Selected readings on US charter schools
His grandparents home-schooled him for a while, and Nicholas also spent time in public schools. But on Monday, the 13-year-old will start classes in a charter school.
Nicholas is hoping that attending Acclaim Academy will give him a chance to join JROTC.
“I’ll have the military credentials and then it’ll be easier to get into the military,” he said. “I want to be in the Air Force or Navy or Army.”
Nicholas is one of a growing number of students who are attending charter schools in Duval County instead of traditional public schools. During the past decade the district’s charter schools have grown by number, student enrollment and popularity. Part of the reason for that growth: Parents believe their students will get a better education in these privately run, publicly funded schools.
From 1999 to 2013, the number of charters tripled from seven to 21 and enrollment has leaped from 609 in 2003 to more than 7,500.
As students leave district-run schools for charters, state funding follows them. The district will send roughly $49 million to charters, about 8.5 percent of this year’s total state funding. The amount was $36.1 million last year.
Other than six charters in St. Johns County, no other school district on the First Coast has as many charters as Duval.
Acclaim Academy is one of seven new charters that will open in Duval on Monday.
Charter schools are a divisive issue in education, with opponents saying they hurt traditional schools while supporters believe they spur competition. But district data suggests student performance is similar in traditional or charter schools. While charters may feature smaller class sizes and niche programs, their letter grades and proficiency levels are a mixed bag just like any other public school.
In fact, there hasn’t been a strong history of charter school success in Duval. Nine of the district’s original 14 charter schools have closed because of problems that included financial mismanagement, low student performance and even one school where officials found evidence of cheating on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
But charters that have opened in the last few years have had fewer problems, leading many parents to send their students there.
More parents choose charters because the ability to decide where your student attends school is gaining popularity. With the academic success of magnet schools, parents began associating opting out of traditional public schools with better student performance.
Riina Flores chose to send her three children to Duval County Charter School at Baymeadows in part because of smaller class sizes.
“This is so beneficial to a kid who is off-the-charts smart, but cannot write yet,” Flores said.
Flores also said she likes charters because their staff teaches students how to behave and the students get rewards for their good behavior, “whereas in normal school there is no such focus, only punishment.”
Duval County School Board member Jason Fischer said the district benefits from charters because they force struggling schools to improve or face losing students.
“If you have a place like River City Science Academy that offers a niche that’s STEM [science, technology, engineering and math], it forces us to say ‘How do we improve science programs at Kirby-Smith? How do we improve at Lee?’ ” Fischer said. “I don’t think school choice hurts public education.”
However, board member Becki Couch noted that students who leave for charters add to the district’s underused school building problems. Fewer students in the public schools means the district loses state dollars to educate the child, but must still pay utility costs for keeping an underpopulated school open, Couch said.
Another reason parents choose charters is that traditional public schools have had to cut back on music and physical education, but charters continue to offer those classes, said Richard Page, executive vice president of development for Charter Schools USA.
“The ultimate reason why parents make the choice is because they believe they’re going to get better results than the traditional [school] system,” Page said.
All about location
Sally Hague, a retired Duval County Public Schools administrator who oversaw charter expansion, offered a second reason parents choose charters: The campus is close to their job or a day-care option.
“Sometimes it just comes down to location, location, location,” Hague said.
When Duval began offering charters, many opened on the Northside to help struggling, low-income students. Today, the charters have followed population trends and spread out as far as Jacksonville Beach.
Although there are charters across the county, a heavy concentration lies in Arlington. Parents in that area have asked for a charter option and, over the years, management companies have delivered.
Charter management companies carefully choose where to open a new campus and they typically look for areas that don’t offer charters or private schools as well as places where existing public schools are close to capacity.
Places with high parent demand and low-priced existing facilities also play a major factor in the decision, Page said.
Charter Schools USA operates three schools in Jacksonville with a fourth opening Monday. Page said the organization choose to open Duval Charter at Westside because the neighborhood’s population was dense and growing.
He said they chose the specific location because it was close to Interstate 295 “so it was easy for people to get to.” The location was also deep enough in the Westside without being in Clay County, Page said.
Their rise in Duval
Many of Duval’s first charter schools in the late 1990s were started by individuals and not charter management companies. Today more of the district’s charter applications come from management companies like Charter Schools USA and Florida High School for Accelerated Learning, which have campuses across the state. It’s likely that the number of charters will continue to rise because there were a few charters that applied to open this year, failed to meet requirements but plan to re-apply for fall 2014.
But even with that growth, Duval County Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said charter school presence has not meant greater student achievement.
Vitti compared 2013 student achievement results between charters and traditional schools. The data show that traditional schools have a higher percentage of proficient students in elementary reading, math and science while charters have a higher percentage in middle school reading, math and science.
The data also show that charters educate a much lower percentage — 39.5 percent compared with 57.4 percent — of students on free and discounted lunch.
With extra flexibility on class size, length of school days, curriculum and union contracts, the theory behind charters was that they would better educate students than traditional public schools, Vitti said. That’s not the case in Jacksonville, he said.
“Charter school students are not outperforming students in traditional Duval County Public Schools, the data says that,” Vitti said.
In coming years, the district will have to compete with charters to regain the students who left, Vitti said. There’s some glimmer of hope: More than 300 students who originally enrolled in charter schools this year will instead attend a traditional public school. To compete, district schools must improve the service it extends to parents, work to make schools safer and create its own batch of niche programs, Vitti said.
He noted that district officials have applied for a magnet school grant that, if awarded, they will use to create a military magnet at Stilwell Middle School. There are also plans for single-gender preparatory schools, Vitti said.
“What the charter movement has shown is that we can’t continue to do what we’ve been doing,” he said. “What we’re looking at is the reality of competition.”
Source: The Florida Times-Union – by Khristopher J. Brooks