Charter Flight

by Ed Griffin-Nolan - Wednesday, October 16th, 2013
There are reasons for the huge waiting list at the Syracuse Academy of Science.

Beverly Collins faced a choice when her daughter Sage was turning 5. Collins and her husband, Danny, live on Roney Road, barely a mile from Meacham Elementary School, in the Valley. The couple looked into sending Sage to the public school, but felt that the classes were too large.

Collins says she could also feel the impact of budget cuts in the supplies and opportunities available to the students at Meacham. They decided to enter Sage in a lottery to win a spot at the Syracuse Academy of Science Charter School. Sage won the lottery, was accepted into kindergarten at the charter two years ago and today is a happy second-grader at SAS Elementary.

On a warm autumn afternoon recently, Collins drove from her job downtown, where she works in Adult Protective Services for Onondaga County, and sat in her minivan in the parking lot waiting for Sage to emerge. The charter elementary school is in a two-story brick building that once housed St. James Catholic School. Collins says that she and her husband love the charter school, and next year, when their younger son, Danny, turns 5, they’re going to put his name in for a spot.

GAME OF CHANCE

The odds aren’t in their favor. In last year’s lottery, 1,387 names were submitted, according to Tolga Hayali, superintendent in charge of both SAS charter schools in Syracuse and a charter academy recently opened in Utica. Of those applicants, less than 10 percent were selected in a random drawing; 130 students were admitted, and more than 1,000 were placed on a waiting list. Most of those left out are attending Syracuse City School District public schools.

What makes parents line up to place their kids in a lottery for entrance to a charter school? In a nutshell, the SAS charter offers education in a private-school setting at public-school prices. Tuition is free. Classes are small; the average class size is 20 students, while district schools average 23. Discipline is tight (proportionally, the school suspends more students than the city district does), hours are long and the charter definitely has the feel of a small school.

“We have 400 kids at the middle/high school {at 1004 Park Ave.},” says Hayali, who came to Syracuse to run the school in 2008, “and 300 at the elementary school. I told {former} Syracuse Superintendent Dan Lowengard, if I had 1,500 kids, I couldn’t do this.”

“This” is an impressive grade-school environment where students wear uniforms and move in orderly fashion through the hallways, more reminiscent of Catholic schools of old (without the nuns and the crosses on the wall) than today’s modern public schools.

Principal Linda Spencer came to the charter school after years in the Liverpool Central School District. She served as academic dean at the charter middle/ high school until this year, when she took over from Kadir Yavuz, who runs the Utica school.

Hayali talks enthusiastically about what he calls the charter school “miracle.” The charter school philosophy is simple: longer days, Saturday classes, summer sessions for most kids. Some of it is expensive, like the high-tech equipment found in almost every classroom. Hayali says it all hinges on the freedom he has to innovate, to hire and fire, to get things done.

“Charter schools want to cut off all that bureaucracy. We don’t talk about it,” he says, “ we just do it.”

The middle school/high school has the feel of a college prep academy. Indeed, all graduates are expected to move on to higher education. Sixty percent of SAS graduates go on to a four-year college, and 36 percent find their way to a twoyear school. The comparable figures for the city district’s five high schools are: 22 percent for four-year schools and 50 percent going to two-year colleges.

The walls at the charter school are covered with pictures of graduates, the colleges they attend and awards won at science competitions around the globe. SAS students have competed at science fairs in places as far flung as Hong Kong, Texas and Kenya. That’s right: Students from a Syracuse charter school are attending science fairs on at least three continents.

A core part of the mission of SAS is to focus on STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. How is this possible? Hayali says it’s all a matter of seizing opportunities. SAS staff emphasizes the many opportunities that their students have to work with college professors, both during the school year and in the summer.

In a science classroom on the third floor, students in Mehriban Sirin’s class are preparing their research projects. The school regularly invites scientists to come to the school, and SAS students participate in research projects with local colleges. Last month, an SAS senior, Bilgenur Sirin, presented a paper at the National Conference of the American Chemical Association, in Indianapolis, a rarity for high school or even undergraduate college students. Her project, carried out in conjunction with Cazenovia College professor Venera Jouareva, was titled (get ready), “The Degradation of Carcinogenic and Non-Carcinogenic PAHs in Soil Contaminated with

Toxic Metals after Amendment with Fishbone Apatite and Ferric Oxide.”

