Charter schools change course

ByBethany Bump

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Albany is currently home to seven privately run, publicly funded charter schools. The city was ground zero for the charter school movement in New York, with as many as 12 of the schools operating. Poor academic outcomes and financial troubles caused five to close.

Officials with the city school district have long called for a moratorium on charter schools, saying they operate as parallel school districts that use up district resources and have made it difficult for the district to plan for long-term enrollment trends. But charter school officials say the changes coming this fall are good news, and will serve to make transitions easier for students as they move up grades.

One year after the state’s charter review commission shuttered Brighter Choice middle schools in Albany, the charter network’s remaining elementary schools are now seeking to merge administrative operations while adding fifth grade to their K-4 setup. The move will allow them to streamline governance and operations while adding revenue.

That would be a welcome change for the schools, which have sizable deficits and debts. The boys’ school had a $1.9 million deficit and around $1.16 million in liabilities at the end of June 2015, while the girls’ school had a $900,000 deficit and around $800,000 in liabilities. The boys’ and girls’ schools would remain separate schools, but the education corporations that manage them would merge, said Martha Snyder, board chair for Brighter Choice Elementary Schools.

“Even though there’s a lot of overlap of programs and operations, we’ve had to go through two separate processes for everything,” she said. “So we’ve been talking about this for a while, but last year we were in the midst of renewal. Now, the timing seems right.”

In addition, making the elementary schools K-5 would align them with the city school district’s own elementary grade configurations and therefore reduce the number of school transitions for students who age out. When Brighter Choice middle schools closed last spring, most graduating fourth-graders from the network’s elementary schools wound up attending a district elementary school for fifth grade before transitioning again to a middle school for sixth grade, Snyder said.

“We want to make sure our students don’t have to make that double transition,” she said.

Two other charter schools — Albany Community Charter School and Green Tech High Charter School — have pledged to increase outreach to immigrant and at-risk populations as they sought a full five-year renewal of their charters last week. They received the renewal on a recommendation from the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, which found although they serve high percentages of economically disadvantaged students they are not meeting enrollment and retention targets for English language learner students.

As its lease expires soon, Green Tech officials told SUNY trustees Thursday the charter school will relocate from its space at 321 Northern Blvd. to another space nearby this summer. School board president David Nardolillo declined to disclose the location until the lease is finalized, but school officials told trustees they expect the move to save them about $500,000 in the first year and $300,000 to $400,000 in the second year.

The expiring lease comes at just the right time for the national network that runs the nearby Kipp Tech Valley Charter School, which opened 11 years ago and currently enrolls 299 students in grades 5-8. This summer, Kipp will move its middle school across the street and into the space Green Tech currently occupies and then open an elementary school in its old space.

The elementary school will start with 100 kindergartners in the fall, and add one grade each year until it’s serving about 500 students across grades K-4 by the 2020-21 school year. The principal, Maya Tucci, attended Guilderland public schools. She has worked for the Kipp school network in Albany and New York City for nine years.

“It will be our first new school in Albany in 11 years,” said school spokesman Steve Mancini. “It’s a big milestone for us. Our parents are thrilled.”

The Albany City School District, meanwhile, is struggling to find space for its growing middle school population — a situation exacerbated by the closure of Brighter Choice middle schools last year. The district opened a new middle school in the old Brighter Choice space on Elk Street to accommodate most of the 250 displaced students. But new enrollment projections show not only will the new school likely have to relocate this fall to accommodate about 100 new students, the district will also have to open a fourth middle school in the next decade to absorb about 425 new students.