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UTAH charter schools under new performance scrutiny

charter-accountabilityFor the first time, the State Charter School Board has evaluated Utah’s 81 charter schools in three key areas — academics, finances and governance — creating a baseline for comparing the schools next year.

Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.

Kim Frank of the Utah Charter Network, a nonprofit advocate for schools, said she appreciates the board setting high standards.

“But I don’t appreciate more bureaucracy and more mandate requirements of charter schools than district schools,” Frank said this week.

Charters are public schools but have more leeway in how they hire staff or design curriculum than traditional public schools. For that reason, many charter schools have been able to explore new academic territory.

Nearly 9 percent of all K-12 Utah students attend a charter school. Enrollment has shot up over the past decade from 1,526 students in 2002 to a peak of 50,785 youngsters this school year.

Marlies Burns, state charter school director, said it’s the board’s responsibility to make sure these schools are held accountable: “This is the first year we have these performance measures for all [the 81 charters].”

The Salt Lake Arts Academy, one of the oldest charter schools in Salt Lake City, is in its 10th year. The school recently received a $102,000 grant from the Daniels Fund, which will furnish new classrooms and add technology.

The school received an 81 percent in its academic score, which put it in the second highest quartile for all charters.

That score is based on several measurements, including student proficiency on end-of-year tests; student growth on end-of-year tests; student retention; and for high schools, graduation rates and ACT scores.

However, the Arts Academy was in the lowest quartile in finances (at 57 percent) and in governance (42 percent).

Principal Amy Wadsworth said those scores need to be put into context. She pointed out the school is purchasing its building, so it has high debt.

And Wadsworth said the school was “dinged” because a certified teacher, who teaches grades 7-8, is missing an endorsement. The school has 300 students in grades 5-8.

“I think [the new measurements] are very valuable for the state [education] office and charter board because they’ll understand the context of it, but it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to the public,” Wadsworth said. “I have no objection to it.”

Charter board staff, along with the Center for Research on Education and Outcomes at Stanford University, developed the new performance standards.

This is the first, or baseline, year, so charter officials cautioned against making immediate comparisons.

Charter school finances were measured under the following criteria: current ratio of short-term liabilities compared to short-term assets, cash on hand, debt ratio, adherence to budget, occupancy costs and audit findings.

Wasatch Peak Academy in North Salt Lake received an 87 percent overall academic score, putting it in the highest quartile, and had a similar finance score of 85 percent.

Principal Sandy Shepard said the elementary school, which receives Title 1 funding for having students from low-income homes, does well because of quality teaching and involved parents. She added the school is also buying its building, so it has high debt.

“I think it’s a great way to show how schools compare across the state,” Shepard said.

The Northern Utah Academy for Math, Engineering & Science in Layton had the highest overall academic score for a high school at 90 percent, for finances at 100 percent, but in governance received an 80 percent score.

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune – by Ray Parker

View more articles on Utah charter schools


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This entry was posted on May 25, 2013 by in Accountability, Charter Schools, Utah.


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