The energetic Hayali, who looks younger than his 40 years, is driven by data and technology. “People say that we are too much like a business,” he says, “but with data we can know exactly how to help each student. The key is to get that feedback to the teacher.”

He dreams of one day being able to assess a student’s learning progress in real time as he or she plays a computer game in the classroom.

Hayali says that the charter school concept allows him to do things in a more business-like fashion, without many of the constraints of his school district counterparts. He takes aim squarely at teachers unions, saying that he couldn’t do what he does in a union environment.

“No, I can’t,” he says. “And {Syracuse City School District Superintendent Sharon Contreras} knows it very well.”

Hayali tells anti-union anecdotes and contends that he could run his school with less money than the New York City school district spent to fire four tenured teachers.

“One day, the union will ask itself, ‘What was our purpose?’ Purpose was for the female teacher fired for getting pregnant, and the female teacher who wore pants. People said, ‘Let’s fight together and sue that principal to fight for those freedoms and against discrimination. The union’s purpose was to protect the dignity and the rights of teachers.” Clearly, he believes those days are past.

When he says he can do more with less, he’s talking first about salaries. According to the website of the state Teachers Retirement System, Hayali was paid $91,034 last year, (down from $104,602 in 2010-2011, but still tens of thousands less than principals in city high schools). Pay for charter school teachers is low to start, but teachers can make more money by working extra on Saturdays and at summer schools and camps organized for the students. Teachers are not eligible for tenure; hiring and firing is up to the will of the principal.

Teacher turnover is high, and in the earlier years, SAS hired an unusually high percentage of non-certified teachers. Today, all of the school’s teachers are certified, according to the State Education Department, but teachers in the city school district tend to have much more experience; 41 percent of the charter-school teachers have spent less than three years in the classroom, compared to 3 percent in the city district. Nearly a quarter of district teachers have a master’s degree plus 30 hours of study; in the charter school, 8 percent of teachers qualify as “master’s plus.”

Nonetheless, says Hayali, it is flexibility that allows his school to succeed.

“If we get an idea to do something, we just do it,” he says. “We don’t spend two years talking about it.”

No unions, no publicly elected school board, no tenure and minimal job protection for teachers. These are the building blocks of his success, and they are also what make charter schools controversial.

THE TURKISH CONNECTION

In the case of SAS, there is another controversy: Since their inception, the schools have been controlled by a small group of Turkish immigrants, mostly men. Most appear to be affiliated with a worldwide network of Muslims inspired by an expatriate Turkish imam, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania.

As many as 140 Gulen-inspired charter schools and nearly a dozen private schools operate in the United States, and there are thousands more in Africa, the former Soviet Union and Latin America. Most Gulen schools around the world are private and charge hefty tuition, but only in the United States do they operate with government money.

Ten years after their founding, effective control of the SAS schools remains in the hands of the tightly knit circle of Turkish immigrants, mostly with advanced degrees in science. Many of these men have worked at similar charter schools and private schools and other organizations linked to Gulen.

Fehmi Damkaci, a SUNY Oswego chemistry professor who chairs the SAS board, calls any connection to the Gulen movement coincidental, but the links, which the Syracuse New Times will examine in detail in a subsequent story, follow a pattern in other cities where such charters have developed. Gulen schools around the world are known for their high-quality education and their focus on science, but their motives and practices have caused increased suspicion in a number of communities.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Charter schools receive public tax dollars. The Syracuse City School District, the home district for most SAS students, reimburses the charter school $11,930 per student, the same amount the district receives from the state in foundation aid. According to Suzanne Slack, the district’s chief financial officer, the Syracuse school district pays the charter an additional $5,568 for each special-education student. Twenty special-education students are among the 634 Syracuse students in the charter school. The dis trict also provides transportation and other supports for eligible students.

