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Riverhead school board criticizes head of charter school 

Although the Riverhead Charter School has yet to file an official application for its planned expansion on Sound Avenue, Riverhead Board of Education members are urging the Town Board to consider the impact that expansion would have on the town’s public school system. 

At a Feb. 27 school board meeting, district officials issued a statement opposing the Riverhead Charter School’s expansion plan and accused its superintendent, Raymond Ankrum, of spreading “disinformation.” 

On Nov. 30, the charter school’s board approved the use of $4.5 million from its reserve fund for the purchase of two properties on Sound Avenue: one vacant 12.3-acre parcel that would be used for the construction of a new school building and outdoor athletic facilities and a 59.5-acre property that can be used only for commercial farming. 

Mr. Ankrum discussed the charter school’s purchase proposal at a Feb. 17 Jamesport Civic Association meeting, where he attempted to differentiate the charter school’s academic achievements from those of the Riverhead Central School District. 

In their statement, Riverhead Board of Education members said they believed Mr. Ankrum was “attacking” public school students’ test scores by comparing them to charter school students’ results. 

“It is the district’s belief that Mr. Ankrum is putting forth a spurious and false narrative in an effort to confuse parents and attract more students to his charter school,” the school board’s statement said. “To this end, the district believes he is attempting to obfuscate the issues and falsely discredit the Riverhead [Central] School District, the dedication and commitment to excellence of our teaching and support staff, and the achievements of our students.” 

In their letter, the board members claimed that comparing test scores is like comparing “apples to oranges,” saying there is no basis for it.

Public school districts are required by law to accept and provide educational and support services to all children residing in the district’s catchment area — including special needs and English as a New Language (ENL) students. 

Roughly 54% of the Riverhead school district’s student population is enrolled in special needs or ENL programs, board members wrote, which can impact test scores. Their letter also claimed that the special needs population at Riverhead Charter School is just 5% . Board of Education members hope that the Town Board will be mindful of both short-and long-term potential impacts on district finances when reviewing the charter school development proposal.

The SUNY Charter Schools Institute defines charter schools as publicly funded, tuition-free schools created by parents, educators and community leaders that operate independently from local school districts. Admissions are open to “all students, regardless of race, creed, gender, national origin, religion, ancestry, disability, aptitude or athletic ability.” 

The New York State Education Department’s charter school office states on its website that any child eligible for admission to a traditional public school is eligible for admission to a charter public school and can enter the “non-discriminatory” lottery system. This random selection process is used when the number of applicants exceeds the number of available seats at the charter school. However, when it comes to who is chosen in the lottery, NYSED said on its website that charter schools typically give preference to “at risk” students, siblings of students already enrolled in the charter school and students living in the charter school’s community district location. 

The first authorized charter school in New York opened its doors in Harlem in 1999, after passage of the New York Charter Schools Act of 1998. As of the 2023-24 academic year, there are approximately 343 active charter schools serving over 170,000 students statewide, according to NYSED

Under New York law, the number of charter schools allowed to operate statewide is limited to 460, according to the SUNY Charter School Institute

The Riverhead Charter School was founded in September 2001 as a K-6 school. At the start of the 2022-23 school year, they opened a high school campus at the refurbished Old Northville School House on Sound Avenue. Last year, the school’s charter was expanded, allowing for the addition of 11th and 12th grades, and expanding enrollment to 1,244 students. Prior to that, students in grades 9 and 10 shared the building at the school’s campus on Middle Country Road in Calverton with K-8 students.

If approved, the new building planned for Sound Avenue, which is expected to be completed in roughly five to seven years, would accommodate more than 400 high school students.

According to its website, the Riverhead Charter School is accepting applications for the 2024-25 school year until Sunday, March 31. If those applications outnumber available seats, the school will hold a public admissions lottery on Tuesday, April 9. Students will be chosen randomly until the enrollment capacity is reached. 

Since 2017, the Riverhead Central School District has paid more than $57 million to support the Riverhead Charter School — and the costs of maintaining certain services and programs there continue to rise, the school board wrote in its letter.

“The tens of millions of dollars that have been diverted is money that could have been used for expanding current course offerings or introducing new courses, and taking care of critical infrastructure needs without having to ask the community to approve bonds,” the statement read. 

In response to the Board of Education’s letter, Mr. Ankrum emailed a statement to the News-Review saying that, despite spending no money on advertising so far this year, the charter school has received a “record number of applications, with many coming from Riverhead Central School District families.”

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools notes that charter schools will accept any student, regardless of their school zoning. For example, the Riverhead charter school population includes students from the William Floyd Union Free School District, Longwood Central School District and Middle Country School District.

“We must be clear that we are not competing with Riverhead Central School District for students; there’s no comparison between our academic programs,” Mr. Ankrum said in his email. “We have never intended to attract students from older grades and prefer them to experience our entire program from kindergarten to 12th grade.” 

He added that the large number of applications reflects the “growing trend of parents seeking choice in their children’s education.” 

Mr. Ankrum said that a student retention survey is conducted annually and while some students have chosen to return to Riverhead public schools in the past, only six out of the charter school’s 900 current students have indicated an intent to leave.

“I want to thank the Riverhead Charter School teachers and administrators for fostering a welcoming environment where parents feel valued,” Mr. Ankrum said in his statement. 

He noted that Riverhead Central School District has been a “designated target district” since 2016, which is a measure of school performance established by the state education department. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, targeted school districts must identify main challenges they face and come up with solutions to improve. 

According to a letter Mr. Ankrum provided to the News-Review, which the district previously sent to the community, the state education department provided Riverhead public school officials with their Accountability Status Determinations for the 2023-24 school year. 

 William Galati, the district’s assistant superintendent for secondary education, grants and student outcomes, informed families of what these determinations mean for each of its seven Riverhead schools.

The district as a whole was deemed a targeted district because Riverhead Middle School, Phillips Avenue Elementary School and Roanoke Avenue Elementary School were identified as needing improvements. For example, Phillips Avenue Elementary School received a Targeted Support and Improvement rating, which means the school is “consistently underperforming,” as defined by the state. 

According to the NYSED, to exit Target District status, a district must not have any component schools or subgroups that meet these identification criteria for two consecutive years. 

“We will not engage Mr. Ankrum in, what we believe [is], his disingenuous diatribe against our District or in his attempts to sway the Town Board and this community by offering up what we believe are half-truths and disinformation regarding the charter school and our District,” the Riverhead school board wrote. “We would invite any parent considering a charter school — Mr. Ankrum’s or any other — to consider the diversity of experiences their child can only get in our public schools, the opportunities to follow their passions in the arts, athletics or even in the area of career and technical education, that they can only get in our public schools — and then make an informed and objective decision.”