 8 years. Then we added the teacher prep part in 2008. Some university Schools of Education are working that in reverse. They've run teacher prep programs for decades. Now they are entering the k-12 school creation business.

Stanford had a rough go of it. The state authorities shut down their charter school last year. The NY Times story is here. My blog about it is here.

Teachers College at Columbia University is about to launch their own new elementary school. I wonder how it will go.

A intrepid Columbia student reporter has the details, in a far-ranging look at Teachers College:

According to TC officials, they are on track to open the neighborhood public school in the fall, finalizing details with the city’s Department of Education.

Still, until very recently, there was no public information available on the location, the principal, how to apply, and, even within the institution, some professors and students are surprised to hear that it is opening this fall.

...If approved, the school will enroll two sections of kindergarten next year for 40-50 students, he said.

...The new school is very deliberately not a charter school. It will be a regular district-managed public school with a strong affiliation with Teachers College. Though the details are not yet final, it will likely utilize a lottery system to select its students, by which families in the neighborhood can enter their children into a pool, from which students will be randomly selected.

Representatives from local Community Education Councils—groups that represent neighborhood parents and stakeholders and meet regularly to discuss school policy and instruction—say they have no information about the school and would be shocked to see it successfully open in the fall.

“It’s concerning, especially because the way they are going about this. Have they talked to the CECs?” says Noah Gotbaum, president of the CEC for District 3, which covers parts of the Upper West Side and Harlem. “Why wouldn’t they be in discussion with the community?”

Diane Johnson, Harlem’s District 5 CEC president, says earlier this month that it can’t possibly be opening in the fall. “Right now it’s not realistic, due to the fact that we haven’t received any kind of information on it.”

Pat Jones, former chair of Community Board 9—where TC held a few informational sessions last year about the school, says, “I’m not the least bit skeptical,” she says. “[TC is] committed to making this happen and making it happen well.”

I realize from the reporter's point of view, skepticism seems intuitive. How can anyone open a school that fast?

But you can. My guess is Pat Jones is right. The new school named a principal. They have a temporary building. It won't be hard to find many students to enter the admissions lottery. Usually parents in poor neighborhoods are dissatisfied with their school options.

Our new elementary school slated to open this September, MATCH Community Day, doesn't have a building. So the new TC school is ahead of us on that score. We do have a bunch of cute photos, however, from the admissions lottery night. Which are here.

I think the reporter could have asked a different question. What did TC learn from Stanford?

The new school will thus carry at least some of the burden of improving the ever-strained Columbia-Harlem relationship. And TC professor of sociology and education Aaron Pallas says TC’s reputation also hangs in the balance.

“Ed schools are struggling to maintain a sense of legitimacy. … Having a school that would fail would be another thing that would be really bad for [the] College. In that sense, it’s a high-wire move to say we’re going to open a school, because the stakes are high if in fact it doesn’t work out well.”

Pallas is right.

Because of the faculty's negative views on charter schools, TC has opted to start a non-charter school. From the article:

The school is also getting off the ground at a time of great tension in Harlem, centered on the DOE’s strong support for local charter schools, which are publicly operated, privately-run operations. Charters have private boards, often selected by lotteries, and, though they are still accountable to the DOE as public schools, they effectively operate outside of the system.

Charter school skepticism seems widespread within TC, and vocal critics in Harlem argue that these new schools take needed resources away from struggling schools and, through their lottery systems, don’t end up supporting a representative local population. Those pushing charter schools argue that the traditional system has failed, and they are providing alternative, innovative choices to parents.

“The TC community school is very deliberately a regular district-managed, so to speak, public school, as opposed to a charter school,” Streim says at the funders’ event. “We had to fight pretty hard to get that agreement, because the Department of Education is so interested in innovations in the charter realm.” Establishing a public school, she adds, gives TC the “ability to demonstrate that you can innovate in mainstream public schools, that you don’t have to go around the system.”

But they're running into 2 classic charter school problems. Problem 1: Facility.

Still, to some, TC’s effort seems to share a lot of the negative qualities of charter schools. Will it take resources away from struggling neighborhood schools? Will it get special treatment from the DOE because of its tie to Columbia?

“If you want to put a school in District 5, you need to come with your own building,” Johnson from the D5 CEC says matter-of-factly.

Jimmie Brown, a grandmother of two students in Harlem’s P.S. 76 and a member of the D3 CEC, says she’s heard nothing about TC’s school and is skeptical: “This is the thing that bothers me. I have no problem with them opening schools. But you are not helping the community you want to come into when you share space.” (Officials from P.S. 133, the temporary site this fall, could not be reached for comment).

Streim, declining to offer specific details on any possible final location, says only, “It would be a preference not to impose on any school.”

Problem 2: Perceptions of Admissions Lottery Fairness/Demographics of Students

And it’s not only local community members voicing concerns. A group of funders at the recent provost dinner expressed disappointment that TC and the DOE would likely be using a lottery for the school. Only children with parents actively searching for schools will enter, and the neediest kids will likely not have a shot, they charge, echoing a common criticism of charters.

“Are you going to randomly pick people eligible for this?” Tom Crowl, a TC graduate and guest at the dinner, asks Streim during a Q-and-A. “If you have people self-selecting, I’m concerned right there that this may not be representative, because more knowledgeable people will know about it.”

Responding, Streim says, “It is incumbent on us to recruit, recruit, recruit, so that we can reach out across the entire community.” Several funders subsequently speak up, voicing similar concerns over the lottery.

Streim, in a later interview, says she sympathizes with these arguments. “It’s all expected,” she says of backlash at the event, chuckling. “I really value and welcome the passion that lies behind people’s questions. … We’re very, very sensitive to issues of reaching out broadly.”

The problem, she explains, is that there isn’t really any other option. Public schools can be zoned in a specific boundary so that every student in that boundary attends—but that, Streim says, could disrupt pre-existing schools and could also limit the school to just a few blocks, given the density of the city. William Stroud, TC’s director of the partnership schools network, adds, “It’s the responsibility on our part to make sure the pool of students in the lottery is reflective of the community at large—in a broader way than the charters.”

I think it's great that TC is taking the plunge. But I hope they get real. So many of the 5,000 existing charter schools around the nation are crappy. The same is true of many new charter-like schools.

It's not easy to do this work. And at a university, there will be tension between faculty ideology and on-the-ground realities.

I hope the TC folks reach out to some of the charter schools in Harlem. Visit. Without a chip on your shoulder.

When the NYC Teachers Union opened their own new school, they visited a ton of charter schools around the country, including MATCH. You can be anti-charter from a policy perspective, and still try to learn from our failures and successes.