[Update (6/3/19): shortly before the Board of Regents meeting on Monday, June 3, Ember Charter School's application to expand was added to the agenda]
[Update (6/5/19): the Board of Regents sent application back the city DOE with comments, no final decision has been made]
The founder of a black-led charter school in Brooklyn with a focus on African and African-American cultural education is alleging the New York State Education Department (SED) is surreptitiously blocking the school’s application to grow. As the next school year approaches, leadership of the Ember Charter School for Mindful Education, Innovation and Transformation is claiming plans to revise its charter to expand programming into high school are being denied, not on formal grounds, but through procedural techniques that have kept it off the agenda of the state’s Board of Regents, where approval is needed.
Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II, the founder and managing partner of Ember Charter School, claims his is the only school to apply for a revision or renewal of its charter this year and not receive it, despite having authorization from the city’s Department of Education. The DOE, as the school’s “authorizer,” is required by law to ensure its charter changes meet certain criteria, like whether it will satisfy educational standards and improve outcomes, before sending its recommendation to the Board of Regents, which presides over SED, for final approval.
With that step accomplished, Kalam Id-Din II says the state rebuff is a new chapter in SED’s hostility towards his school and aversion to its “culturally responsive” mission. He argues that SED is far more friendly to traditional, large charter networks, often run by white executives who enjoy less scrutiny and more unquestioned support from the state power structure.
Ember, which prides itself on having black leadership, embraces an educational model centered around the experiences of its students, who are predominantly black and labelled “at-risk” to be underserved. After the DOE authorized Ember’s proposal to expand its programming, it was apparently sent to SED to be placed on the Board of Regents’ May agenda, but the May meeting passed and the June meeting is approaching without any sign that Ember’s application will be taken up.
The inaction from SED hints at the degree of discretion that may exist between the agency’s mandate to ensure high educational standards and the traditional procedures intended to produce those results.
“We are being treated in a way that is completely different than every other charter school is being treated,” Kalam Id-Din II told Gotham Gazette in an interview.
Kalam Id-Din II believes Ember’s charter revision application was ready to be considered by the Board of Regents at its meeting in May, but it was left off the agenda while another school with an application submitted at the same time was discussed and approved. Through Assembly Member Tremaine Wright, whose district includes Ember, Kalam Id-Din II says he learned this month that Ember’s application would again be left off the Board’s June calendar. (Wright’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)
“The New York State Education Department is working closely with the New York City Department of Education to evaluate this revision request to expand this school to a high school and ensure that all students in New York City have access to high quality educational options,” J.P. O’Hare, deputy director of communications at SED, wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette.
But in a draft memo provided to Gotham Gazette by Kalam Id-Din II, authorizing Ember’s charter revision, the DOE wrote, “This issue will be before the P-12 Education Committee and the Full Board for action at the May 2019 Regents meeting.” O’Hare did not respond to a follow-up email from Gotham Gazette asking whether it would be on the agenda of the board’s June 3 meeting Monday, and Kalam Id-Din II had no word from SED as of 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 30. The school community is planning to protest at the Regents meeting scheduled for Monday, June 3, in Albany.
The Ember Charter School was launched in Brooklyn in 2011, serving kindergarten through first grade under the name Teaching Firms of America Professional Preparatory Charter School. The school has been expanding its program ever since, first incorporating a second grade class in 2012 and reaching grade six by 2016. When it changed its name to the Ember Charter School in 2017, its goal was to continue to expand through grade 12, according to its website.
The school’s board of trustees decided to formally pursue the expansion into high school in October 2018, which would allow it to increase enrollment by 176 students from its current K-8 program to roughly 970 total students. Both the extension through twelfth grade and the growth in enrollment require the school to submit an application for a “material revision” to its charter through the authorizing agency -- in this case the city DOE -- which is responsible for making a recommendation to the Board of Regents.
As the authorizing agency, the DOE must certify that the application meets the requirements under the state’s Education Law; that the applicant demonstrates the ability to operate the school soundly; that the changes would improve student learning; and that the school district consents to the proposal in districts where charter school enrollment makes up more than five percent of total enrollment.
On April 4, 2019 the DOE held a mandated public hearing in the school’s auditorium to solicit feedback from parents and the community about the proposed changes. Fifty-five people attended the hearing and eight spoke, seven of whom were in favor of Ember’s proposed expansion, according to the DOE’s draft memo.
