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Big Brother on the Lesson Plan

Two former teachers leave Albany charter school Achievement Academy amid controversy

On Sept. 29, my classroom was videotaped without my knowledge or consent, as well as without my students’ knowledge or consent, and without their parents’ knowledge or consent,” Ryan Roberts told the Albany Common Council Monday night during the public- comment period of its regular meeting. The video camera was brought into Roberts’ classroom at Achievement Academy Charter School by the dean of students, she said, hidden in a binder and covered with a black sweater. The camera was placed in the back of the room, taping her as she taught. It was her students who noticed the camera’s red light blinking.

Two days later, Roberts was fired from her job as a social studies teacher. “These charter schools are receiving taxpayer funds,” she said, “and as a taxpayer I wonder if they are following appropriate protocols.”

Roberts contacted Councilman James Sano about the incident, which led Sano to spend his own time investigating it.

Sano said that he contacted M. Christian Bender, the executive director of the Brighter Choice Foundation, which supports Achievement Academy. Sano said that Bender assured him that the videotaping did not occur, “at all.”

According to Sano, it was difficult at first to figure out whom to call about the incident. “I don’t get a newsletter from the charter schools telling me who their board of directors is. I get stuff all the time from the school district telling me who to contact in case there is a problem. It was the first time I have had to deal with the charter school system, and here as an elected official I can say that it wasn’t difficult. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a regular citizen.”

This was Roberts’ first full-time teaching job; she had done a year as the building substitute at Doyle Middle School in Troy. After getting a few pointers from her new bosses—they said that she wasn’t being strict enough—she thought she was living up to her obligations in the classroom. After an in-class observation by the dean of students, she said, she even received an e-mail praising her ability to improve based on their critiques.

Carol Connelly, a colleague of Roberts at Achievement Academy, told Metroland that Roberts was “a great teacher. She has a great rapport with her students. She has great discipline. And then her students come into the classroom last week, and they are all up in arms. I asked them what was wrong, and they said that she had been fired. I didn’t believe it. I thought it was absolutely not true.”

Connelly said that her classroom also had been surreptitiously videotaped. About a month before, the administration had told the teachers that they were “thinking about purchasing video cameras,” in the ramp-up for the charter review, she said. At the end of October, Achievement Academy will be reviewed by the state to determine whether or not the school’s license will be renewed for another three or five years.

According to Connelly, the teachers were told that the cameras likely would be used to record the teachers during classes for “mentoring purposes, for critique.” However, Connelly alleged, this was as far as the conversation went. None of the teachers, nor the students, signed waivers agreeing to be videotaped after this meeting, and no one was notified that this was going to be taking place.

“Then I came in from lunch with my students and there was a camera hidden under a sweater,” she said, sitting in the back of the room. “I could see the red light blinking. Then the sweater fell off. The students were saying, ‘I feel violated. You can’t videotape me without my parental consent.’ ”

Usually, she said, the students would be notified beforehand, and notices would be sent home to parents to alert them of the practice.

“There is no law, but it is usually school policy,” she continued, to get these release forms signed for videotaping. When Connelly brought the issue up with the school’s principal, O’Rita Swan, she was told by Swan that the students all know that there are surveillance cameras in the schools. At the beginning of the year, the parents are informed. Swan claimed, according to Connelly, that this gave the school the ability to “direct- camera video them and you.”

“But that is not the same thing,” argued Connelly, who taught for nine years in the Bronx for the New York City Department of Education.

Both women are seeking legal counsel.

Swan directed Metroland to Bender, the executive director of Brighter Choice Foundation and the chairman of the board for Achievement Academy. Bender said that the taping had been discussed with the teachers, and that it was in no way secretive.

“One was taped and one wasn’t,” Bender said. “But they had full notice. The cameras were not hidden; they were out in the open.”

He said that Roberts was let go for poor performance.

Connelly quit the same day that Roberts was fired. The videotaping had been the final straw for her. She had been disappointed with her experience at Achievement, saying that the school does little in the way of constructive education.

