Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ross Launches Missile and Goes Ballistic

If you've been reading a lot at Ed Notes about Ross Global Charter and its founder Courtney Sale Ross, (Chutzpah Courtney Keeps Complaining in the Midst of RGC Chaos,  Treat Public Schools Like Ross Global Charter) this is because as Lisa Donlan put it, Ross is "the allegory of its time." When even slugs like Whitney Tilson and DFER's Joe Williams say Ross should be closed, we are in a battle royal. And even Tweed's attack dog Natalie Ravitz points out:
that more than 40 percent of Ross’s teachers left each year, including 77 percent last year....Ross Global Academy, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school with 400 students, was on its sixth principal during its brief existence.
“Ross Global Academy has failed to serve its students well — it has high turnover in its student body, very high teacher turnover, very high principal turnover, and it made the least progress of any lower school in the city last year.."

How Natalie comes to the conclusion that Ross has served its students well given her litany of limitations of RGC is beyond me.

The NY Times I'm quoting from above jumped into the Ross Charter School controversy with both feet ((NY Times on Ross Global Charter).
When the city provided a home five years ago for the Ross Global Academy, a charter school founded by the widow of a media executive, its opponents complained about what they considered preferential treatment for a member of the moneyed elite. But last month, the Department of Education announced that the school would be closed because of poor performance.
The attempts by Courtney Sale Ross, widow of Time Warner media magnet Steve Ross, to keep her failed charter school open is getting uglier and uglier as she launches missile after missile at other charter schools and their political influence. Which is very funny when you consider that Ross got her school in the first place due to political influence - supposedly Joel Klein's wife's friend. Which is why Joel was afraid to close them down years ago - afraid of his wife. Maybe that is why he resigned - so he won't be around to face the wrath of Ross. This section of the Times piece reveals the extraordinary influence Ross had with Klein.
The city has given free space in existing public schools to many charter schools, and in 2006, when Ross was created, the city originally planned to place it in a Lower East Side building belonging to a magnet school for gifted children [NEST]. Parents of that school opposed the move, and Mr. Klein relented, allowing Ross to temporarily use space inside the Department of Education headquarters on Chambers Street [Tweed]. After Ross was given space in another public school building on East 12th Street, it poured more than $3.5 million into renovations, which might now be inherited by Girls Prep.
Let me expound on this a bit. Ross tried to jump into the elite NEST school on the lower east side and really stepped in it as she came face to face with another diva [Celenia Chevere - except Chevere was a self-made woman while Ross just made Steve]. The NEST story is covered in NY Mag writer Jeff Coplon's amazing July 2007 piece of writing (NEST+m: An Allegory), truly a must read. Jeff describes the founding of NEST, an elite K-12 school by Chancellor Harold Levy in 2000. Here is Jeff's intro into diva 2:
The chancellor knew that his brainchild would need a lightning rod, a leader driven and unyielding. He chose Celenia Chévere, a petite firebrand with boundless energy, a blinding smile, and a hair-trigger temper. From her start as a lowly teacher’s assistant in the late seventies, she’d become one of the most coveted—and controversial—principals around.

After raising two daughters as a single mother (enrolling the younger one, at great sacrifice, at Calhoun), Chévere knew the value of a superior public school. In 1986, when a freestanding gifted program sounded radical, she founded Lower Laboratory in District 2. Ten years later, on East 106th Street, she opened the Young Women’s Leadership School, an oasis of Oriental carpets and nunnery quiet against the raging picket lines of now and the NYCLU. Yet despite her brilliance as a “starter,” Chévere never stayed in one place too long. She ran a building like Hubie Brown coached a basketball team, with an overbearing manner that soon wore thin. “If you did not conform,” says a source who worked with her in East Harlem, “she would destroy you.”
The 3 year old Coplon article is an attack on an elite concept of schools that often turns racial, but that is not the point of this blog post. I'm interested in how Chevere, who had been a Klein target - he went after public school diva principals of both sexes while loving charter school diva operators -  was brought down by her conflict with Ross, which on first look she won, but ended up losing the war. Coplon writes:
And then...came a more-formidable invader: Ross Global Academy. The battle was great theater while it lasted, class warfare behind a scrim of cognitive dissonance. In one corner, the platinum-coiffed Courtney Ross, two-time member of the Forbes 400, now paladin of the Lower East Side families she’d recruited for her charter school; in the other, NEST’s pugnacious principal, a generation removed from poverty in Puerto Rico, now raising the moat at her middle-class bastion.