Following the hearing, and after completing its required assessment of Ember’s charter revision application and authorizing it, the DOE appears to have sent the proposal to SED to be taken up by the Board of Regents.
In an email to Gotham Gazette, Kalam Id-Din II said Ember Charter School “relied on the long-standing practice that our authorizer’s decision in this matter would be dispositive and that the Regents would act to effectuate their decision.” But this did not happen in May, and looks like it will not be on the Board of Regents’ Monday meeting agenda either, even as families with high school-age students prepare for the upcoming school year.
In a statement to Gotham Gazette, O’Hare of SED wrote that the city DOE has informed SED that if the charter revision request is not approved, all matriculating eighth grade students at Ember will be matched to a placement in a DOE high school for the next academic year.
In May, Assemblymember Wright allegedly told Ember’s leadership that the application was being tabled out of consideration for a nonbinding resolution passed by a number of local and citywide education councils calling for a moratorium on charter authorizations throughout the city. According to Kalam Id-Din II, Wright also cited concerns that Ember’s math test scores trailed the state average, and its enrollment of students with disabilities and those who are economically disadvantaged did not reflect the make-up of the school district it is in.
Kalam Id-Din II disagrees with those characterizations. In the email to Gotham Gazette, he points out that the community education council in Ember’s school district declined to adopt the charter moratorium resolution, and questioned the motives behind holding up only one charter school application on that basis. “[I]t defies any sense of equity or fairness that Ember would be the only charter school whose material revision and expansion were scrutinized and impeded” because of the non-binding citywide moratorium voted on by the citywide education council, he wrote.
Kalam Id-Din II also argues Ember’s state test scores should be evaluated with respect to the school district it serves, rather than the state as a whole, and in comparison to similar black and Latino student populations. “In both of these measures, Ember’s overall math state test performance meets or exceeds these indicators,” he wrote in the email, an assertion that is supported by test score data he provided, as well as information available on SED’s website.
Ember Charter School’s student body is predominantly black and almost exclusively black and Latino: according to DOE data from the 2017-18 school year, it’s students were 79 percent black and 19 percent Hispanic. The school embraces its blackness by gearing its curriculum towards the experiences of its students of color with an emphasis on “culturally relevant” and “economically relevant pedagogy,” according to its website.
Data from the city DOE indicates the total student population in the city is 26 percent black and 40.5 percent Hispanic, whereas, according to the New York City Charter School Center’s analysis of SED data, 53 percent of the city’s charter school students are African-American and 38 percent are Hispanic.
In terms of the school’s “special populations” enrollment figures, Kalam Id-Din II points out that a significant portion of its student body has been exposed to trauma, but that this is not captured in the data on students with disabilities. He added that a vast majority of charter schools approved for renewal or revision had enrollment figures that lagged behind their school district’s in at least two special population categories. Nevertheless, Kalam Id-Din II says Ember is working with the DOE to implement an enrollment preference for students with disabilities next year.
The disagreement between the way the state evaluates test scores and special populations underscores the obstacles faced by schools serving communities of color with curricula that deviate from the mainstream. “We’re the only school taking these steps and really putting...the culturally responsive commitment to our black and our Latinx students at the center of our work,” Kalam Id-Din II told Gotham Gazette in the interview. There is a growing movement among black parents in Brooklyn and throughout the country towards Afrocentric schools and curricula, partially as a response to decades of failed desegregation efforts and the feeling of marginalization many black students experience in integrated schools.
Whatever the school, Kalam Id-Din II says, black-led programs are “impeded in the same particular way...I don’t think that there is a lack of desire of black, Latinx people looking to open or start their own charter schools. I think this is one of the reasons why this sector looks the way it does now. This is a huge equity issue.”
He says Ember’s focus on the experiences of communities of color has been the subject of SED scrutiny before. According to Kalam Id-Din II, when the school tried to incorporate a study abroad program in Africa into its renewed charter in years passed, SED expressed skepticism about the value and safety of bringing New York students there and sought for the language to be removed. “All of these things...really rang hollow to us given that study abroad is pretty widely accepted,” he said.
No agenda for the Board of Regents’ June meeting had been published as of Thursday, May 30 at 5 p.m., and Kalam Id-Din II still hopes the board will take up Ember’s application. Whether or not it does, Ember Charter School plans to take students, parents, and staff to the board’s meeting Monday in Albany. “Either way SED will need to deal with us, our kids, our community face to face,” said Kalam Id-Din II.