Selected readings on US charter schools
ST. LOUIS • Mayor Francis Slay cut the ribbon on another charter school last week, expressing his confidence that the school will succeed in a city in which three out of four public schools aren’t making the grade.
For nearly seven years, Slay and his office have been cultivating a crop of charter schools intended to provide parents with a reason to stay in the city rather than move to suburban school districts.
On this morning, Slay was focused on EAGLE College Preparatory Academy, an elementary charter school opening in the Tower Grove South neighborhood. It is largely attracting students who once attended district and private schools. And it is among the group of charters that Slay’s office has groomed, supported, and will continue to monitor with no formal authority, in hopes of improving education in the city.
“You are the leaders of our future,” Slay told the 20 kindergarten through third-graders in the school’s courtyard. “We’re looking forward to making sure you get a good education.”
The new school symbolizes what has come to be a dominant strategy for improving public education in St. Louis. It’s a strategy — shared by both the mayor’s office and the city school district — that is more about focusing on pockets of success than about the slower, more tedious work of transforming current schools that aren’t working.
It’s about opening new schools — or at least changing their focus — to replicate the successes in urban education.
In the past two years, six failing charter schools have closed in St. Louis. Five new schools have opened. Charters are tuition-free public schools with independent operators.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Public Schools district has taken similar steps. Two low-performing district schools have closed since 2011. Two new schools have opened — Humboldt Academy of Higher Learning and Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience. The underperforming Beaumont High is transforming into a career technical school.
“There is no one simple answer,” Superintendent Kelvin Adams wrote in an email.
Despite a poor showing on the state’s annual performance report, data show areas of success in the city system. Of the district’s 72 schools, 20 earned enough performance points to warrant full accreditation if the state were to rate schools as it does districts. Metro Academic and Classical High and Kennard Classical Junior Academy — the city’s long-heralded magnet schools — ranked among the state’s best. But a few other schools that have been more recently reshaped by the district, such as Mallinckrodt Elementary, are also performing well amid broader struggles in the district.
The mayor sees pockets of success both within the city schools and across charter schools.
“It’s getting better in St. Louis,” Slay said. He later added, “We all know that, overall, we need to do a better job.”
Just three years ago, the vast majority of the city’s charter schools performed worse than the St. Louis school system on the reading and math sections of the Missouri Assessment Program. This is no longer the case. Students at 12 of 21 charter schools outperformed peers in the city school district this year in reading. And students at 17 of 21 schools outperformed district students in math.
“Overall, the schools we’ve helped get started and identified are doing very well,” Slay said.
For Slay’s office, the issue couldn’t be more urgent. According to the 2010 census, the city had lost 29,000 people since 2000. About 75 percent of that loss consisted of school-age children.
Some high-performing charter schools are beginning to reverse at least some of that decline. In the Botanical Heights neighborhood, families are renovating homes and building on empty lots so their children can participate in the lottery to enroll in City Garden Montessori, a school that received 100 percent of performance points on the state’s score card.
The school is among 18 charters that Slay’s office has cultivated since 2006.
At the opening of EAGLE, Slay made it clear that he expected that elementary school as well as two others that opened last month — Lafayette Preparatory Academy and Gateway Science Academy South — to add to the list of charter school successes.
Robbyn Wahby, his education liaison, wants more-rapid closure of low-performing schools at the same time.
“Eventually what we’ll find is the sector continues to grow in size and quality,” she said. “That is our goal.”
Skeptics of charter schools argue that they don’t educate the most-challenging children who are more likely to attend district schools. They point to differences in the percentages of special needs children, who made up 14 percent of the enrollment at St. Louis Public Schools last school year, according to the state. At charter schools, the overall percentage was less than 9 percent.
They also point to the disparity in percentages of impoverished students at high-performing charters versus underperforming district schools in the same neighborhoods.
At City Garden Montessori, 46 percent of the students are living in poverty, based on the number of children who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. At Adams Elementary, a district school a few blocks away on Tower Grove Avenue, the number is 98 percent.
Of course, a school will attract higher-income parents only after it begins to succeed, and City Garden has done just that. But even charter school proponents acknowledge that a lower poverty rate increases the likelihood of any school’s success.
Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said students from impoverished families “typically are entering the school significantly below grade level, and with social and other factors that make education a greater challenge.”
KIPP Inspire Academy, short for the Knowledge is Power Program, has proven that success is possible with disadvantaged children. KIPP students are overwhelmingly from low-income and minority families. When the school’s first class arrived as fifth-graders, 34 percent of them tested at grade level in math and 22 percent in English, according to state data.
As eighth-graders last spring, their passing rates had more than doubled, with 71 percent at or above grade level in math, and 58 percent in English.
‘IT TAKES COLLABORATION’
Organizers of EAGLE College Prep went through a long application process to win the mayor’s backing. It involved almost two years of submitting financial reports, curriculum plans and budgets.
Once a charter school receives Slay’s backing, his staff offers support ranging from help with the city’s permit process to finding a building. “It takes collaboration to do it right,” said Matt Hoehner, regional executive director of Educational Enterprises Inc., the nonprofit group managing EAGLE.
The school opened in the old St. John’s Lutheran School building at 3716 Morganford Road. Some of its families would be in Lutheran schools, were they still around. Decades ago, there were 23 Lutheran schools in the city. Today there are three.
The school opened with 119 children in kindergarten through third grade. It plans to add a grade each year through eighth grade. Organizers hope eventually to open two more K-8 charter schools, plus a high school, in the city.
Slay’s work to increase the number of charter schools has at times put him at odds with district officials working to revive their struggling school system. As more students leave the system for charter schools, dollars follow the students. About 8,500 children attended charter schools in the city last year. In the school district, enrollment has plateaued at about 25,000.
Melissa Boulanger, the mother of two young children who lives near Tower Grove Park, expressed conflicting feelings about the charter school effort. Her husband works for a charter school. She also wants the district to improve.
“If everyone was putting all the energy they’re putting in charter schools into St. Louis Public Schools, we would be able to turn around the school district,” Boulanger said.
But increasingly, Slay and school district Superintendent Adams speak the same language as they talk of wanting to improve education for every child in the city. Sometimes their efforts overlap.
Adams recently forged a partnership with KIPP, allowing the organization free access to one of the district’s buildings for an elementary school. In exchange, all attendance, enrollment and test score data collected at the school will be reflected in the data of St. Louis Public Schools, potentially strengthening the performance of the city school system.
“This is not about competing for money or kids,” Slay said. “They’re all our kids, and it’s the taxpayers’ money. We certainly don’t feel threatened by the St. Louis school district, and we certainly hope they feel the same way.”
Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch – by Elisa Crouch