July 6, 2011
An initiative designed to ease tension between district and charter schools in the city has moved slowly and largely under the radar this spring.
In December, then-Chancellor Joel Klein joined 88 of the city’s charter schools in signing on to a District-Charter Collaboration Compact, which mandates that charter schools “fulfill their role as laboratories of innovation” and requires the Department of Education to support city charter schools. The compact, which the Gates Foundation urged and is funding, emphasizes collaboration around issues of enrollment, space allocation, and instruction.
But after more than six months — which were bookended by Klein’s sudden departure and a contentious lawsuit over charter school co-location — little progress has been made toward fulfilling the compact’s requirements. In June, the New York City Charter School Center took a first step by hiring Cara Volpe, a former Teach for America employee, to be the city’s first district-charter collaboration manager.
Later, a not-yet-formed advisory council of district and charter school employees will help Volpe set priorities, according to city and charter school officials.
Volpe “will be expected to implement the council’s vision for identifying, establishing and implementing the partnerships, policies and programs that will help tear down the boundaries between great district and charter schools,” according to advertisement for the position, which the charter center posted online at GothamSchools’ jobs board, Idealist, and elsewhere.
Volpe’s work will come at a time when tensions around charter schools are at an all-time high. In May, the UFT and NAACP sued the city to stop 19 charter schools from opening, moving, or expanding, and a fierce battle for public opinion followed.
“The rhetoric around charter versus district schools has become far too heated, and work on this initiative could not come at a better time,” said Matthew Mittenthal, a Department of Education spokesman.
A search committee that included two charter school principals, a district school principal, a representative of the nonprofit New Visions for New Schools, and the head of the DOE’s charter schools office interviewed Volpe before she was hired.
“I’m excited for the opportunity to bring together district and charter school leaders and teachers and helping them work more collaboratively toward their shared goal of improving education for all children,” Volpe wrote in an email.
But critics of the city’s education policies say they are skeptical that Volpe’s position will easily soothe tensions between district and charter schools. In fact, they say, they are skeptical even of the city’s commitment to upholding the compact’s terms.
Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s appointee on the Panel for Educational Policy, said last week he had not even heard about the compact.
“I think in order to deliver on the commitments that the district signed up for, many of them would require PEP approval,” he said, pointing to a promise that the city aim to grant charter schools equal space inside school buildings. “So I was surprised I hadn’t heard about it.”
Marc Sternberg, the DOE’s deputy chancellor for portfolio planning, met with Sullivan Tuesday afternoon to discuss the compact. “Marc and Patrick had a very productive conversation yesterday, one of many they will have about the District-Charter Compact moving forward,” Mittenthal said today.
But Noah Gotbaum, president of the Community Education Council for District 3, where space-sharing has long been highly contentious, said the city’s policy of awarding space in public school buildings to charter schools would always make collaboration unlikely.
“Are you asking them to compete or are you asking them to collaborate? Because you can’t have it both ways,” he said. “If the DOE is serious about collaboration, they will first ensure, before they do any co-locations, that there is adequate space to educate the kids in the public schools right now.”
The charter center is banking on Volpe’s stints in both district and charter schools to help her bridge the growing chasm between them in New York.
After graduating from the University of Virginia, Volpe started her career teaching sixth-grade science at Jane Long Middle School in Houston, as a member of Teach for America. Her next stop was at Houston’s KIPP Academy Middle School, where she taught math. She moved to New York City to become Teach for America’s Director of Alumni Affairs, and she also joined Community Board 7, where she served on the Youth, Education and Libraries committee.
KIPP Principal Elliott Witney remembered her humor and intensity as she peppered her students with questions. “Cara showed up recently to watch the children she taught years ago graduate from high school in Houston,” Witney wrote in an email. “When the children saw her, they rejoiced. That, in a nutshell, is Cara.”
New York City is not alone is posting slow progress post-compact. Other cities that signed onto the compact are waiting for progress as well. In Minneapolis, Al Fan, executive director of Charter School Partners, said a local advisory board is hoping to hire a collaboration manager but hasn’t yet. Fan said, “I don’t think anything is going to happen in Minneapolis until this compact coordinator is filled.”
Another participating city, Denver, has had more success, according to Debbie Robinson, senior communications officer at the Gates Foundation. The city has already created committees to tackle the specific issues of enrollment, special education and funding, she said. But Robinson wrote in an email that Rochester, Hartford, and New Orleans have all had difficulties filling the collaboration manager role.