Playing their zero-sum game, the NEST community jitneyed to picket Ross’s school in East Hampton and stalked the mayor at City Hall. More than 500 parents and students banged drums and maracas outside Cipriani Wall Street, where Klein was keynoting the black-tie Graham Windham Bicentennial Ball. The PTA officers filed a lawsuit—not merely to challenge the “hostile takeover,” but to revoke Ross’s charter.
Can you imagine how livid Joel Klein was at Chevere for going after his wife's supposed pal Courtney's guts? (I'm not taking Chevere's side here as she was also a piece of work.)
When the DoE’s auditors came to check the school’s capacity last spring [that would be 2006], according to Tweed, Chévere shuttled students from class to class, à la Mack Sennett, to show there was no room at the inn. It became clear, Klein says, that the principal “was not leading the school in good faith. Look, nobody likes to share space, but we have space needs—we’re in this as a city.” Improbably, NEST had made Courtney Ross an underdog. Even those allergic to charter schools wondered if NEST’s parents, deep down, feared that their darlings would get jostled en route to algebra by some poor black and Latin children. (It didn’t help when a reporter overheard a young NESTer ask his father, “Will the Ross kids be loud?”)

The game was up when NEST enlisted its godfather, the one person who could trump Bloomberg and Klein: Sheldon Silver. By a matter of yards, NEST fell inside the Assembly Speaker’s home district—geography turned destiny once more. With Silver controlling the fate of a bill to lift the charter school cap, a mayoral fixation, Klein couldn’t afford to antagonize him. (According to Armstrong, the line in the sand was drawn at a tense meeting in the NEST library: “Shelly stood up and pointed to Houston Street and said, ‘My district ends here, Joel.’”)

Finally, the chancellor blinked, sticking Ross into a guest room at his Tweed Courthouse. Victory, though, was Pyrrhic for NEST. “The chancellor was so pissed at Celenia that she was gone,” says a former Chévere supervisor. “How can you run the system if a principal can defy you like that?” Last June [2006], the DoE disclosed that Chévere had been charged with misconduct—in connection with her building’s audit—and that her tenure at NEST was done.
OMG. Klein had to insert Ross Global right into the belly of his own building. And what a mess that turned out to be. When I was at Tweed for press events I witnessed just how wiggy a school RGC was. When people who worked there looked at you their eyes would sink deeper into their heads. Klein finally tossed Ross into another space on E. 12 St.

And here is where it starts to get even uglier (and so much fun.) The NY Times article is more than a little revealing as Ross targets another sleazeball charter operator - Girls Prep.
In a letter to state education officials this week urging a reversal of the city’s decision, the school says that its newly renovated building on East 12th Street has been promised to Girls Prep, another politically connected charter school on the Lower East Side that has long been yearning for better real estate. The letter also questions whether there was any connection involving Girls Prep’s chairwoman, Sarah Robertson, the daughter-in-law of the prominent financier Julian Robertson, and $25 million in contributions made in recent years by the Robertson Foundation to three entities closely associated with the former schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein.
the school’s decision to publicize its fight throws into the open, in raw and awkward fashion, the tight relationship between the city, which has promoted the creation of charter schools in general, and the wealthy patrons of some of those schools.
An internal Department of Education planning document indicates that the intermediate grades of Girls Prep, a single-sex school whose lower grades are located in a public school on East Houston Street, would indeed assume Ross Global Academy’s space by September. The girls prep middle school is currently in temporary, rented space
But the city vigorously denied any kind of ulterior motive.
 Now this is where it gets delicious:
David M. Steiner, the state education commissioner, is weighing the petition by the academy to overturn the city’s decision not to renew the charter. To bolster that petition, Ross Global Academy notes that from 2003 to 2008, the Robertson Foundation donated $5 million to the Department of Education; more than $11 million to the New York City Charter School Center (on whose board Mr. Klein sits); and $8 million to the Fund for Public Schools, which was established by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein. Information on donations for 2009 and 2010 was not available.
Remember old Julian Robertson and his son Spencer (Sarah's hubbie) who was given part of PS 15 in Red Hook for his PAVE charter school? Our pals from CAPE became activated by all of this and have been firm GEM allies, so it was not all bad. CAPE has pointed to these donations for years but were ignored. But when Courtney makes the charge, the NY Times jumps. 
CAPE/GEM's Julie Cavanagh comments:

Well this is truly ironic. Wonder if Ms. Ross and her PR/legal team are interested in defending ps 15 (in Red Hook, BK)... Robertson's son is squeezing out our SUCCESSful public school from our building and no one was interested when we cried foul and preferential treatment or even raised an eyebrow when we brought up Robertson's contributions. (Of course in Ross' case the claim is baseless bc their school is clearly a horrible place for kids.) Also, are we calling our schools "lower schools" now a la Cathleen Black? (See Ratvich statement) No thanks.
Followed by Lisa Donlan
Irony of ironies- they could all have avoided this mud slinging, mud wrestling, tattle taleing pr battles in the media, temper tantrum meltdowns, protests and wrenching apart of communities if they'd JUST BUY OR RENT THEIR SCHOOL BUILDINGS. Sure goes to show that just because these guys got rich doing business does not mean they are smart or even strategic (look at Bloomberg!).

But the blame goes right on Klein and his team who offered the lure of "free" rent to these monied start ups.
So, now we are witness to a pissing contest between the rich spoiled clueless CMO's duking it out over market share and a real estate shortage ( and another 100 charters to go), while they find innovative ways to make money off of other people's money and other people's children.
Don't you miss the days when education reform was about teaching, learning, pedagogy, educational philosophy?

