Here’s a word problem: If Achievement First Amistad High School starts with a deficit of $126,000 at the beginning of an academic year and ends with a deficit of $24,000 at its end, by how many student seats did it overestimate? How did it close the financial gap? And how will it get the numbers right in the coming year?
That brain-teaser was central to a year-end wrap-up and look ahead at a joint meeting of the boards of directors that oversee New Haven’s five public charter schools run by the Achievement First (AF) organization. The meeting took place at Amistad Academy Elementary School on Edgewood Avenue last Wednesday.
The board dealt with the still-palpable ramifications of what Chief Financial and Operating Officer Max Polaner called a “negative surprise” this just-concluding academic year: a $105,000 budget gap due to under-enrollment at Amistad High School, which ended up with 10 fewer students than expected. (That’s $10,500 per student, if you’re interested in the math.)
That happened because Amistad High underestimated. Officials assumed that students graduating from Amistad Academy Middle School would all enter the high school. So the board miscalculated the number of seats that it would need to fill for the 2013-14 school year. While enrollment at the school is on the rise—375 students in 2013-14 up from 302 the previous year—fewer students entered than were budgeted for.
Faced with such shortages, charters generally turn to the controversial process of backfilling—pulling students from wait lists for as many seats as need to be filled.
But the high school wasn’t used to backfilling due to the aforementioned assumption. So it cut non-personnel costs to close the gap in the budget instead.
“The high school has been a school that we haven’t really backfilled from [yet] ... We generally draw on our existing middle schools. It’s not a normal practice, for instance, to do a lottery for a high school,” board member Michael Griffin explained.
The fix? For the coming 2014-15 academic year, Polaner said, New Haven’s Amistad Academy High School has put together a wait list of over 100 students who didn’t get in during the charter lottery. Mel Ochoa, senior director of marketing and communications at AF, defined the numbers more precisely: “a combined 9th and 10th grade waitlist in New Haven of 140 scholars.”
In addition, Polaner explained, the AF board will work with the schools to “build up” third and seventh grades this year, and fourth and eighth grades the following—both long-term ensurers of high school enrollment. That’s in addition to the “Newhallville Agreement” struck in 2012, which will allot for 10 New Haven public school students at Amistad High starting in at its new Dixwell Avenue location in fall 2016.
Other numbers revealed at the board meeting were more promising. While Amistad High ended the year with a deficit of $22,000, Amistad Middle and Elementary Schools reported surpluses of $8,000 and $51,000 respectively. In the next year, the board projects receiving an extra $500 per student and paying a 4 percent increase in teachers’ wages. Precise city government funding has not yet been factored in.
Looking Back to Move Forward
The discussion of wait lists and balanced finances was part of a broader end-of-year discussion at last week’s meeting, the bimonthly gathering of the board that governs New Haven’s five charters, public schools that operate outside the purview of the city board of education. Coming three weeks before the end of the 2013-14 academic year, the meeting was also a chance for board members and educators to reflect honestly upon goals met and deferred throughout the year. These included:
• Typing Challenge: While announcing that she had seen “progress in all grade levels” and continues to have “robust goals for family and students [that] we are close to meeting,” Amanda Alonzy, principal at Amistad Academy Elementary School, noted that students in every grade are having more difficulty than predicted with reading and math portions of the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Test, which is more in line with standards set by the Common Core than the legacy Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT). “I really thought they would do better…we definitely need to re-strategize,” she said. The root of the problem, she explained, is the page-to-computer – or rather, pencil-to-keyboard – transition: Students may excel in the critical thinking portion of exercises, but are tripped up when they are required to type their responses.
• Emphasis on the 3’s and 4’s: Both Alonzy and Andrew Poole (pictured), principal at ECCP, noted that this has been a strong year for students in the third and fourth grades. “Fourth graders seem to be moving multiple levels in one year,” Alonzy said. “Third and fourth graders are outperforming a lot of schools in the network,” added Poole, citing Common Core standards with which students are now in keeping.
• There’s always a But: Despite significant progress and an assurance that the students are “meeting the goals of common core standards,” Poole said the school – and student body – may not yet be truly representing college readiness. “We’re still trying to find a way to close the gap,” he said.
• Parental involvement: Parent activist Khadijah Muhammad stressed the importance of increased parental involvement, and its connection to students’ success in and outside of school walls. “If you do not include parents, the students will not be successful,” she said.
“Know Better, Do Better”
Standing in front of handwritten prompts that read “I would like to learn more about” and “I would like to work with directors to create a solution for…,” Scot Kerr (pictured) took comments and questions from Amistad Academy, Elm City College Prep Elementary, and Achievement First board members.
Attendees were receptive to the prompts. “When you know better, you do better,” said AF’s Chastity Lord (virtually present via phone), citing Maya Angelou. Of the questions raised – from feasibility of meeting with directors to Achievement First’s philanthropy practices – increased student support remained at the core of the discussion.
“Are we really geared up to help kids who are going through that self-exploration? Is there more that can be done to help kids who need support?” asked Pat Sweet, who works for AF and for the Northeast Charter Schools Network.
The answer to that and more, Kerr suggested, will come in focused discussions and workshops at the board summer retreat, projected for the end of July.