This creates a drain on the public schools, explains former Syracuse School District Superintendent Dan Lowengard, a consultant working with, among others, the Rochester city schools. Because the fixed costs of maintaining buildings and paying teachers don’t decline, there is no savings to the district when a student leaves for a charter school that offsets the money they take with them.

“You have—what?—30 schools in the district spread over 12 grades, so maybe you take one or two students from a classroom, and you haven’t saved anything,” says Lowengard.

At current enrollment levels, the city school district, with an annual budget of about $365 million, pays more than $7.67 million to the charter.

Damkaci—who is president of Terra Science Education Foundation, which owns the school buildings and runs the Genius Olympiad in which many charter students compete in science, art and creative writing—replies that charter schools do not receive building aid and have to finance construction and renovations on their own. He and Hayali both believe that they can do more with less. And as they get results, they keep parents happy and the waiting list grows year by year.

 

BRINGING IT HOME

“I like the mission,” says Collins. “I like the uniforms. I like the smaller classes. We haven’t had one bad experience here.”

Sage comes bounding out of the school, pigtails tight and her pink backpack over her blue-and-gray school uniform.

“And I love the home visits,” Collins says.

Home visits are an autumn ritual at both SAS schools. As the school year gets under way, teachers call on parents and grandparents in the home.

“We challenged our teachers to go to the homes of the students,” says Rev. Sherman Dunmore, who serves as a chaplain at Marcy Correctional Facility, near Utica, but was pastor of Peoples AME Zion church on the South Side of Syracuse when he became a board member of SAS. “They have to find out what makes them tick. Kids come in with their own culture. They see that the teachers care, and we meet the students where they are.”

The charter school’s mission, according to Damkaci, is to help every student get into the college of their choice and to complete their college studies.

“We don’t ask if you’re going to college,” he says. “We ask, ‘Which college do you want to go to?’” The school not only boasts a 96 percent graduation rate—the Syracuse school district recorded a 53 percent four-year graduation rate for students entering in 2007—but 98 percent of its graduates earn Regents diplomas, compared to 81 percent of city school kids.

In a city where parents know that there are risks to sending your kids to public schools, the charter school is a proven pathway to success, for those few who can get in. Ninety-eight percent of students entering in 2008 scored a 3 or 4 in English; 94 percent did as well in math. In the rest of the city high schools, the comparable figures were 58 percent in English and 60 percent in math.

And there is this: At the charter school, black students perform as well or better than white students in state testing. While standardized tests never tell the whole story, the numbers go a long way to explaining that long waiting list. In a city where black students routinely lag behind, at SAS 100 percent of African-American students tested in math had a 3 or a 4 (at or above proficiency), compared to 70 percent of white students. In city schools, white students outperformed their black classmates 63 percent to 57 percent on this standardized test.

Some SAS parents say they picked the charter option because they feared violence in the high schools.

“My daughter was going to go to Corcoran,” says Sarah Doe, who moved to Syracuse from Liberia in 2004, works in housekeeping for Loretto and whose daughter Georgetta Darcy attends the SAS High School. “They talked about guns; they have cameras in the schools. She’s safer here.”

Three Syracuse city schools were reported as “persistently dangerous” by New York in 2006. None have made the list since that time.

One robust critique of charter schools is that they cherry-pick only the best students, but at SAS, the student body reflects the demographics of the city school district: The city schools are 50 percent African American, and 54 percent of SAS students identify as such; 13 percent of school district students identify as Latino, compared with 17 percent at the charter school; 76 percent of SAS students qualify for free or reduced lunch, compared to 80 percent in the city district. (Not all students at SAS come from the city school district.)

Hayali concedes that since the parents have to fill out an application to enter their child in the lottery, his students are likely to come from families more committed to education. Since parental involvement is known to be a key to student success, those students with parents who take the trouble to have them apply are more likely to succeed.

Bev Collins is one of those parents, already thinking ahead to when Danny will enter the lottery for kindergarten.

“If he doesn’t get in,” she says, “I know I’m gonna cry.”

MORE HERE