November 29, 2010
Teachers and administrators at a Bronx high school are making a second attempt to fight the school’s possible closure by converting it into a charter school, something that is rarely done in New York.
One of the 19 schools the city’s Department of Education tried and failed to close last year, Christopher Columbus High School is again in danger of being closed this year. Unwilling to wait and hope that the city will grant it a reprieve, the school’s staff is trying convert Columbus into a charter school.
State officials turned down Columbus principal Lisa Fuentes’ first application in September, saying that the school didn’t follow the protocol for conversion. Now Fuentes is trying again. At a meeting with parents earlier this month where city officials explained that they are considering phasing out Columbus, Fuentes told parents they could save the school by voting for its conversion.
“We have seen lots of results from the programs we have started here,” she said. “We have so many good things that are happening that we don’t want to lose any of that.”
According to New York State law, for a district school to convert to a charter school, more than half of the parents with children in the school need to vote in favor of it.
That will be a challenge for Columbus, which was over 1,200 students but had about 25 parents turn up at a meeting about the school’s future. If more than half of parents approve the plan, the school will have to get the support of the chancellor before its application goes before the Board of Regents.
That may be difficult, as Fuentes is proposing to turn Columbus into a charter school, but keep the same staff and the same students. In order to convert the school, she’ll have to convince city officials that Columbus is improving and has concrete plans to change for the better.
City officials have long been skeptical that schools can improve with the same teaching staff in place. If the city decides to phase out Columbus, it will allow the new school that opens to hire only a fraction of Columbus’s teachers. And in an editorial last summer, the Daily News called her plan a “job protection gambit.”
It’s rare for schools to make the switch. During the eleven years New York State has been opening charter schools, nine district schools have converted to charter schools. Two of them gave up their charters and reverted to being district schools and one had its charter taken away. Today, six remain: five in New York City and one in Buffalo.
“The common denominators that I’ve seen are: staff buy-in, dynamic leadership, and a great school culture,” said New York Charter Schools Association policy director Peter Murphy.
“It’s been better schools that have done this as opposed to troubled ones.”