What happens when a charter school set up to prove a point now finds itself on the brink of closure? That’s the question facing the UFT Charter School operating in East New York, a brainchild of United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and a test case set up to show that the early successes of charter schools could be replicated by one that was still bound by a union employment contract.
At GothamSchools, Philissa Cramer and Geoff Decker explain that the UFT Charter opened its doors in 2005 and set out to show that it could work just as well to help high-need students as the charters that weren’t involved with unions. The beginning was auspicious. The SUNY Board of Trustees authorized the school and, backed by a grant from the Broad Foundation, the UFT opened in a building it currently shares with Junior High School 166.
Although the school thrived for the first three years, its fortunes took on a decidedly downward slope. A revolving door of faculty and administrators meant that the school had problems holding on to a principal. Rita Danis and Drew Goodman, picked to head up the elementary and secondary school in the charter’s first year, resigned after three years due to conflict with staff and the community. Although the replacement for Danis, Michelle Bodden, is still heading up the elementary, the secondary school has gone through four principals since Goodman left.
Now the school is facing its toughest hurdle yet. Its authorization to operate is up for review next year, and some are speculating that its recent results don’t warrant a renewal. Three years ago the school was granted just a three-year extension rather than a five-year renewal. The SUNY CSI Board explained that the academic performance of the school had roused concerns among board members.
If SUNY CSI decides to close the school, it would mark the embarrassing end of Weingarten’s high-stakes bet that teachers can run a school as well, or better, than the Department of Education or other charter school operators, as long as no one is telling them what to do.
It isn’t certain that the school could lose its charter outright. SUNY CSI has a history of allowing schools to drastically restructure in order to continue operating — and UFT Charter leaders could be planning to put a similar plan into effect. There is speculation that SUNY CSI could ask the school to close its secondary division and continue offering elementary education only, as the results posted by students there are much stronger.
Another possibility is to hand the reins over to a different charter operator, similar to what Harlem Day Charter School did in 2011 when it was facing closure. But no formal process exists to make such a transition happen, and even if it did, convincing someone to take over the school would be a hard sell.