Couldn't you really enjoy a good old fashioned polemic overmath manipulatives or inventive spelling just about now?

 We are so far into the world beyond the looking glass we may never get back to kids and helping them learn about the world.

 Data, data measurement.  data warehousing, data manipulation, technology, innovation, school of one- NOTHING BUT SNAKE OIL, FOLKS. Isn't this really another way to separate the fools from their wallets, just like always?

We been had, and we been had bad.
And then there's this from charter school parent and leader of the independent NY Charter Parent Association Mona Davids, who comments on this point made in the Times piece about James Merriman:
Ms. Ross was deeply disappointed in James D. Merriman, chief executive of the New York City Charter School Center, whom she had consulted as recently as a month ago about the fate of her school. “She had no idea at the time that this was all about getting her building to Robertson’s daughter-in-law,” Mr. Little said. “She feels betrayed by Merriman because she had regarded him as a confidant and a supporter of the school.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Merriman, Kerri Lyon, said, “The conspiracy theory suggested in the letter is a sad and desperate attempt to divert attention from the fact that there are legitimate questions about whether this school should remain open.
Mona says:
James Merriman tried his best to hijack NYCPA and when he couldn't get it, tried his best to undermine our organization, even creating a fake grassroots organization run by the charter center. He opposes PA/PTA's in charters. He says it erodes the autonomy of charters. There's no need for the charter center to exist anymore other than to pay Merriman's salary. There are many consulting companies and the NY Charter Schools Association which provide support and services to applicants and school leaders.
Oh, what fun this is turning out to be. Remember when Mona was part of the crew favoring PAVE just 15 months ago and has now become a staunch ally and resister and one of Julie's and Lisa's best pals? Wait till the Harlem charter schools not part of the favored Democracy Prep, Harlem Success or KIPP start to get squeezed out of the picture. We may have to push our new allies off the resistance boat with a stick.


Anonymous said...

of course I am totally and unabashedly biased- but this is Pulitzer winning level stuff- just terrific.
I enjoyed reading it- you have such a way with words and dots (connecting them, that is!)

We can almost imagine that: with enemies like this, who needs friends?
Looking forward to more reporting on charter on charter celebrity take downs.


Michael Fiorillo said...

Great piece, Norm.

In these people's frenzy to get unchecked control of the school systems' real estate, employment practices, vending and service contracts, etc., they appear to be in danger of cannibalizing each other. Or, more likely, the sacrifice of Ms. Ross' vanity project was deemed cost effective from a PR viewpoint: "see, we'll uproot charter school students just as readily as public school students!"

But then, that's the logical conclusion of social darwinism and greed run amok, isn't it?

The deeper reality is cruel, despite any amusement or pleasure derived from seeing these worthies piss on each other in public.

We are living under a regime whose policies are a form of social vandalism, with parents and communities disenfranchised, with schools that have served those communities for generations being destroyed, multitudes of children subjected to educational malpractice, and the teaching profession facing destruction.

All that said, it's also true there's a fundamental contradiction with the charter school model that may limit its ability to "come up to scale," as the venture capitalists co-funding it (along with you and me) like to say: namely, the potential pool of kids who can be cherry-picked and who can adjust to these boot camps is limited. Once they have soaked up those children, what do they do? They can't maintain their smoke and mirrors if their student populations mirror the communities in which they are located.

So, then what? Well, one emerging market will be taking over poor and working class suburban districts, which are fast taking on the demographic and economic characteristics of the (now rapidly gentrifying) inner city.

Or finally, maybe it's beyond vandalism. Take a good look at and listen carefully to Michele Rhee: with her it verges on nihilism.

Anonymous said...


Great piece.

Just have to add: Fiorillo should write a book. Insight and analysis. Think Maddow would let him on her show? I know the answer.

Great work guys.

John Powers

Mona said...

The charter fight has reached the philanthropy society blogs... Too funny.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy - Connecting the nonprofit world with news, jobs, and ideas
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Charter School’s Donor Ties at Issue in N.Y. Dispute

January 13, 2011, 9:31 am

A New York charter school founded by a wealthy widow is claiming another institution’s links to a well-connected donor are behind the city’s decision to shut the school, according toThe New York Times.

The Department of Education announced last month that it would close Ross Global Academy due to poor performance and turn over its building to Girls Prep, another charter school chaired by the daughter-in-law of the financier Julian Robertson. Officials cited Ross’s poor test scores and high turnover of teachers and principals.

In a letter seeking a reversal of the decision, a lawyer for Courtney Sale Ross, founder of the academy, noted that Mr. Robertson’s foundation has donated $25-million in recent years to public and private education organizations associated with Joel I. Klein, the former New York schools chancellor.

Ms. Ross was married to the late Time Warner chairman Steven J. Ross, prompting allegations that the city was catering to the wealthy elite when it offered Ross Global the East 12th Street building five years ago.

The city has denied any bias, and the article did not include any comments from Mr. Robertson.