Parents fight to keep charter school open

Save our school. Save their education. That was the message of about 250 International Charter Schoo
International Charter School student Kristy McFarline, 7, holds a sign supporting the school at a presentation to in the school’s auditorium on Tuesday.
International Charter School student Kristy McFarline, 7, holds a sign supporting the school at a presentation to in the school’s auditorium on Tuesday.

Save our school. Save their education.

That was the message of about 250 International Charter School of Schenectady staff, faculty, parents and students who attended a two-hour meeting Tuesday night with representatives from the state Charter Schools Institute. Earlier this month, the institute released a draft report recommending closing the school at the end of this academic year.

Board President Tracy Petersen said the school has been through tremendous change during the past year. In March, it fired SABIS — the educational management company that had run the school since its inception in 2002. Last spring, the institute had originally recommended a three-year renewal and the State University of New York Board of Trustees changed that to a one-year renewal. In January, the school fired former director Sam Penceal.

However, Petersen said, academic performance demonstrated by recent test scores has improved, behavior is better and finances have stabilized.

“The same institute that recommended a three-year renewal when there was chaos and uncertainty last year, now recommends closure when we have made improvements,” she said.

Charter school officials have formally submitted a request for a three-year “restructuring renewal.” Petersen said because the school has gone through so much change, the board thought this was a prudent step.

She criticized the institute for using only test data from the period when the school was managed by SABIS. It also gave an inordinate amount of weight to the representatives’ two-day visit to the school last November, which was barely two months into the year under a new administration. She said that the institute has refused an invitation to revisit the school.

“Do the right thing and put aside whatever other agenda you might have and think only of the best interest of this community and change the recommendation to what the school deserves — a renewal for three years,” she said.

Cynthia Proctor, director of public affairs for the institute, said the request will be considered. The institute is under a tight time frame. It has to deliver its final recommendation to the SUNY Committee on Charter Schools, which will take up the charter school’s application at its meeting March 3 at 10:30 a.m. at the SUNY building in Albany. It then makes a recommendation to the full SUNY board, which is to act at its March 11 meeting.

Proctor said the institute received about 40 letters from the school’s letter-writing campaign. They also received additional data and corrections it will have to review.

School officials also spoke about the changes the school has made to improve academic performance. After students performed poorly on practice English language arts exam, the school redoubled its efforts to improve comprehension and writing skills and did the same on the mathematics exam.

Officials said for the English exam this year, 58 percent of third-graders, 66 percent of fourth-graders and 47 percent of fifth-graders showed proficiency. This is anywhere from a 13 percent to 23 percent increase from scores during the same time last year.

Classroom management was cited in the institute’s draft report. Music teacher Gary Schenk said the school has taken steps to improve student behavior, including implementing a color-coded card system and rewarding students who stay out of trouble with gift certificates and other prizes. Students singled out for being role models also win prizes.

Another issue was financial viability. About 150 students left the school from June of last year to September. Because of the lower enrollment, Penceal had to lay off three teachers and two support staffers in art and music.

Charter school officials handed the media a copy of a Feb. 19 letter from First Niagara Bank Vice President James J. Gerardi stating that “Management has demonstrated exceptional financial oversight as evidenced by year over year improvement in the school’s financial position.”

Parents also got a chance to weigh in and said the school needed more time to fulfill its potential.

Sharlene Harris’ 11-year-old daughter, Dominique Barnes, has attended the school since its inception. Harris said she appreciates the individual attention, which she does not believe she would get in the Schenectady School District.

“It means a lot to us to know that our children will not be just a number that’s collecting state funds,” she said.

Bryant Williams, who has a 9-year-old third-grade daughter named Phaedra, said he relocated back to Schenectady because of the education his daughter was receiving.

“These are the people that have a heart that know our kids,” he said.

Petersen said after the meeting she was optimistic. “I’m feeling good. It’s finally at a point where I’m not worried anymore,” she said.

The school operates out of the former Draper School in Rotterdam; it draws $9,500 in state aid for every student who enrolls, taking that aid from the public districts. Most charter students come from the Schenectady city district.

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