August 13, 2012
“If I could clone Shimon Waronker, I would do that immediately,” then-Chancellor Joel Klein said in 2008 about the principal of M.S. 22 at the time.
But given the chance to replicate a school that Waronker started from scratch, city officials this year took a pass.
After a year under Klein’s wing, Waronker opened Brooklyn’s New American Academy to great fanfare in 2010. The school promised to upend the traditional classroom by pairing 60 students with four teachers who would stay with them throughout elementary school. New York Times columnist David Brooks praised the school in a piece this spring.
Now, after failing to interest city officials in allowing him to open a second school, Waronker is looking outside the Department of Education to fulfill his expansion ambitions. He has asked the state for permission to open The New American Academy Charter School next year.
If approved, it would be the city’s first district school to replicate as a charter school, in an arrangement that could pose tricky technical issues.
Waronker’s application has the support of the United Federation of Teachers, which was involved in the New American Academy’s creation but has had a contentious relationship with the city’s charter sector. Leo Casey, a UFT official who is departing to lead a union-affiliated education research institute in Washington, D.C., is a founding board member.
The UFT was integral in paving the way for the New American Academy to open in the first place. It worked with the city to sign off on a special contract that allows teachers to have larger classes, work longer hours, and climb a career ladder that carries extra pay.
But union leaders have never lent themselves to charter schools’ boards, other than the two charter schools it operates and one that former UFT President Randi Weingarten supported because it was trying to pioneer a new model of charter-union collaboration,
Casey said Waronker’s school has long impressed him. Its master teacher model, where high-paid, highly trained teachers serve as mentors to three others, is the best in any city school, he said.
“At a time when everybody talks about innovation and falls back onto the most traditional modes of teaching, they really are doing it,” Casey said. “The school is based on the notion that you have to empower the teachers.”
Casey said he decided to lend a hand when Waronker came up short after floating an expansion plan to the Department of Education earlier this year.
“I said to Shimon, there’s no reason why you can’t do all the sorts of things that you want to do in a charter school,” Casey said. “There will be another administration in the DOE in not so long, and he can take another shot at doing another DOE school then.”
Just why Waronker’s preliminary talks with the department did not move forward is not clear. A spokeswoman for the department said he had not submitted a formal proposal to open a new school. She declined to comment on informal conversations between Waronker and city officials about expansion or even confirm that talks had taken place.
But other union officials suggested that top officials at the department had told Waronker to cool his heels because brokering an agreement with the UFT would be politically treacherous at a time when the city and union are locked in a high-profile fight over teacher evaluations. Making side deals about individual schools just isn’t high on either the city’s or the union’s lists, the officials said.
The district school also does not have a track record of success yet. Last year, its oldest students were in second grade, so the school has no state test scores to boast. (M.S. 22 grew safer under Waronker’s watch, which lasted from 2004 to 2008, but performance continued to lag. This year, it wound up on the city’s list of schools to overhaul.)
Waronker said he initially had misgivings about the charter sector, and a list of frequently asked questions on his school’s website emphasizes that the original New American Academy is a district school. He said the antagonism between the charter sector and teachers unions made him steer clear of the charter option for his first school.
When the teachers union said it would help him work around the union contract to set up some of the school’s special features, such as master teacher positions with salaries of $120,000 a year, and hour-and-a-half long blocks of early morning curriculum planning, he jumped at the opportunity.
But he said he is excited about the possibility of expanding as a charter school —and as one where the union will play an ongoing role. The school cannot open with its teachers unionized, but Waronker and Casey both said the expectation is that teachers will join the UFT quickly, a process that typically happens only after a fight.
“The original intent of charters was to innovate so they could inform the regular public schools. What has happened instead is that charters, because many of them are non-union, the union sees them as a death knell,” Waronker said. “They’re saying that the only way to innovate is without the union. We have to show that we can do that within the system.”
Bill Phillips, president of the New York Charter Schools Association, said he did not think Waronker would face trouble being affiliated with both a district school and a charter school. But he did expect the state to scrutinize the application more closely to make sure that money is not being shared between the schools.
“They’re going to want to know that the per-pupil funding is going to the charter school,” Phillips said.
According to a letter of intent filed with the state, the two schools would not have any formal partnership beyond sending their teachers to the same training sessions during the summer and school year.
The charter school would be different from the district school in some small ways. Its school day would be 10 percent longer, and its teachers would get 120 additional hours of training, according to the plan.
Waronker would leave the New American Academy for the charter school, where he would be headmaster, according to the plan, a move that would allow him potentially to earn more than he does as a district principal. Lorraine Scorsone, a longtime teacher who helped the UFT set up its charter schools, would help with the school’s development but remain in the district school.
One piece of information the letter of intent left out was where exactly the school would be located. Waronker’s application asks for space in District 19, but it doesn’t say what kind of space he’s looking for. He said he would prefer to open in a district school building, in the kind of co-location arrangement that about two-thirds of city charter schools currently occupy, though he would figure out how to pay for private space if he had to.
The UFT’s own charter schools share space in public school buildings. But the union has opposed many co-locations and even sued to stop a number of them last year. Union officials said they would not object to Waronker’s school receiving public space if the building offered has enough room and the existing schools do not object to getting a new neighbor.