“We don’t have textbooks. There are no textbooks. They bought or got free teachers’ editions from McGraw Hill,” she said. “And at first they were letting us copy on the copier unlimited. So you have a teacher taking Watership Down and copying all of it, violating copyright law, and the director of academics knows that she is doing it.”

Roberts agreed that there were teachers copying full novels for students.

“You are sending a message to our kids,” Connelly said. “They know that they don’t have books. That’s not an ethical role model.”

Roberts had only 24 textbooks for 30 students, she said. “I had to make some students share. But no one could even take them home at night.”

“I haven’t had the chance to look into this,” Bender replied. “I will look into that.”

Achievement Academy, a charter middle school on South Dove Street, is not like the schools Connelly is used to teaching in, she said. There are no essays or book reports. She said that at Achievement, the teachers were expected to teach to the weekly tests, which are designed to prepare students for annual state examinations. The weekly tests are based on New York state’s annual assessment testing, and teachers are expected to base their lesson plans on preparing students for the state’s assessment tests. This is the sole way that the students get their grades, Connelly said.

Connelly said that she was offered bonuses of $3,000 to $4,000 if her students’ test scores increased.

Bender said that merit pay is available, and that test results are a large part of that calculation.

Roberts agreed with Connelly, saying that the charter school was primarily interested in preparing students for the state examinations.

“We were essentially teaching the topics that appeared on past exams,” Roberts said. “Hot topics that are asked every year, warm topics show up frequently but not on every assessment.”

These topics are the basis for each teachers’ curriculum.

“We are OK with being held accountable by means of the state test, and we don’t apologize for this,” Bender said. “It is beyond my comprehension that a professional would take a job at a charter school and then complain that the school places a lot of importance in testing.”

“At Achievement Academy, their answer is always, ‘We’re charter, and we don’t have to abide by the same rules,’” Connelly said. “How do you work under those terms?”

Achievement Academy will be reviewed later this month by the state to see whether or not the school’s charter will be renewed and for how long.

—Chet Hardin

Rensselaer County Rumpus

Democrats try, and fail, to get in front of the WFP voter-fraud scandal

“For the record, we want it known that the Democratic Party does not encourage such actions and does not condone such actions,” said Rensselaer County Democratic Party Chairman Tom Wade. On Monday, Wade put himself in the awkward position of trying to deflect the media’s attention away from his own party’s voter-fraud scandal involving the Working Families Party line and toward the Democrats’ willing foil, Bob Mirch. Multiple Democrats have been indicated in an apparent scheme to forge more than three dozen absentee ballots in the WFP primary.

Wade was joined by a cast of Troy Democrats, including Troy City Councilmen Clem Campana, John Brown and Gary Galuski, as well as council candidates Mike LoPorto and Robert Martiniano. Not present, however, were candidate Kevin McGrath and City Clerk Bill McInerney, who are both implicated in Mirch’s recent voter-fraud allegations.

As has been widely reported, allegations surfaced after the Sept. 15 primary election that members of the Democratic Party in Rensselaer County engaged in an extensive operation to forge dozens of absentee ballots in the WFP primary. Mirch claims to have been alerted to the alleged fraud the day before the Primary. He undertook his own investigation and produced numerous affidavits, which he presented to the district attorney’s office.

More than 30 of these ballots have since been thrown out by Judge Michael Lynch.

Wade announced at the midmorning press conference that he would be turning over affidavits of allegedly damning activity on the part of Mirch to the special prosecutor in the case, Trey Smith, in the hope that Smith would expand his current investigation “across Rensselaer County.”

“We will provide his office with affidavits of illegal activity by the Republican Party, specifically the Republican Party’s chief finger-pointer,” Wade said. “Essentially, to use an old cliché, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

The “chief finger-pointer” is, of course, Mirch.

During this year’s primary elections, Wade continued, there were irregularities in Nassau, Brunswick, Hoosick and Schodack. “A thorough, objective investigation by a special prosecutor will unveil a culture of corruption within the county Republican administration.”

Next up, Troy City Council President Clem Campana told the press that “for years, the Department of Public Works has been a well-oiled political machine.” He added that he receives phone calls from people who work for the city and feel intimidated by Mirch. Campana said that they claim they must go along with his political agenda or suffer retribution. This is an old accusation against Mirch, one that the Democrats have tried for years to make stick.

As far as using his influence as the head of DPW for political gain, the Democrats complain that Mirch forces his employees and allies to register in the party, and then runs his own spoiler candidates in the party’s primary—regardless of whether they agree with or adhere to the basic liberal tenets of the party—solely to disrupt and confuse what should otherwise be a solid Democratic Party win.

The most notorious example of this was in 2007, when a full-time employee of Mirch’s DPW, Chris Consuello, ran for mayor on the WFP line. The 21-year-old part-time pizza boy’s mother told Fox News at the time that her son didn’t want to run, but that “he was put up to go up for election and he was told that if he didn’t do it, he was going to get fired.”

Consuello has since run on the WFP line for Congress and state Senate.

The news conference on Monday didn’t sit well with the press. Wade didn’t provide copies of the two affidavits that he claimed he would be turning over to the special prosecutor, and his allegations, as he presented them, were anemic. Wade claimed that he wouldn’t turn over the affidavits to the press for fear that Mirch would use that information to intimidate the people mentioned.

After being pressed by the media, Wade fleshed out the allegations tied to the two supposed affidavits. In one, Wade alleged that Mirch paid a homeless man for his vote in 2007. In another, Wade claimed that Mirch forged an absentee ballot.

“Bob Mirch paid cash to a voter,” Wade said, adding that it was a small amount of money. “I don’t think he walks down the street handing out money.”

Mirch dismissed both allegations, pointing out that the allegation of forgery had been previously investigated by the state, and the money he gave the homeless man in ’07 was simply an act of charity and nothing more.

Asked why Wade was bringing these allegations to the attention of the media now, years after the alleged incidents, he answered, “The door was opened last week” by the Republicans securing the special prosecutor. “We are looking for a thorough investigation.”

Some Democrats, off the record, questioned Wade’s decision to hold the press conference if he couldn’t provide more concrete allegations, and worried that it only kept a potentially damaging situation alive in the media.

Others, such as Troy Councilman Bill Dunne, think the controversy will have little effect on the Democrats come November. “I still think that in two years, there will be a Democratic mayor, and the Democrats will still control the majority on the council. I just don’t believe any of the candidates were involved in this.”

“The voters are being hurt the most by this,” said Martiniano, who is running for City Council in District 2. “The issues surrounding the homeless money, reassessments, City Hall [are being ignored]. We want to talk to people about the landlord registry, which I don’t think it went far enough. It is hurting the voters.”

Martiniano continued: “When you have Mirch being the moral compass of Troy, there is a real issue there.”

When asked about Wade’s press conference, Mirch said, “That was orchestrated by Wade and Clem to cover up the alleged crimes of fraud, forgery and conspiracy that I believe they have been involved with for the past month. This was all about Clem Campana beginning a cover-up of the crimes he has been accused of committing.”

Campana has denied all charges of wrongdoing.

“I’ve known Tom Wade longer than anyone else,” Mirch said. “And as this story was starting to unfold, I would tell people I absolutely did not think he was involved. Now, my thoughts have changed: I think he was clearly involved. I think he was the mastermind of it.”

As for Mirch, Wade said that he has known him longer than anyone, and summed up the controversial Republican politician: “He lies.”

Mirch said he has spent several thousand dollars of his own money, and money from his campaign committee, to pay the private investigators to help him collect the affidavits he has turned over to the courts and media.

—Chet Hardin

This Milk Doesn’t Do Any body Good

Photo: Chet Hardin

On Tuesday, two members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals drew a small crowd of media and confused onlookers as a man dressed as a cow poured a milklike liquid into a trashcan labeled “dump milk” on the corner of New Scotland Avenue. The publicity stunt was to gain attention for PETA’s recent undercover investigation into a Pennsylvania-based farm that supplies milk for Land O’ Lakes. PETA claimed that they uncovered unsettling evidence that the cows at the farm live in horrid conditions, covered in their own feces and urine, with open wounds that ooze puss. “And this is getting into your milk,” claimed PETA organizer Virginia Fort. For more information, visit









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