Selected readings on US charter schools
The appeal of small class sizes and individualized programs at charter schools continues to draw students in Washtenaw County away from traditional public schools as districts fight to keep their enrollment stable.
About 11 percent of students enrolled in Washtenaw County schools are in a charter school this year — up from eight percent last year.
Charter school enrollment is growing across the state as well. About 9.5 percent of K-12 students in Michigan will attend a charter school this year, compared to 8.5 percent last year, said Buddy Moorehouse, vice president of communications for the charter school advocacy group Michigan Association of Public School Academies.
“The demand is very, very high for a different approach to education,” said Al Waters, director of Honey Creek Community School in Scio Township.
Charter schools are seeing increasing demand for applications, longer waiting lists and nearly at-capacity buildings this fall in Washtenaw County. Overall, enrollment in Washtenaw County charter schools grew by 24 percent last school year. The state will officially count students Oct. 2.
Competing for students is a challenge for districts like Ann Arbor Public Schools, Lincoln Consolidated Schools and Ypsilanti Community Schools, where more charter schools have surfaced.
Last school year, as many as 1,331 students that live within the AAPS district boundaries attended a charter school, state records show. This year, initial figures indicate that AAPS has a total enrollment decline of 210 students, though the district had budgeted for flat enrollment.
But as charter schools make budget sacrifices to keep their biggest student draw — small class sizes — intact, state test scores show little significant difference between charter schools and traditional public schools in student performance across the board.
Ninth-grader Hasan Darwish, 14, of Ypsilanti Township, has been attending Ann Arbor’s Central Academy since third grade.
In second grade, Hasan was enrolled in Ann Arbor Public Schools’ Logan Elementary. As he’s half American and half Lebanese, he found it difficult to relate to many of the students there, he said.
Central teaches Arabic from kindergarten through high school, which has made it a destination for many international and bilingual families. The Arabic program initially drew Hasan to the charter school, but the family atmosphere and small class sizes were what convinced him to stay.
“(My teachers) know what I like and I know what they expect of me,” Hasan said.
The personal attention is priceless to many students, and accounts for the significant gains in enrollment most of the county’s charter schools have made, charter school advocates say.
“In a smaller school, everything is transparent,” said Central Academy Principal Luay Shalabi. “I always joke with my students, ‘I know what you had for lunch yesterday.’”
Central Academy at 2459 S. Industrial Highway in Ann Arbor opened in 1996 with 95 students. For the past three years, the school’s population has been between 550 and 600 students. About 209 of the 1,331 students living in the AAPS district who are attending a charter school chose Central, making it the school with the largest population of AAPS students.
This fall, enrollment is about 619 students and the buildings are at capacity, Shalabi said. It’s a growth of about 13 percent from last year. Classes remain capped at 25 students with no exceptions.
At Ann Arbor Learning Community at 3980 Research Park Drive, school leader Wayne Millette said the school saw a significant gain in enrollment this fall of about 14 percent to 281 students.
“Families are looking to an alternative setting, a safe setting,” Millette said. “The increase is the fact that people have been pleased with what’s been offered.”
It’s one of the largest student populations the school has seen.
“This year we saw somewhat of a bump from students coming in from the (consolidation of the) Ypsilanti and Willow Run districts,” Millette said, noting most of the incoming students from those districts were in kindergarten and first grade.
Common entrance points for charter schools are in kindergarten, middle school and high school.
At Eastern Washtenaw Multicultural Academy at 5550 Platt Road in Ann Arbor, enrollment this year is about the same as it was last year: capped at 290 students with a growing waiting list, said Vice Principal Lateasha Mitchell. The school offers K-8 classes, as well as an online program for high school students.
The student population is split between southern Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti residents, Mitchell said.
Washtenaw County has four charter schools operated by National Heritage Academies, a Grand Rapids-based private company that manages charter schools across the country. All of the local National Heritage schools are on the eastern side of the county and are very popular options for families, Moorehouse said.
South Pointe Scholars Charter Academy is the newest of the four. It opened last year to students in kindergarten through sixth grade. It has added seventh grade as an offering this year, which is part of the reason that enrollment has grown by 17 percent. Next year, eighth grade will be added.
Washtenaw County’s charter schools are drawing in students from outside the county as well. At Washtenaw Technical Middle College, about 20 percent of the school’s 498 students this fall are from outside the county.
Covert said the school has been branded for its opportunities and draws from about five counties for its students.
“…All we’re seeing is across-the-board applications and interest from all areas,” Covert said.
Of the 80 percent of the students at the Middle College who are from Washtenaw County, half are from the county’s two major cities. Two-thirds of those are from Ann Arbor and one-third are from Ypsilanti.
Within the past three years, Millette said Ann Arbor Learning Community has seen more students coming in from outside of Washtenaw County — which Millette attributes to the school’s location in the State Street and Ellsworth Road corridor. The influx adds to Ann Arbor Learning Community’s core population of students from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.
Last school year, one charter school in Washtenaw Couty closed its doors, and two more opened theirs to students. Another charter school is slated to open in fall 2014.
Budgeting for small classes
Kristie Freyre has been teaching English for 16 years at Central Academy.
Before coming to Central, Freyre taught at a college and at a public school district. She says he’s stayed at Central because of the small class sizes and the diverse student population.
Commitment to small class sizes doesn’t come without sacrifice: Teachers at charter schools are paid salaries that are much lower than those at traditional public schools. It’s a charter school’s way of funding more staff to keep class sizes between 20 and 25 students. Charter schools also don’t pay for student transportation.
Freyre acknowledged that while the pay may be less than what she would receive at a traditional school district, small class sizes allow her to be the kind of teacher she wants to be.
“These kids are my family,” Freyre said. “Because I teach ninth through twelfth grades, I see them four years in a row. I can help them because I know their strengths and weaknesses.”
Keeping class sizes small is necessary priority — but it limits options when it comes to budget decisions, charter school officials say. Their budgets are comprised of tax dollars.
“You have to put the majority of your money into instruction,” said Washtenaw Technical Middle College Dean Karl Covert. “Smaller classes make the greatest difference.”
Four years ago, the Middle College had 300 students. Now, there are 498 students at the school — an increase of about 15 percent from last year. As the school has grown, most of the hiring has been of teachers to keep class sizes at an average of 20 students, Covert said.
In a traditional public school district, the central office is typically housed in its own facility and that adds a cost to operations. The district is also required to pay into the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System, which is another added legacy cost.
Charter schools’ budgets have a different set of push and pull factors than traditional public schools — which in some cases make them leaner operations.
Each charter school is its own district — which means fewer building costs, Moorehouse said. However, charter schools have to pay mortgages on their buildings that traditional public schools don’t have to account for.
There are some charter schools that pay into MPSERS for their retirement system, but not all choose to do so, Moorehouse said. Some charter schools offer retirement packages through their management companies.
Student proficiency varies
Though charter schools make sacrifices to keep class sizes small, those sacrifices don’t always translate into better student performance than traditional public schools, according to 2012 state test scores.
The standardized test performance of students at charter schools is similar to that of students at traditional public schools—there are schools that are high performing, some that sit in the middle and others that are low-performing.
That means that you can’t argue that the charter school model itself is inherently successful, said Scott Menzel. Menzel is the superintendent of both the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and of Ypsilanti Community Schools.
Socio-economic status of the student population and parental involvement are two of the main factors that affect student performance, Menzel said.
According to the most recent MEAP results, South Arbor Charter Academy and Honey Creek Community Schools ranked highly in student proficiency in numerous subjects, though in some areas about half of the county’s charter schools performed below the state average.
MEAP test scores indicate that in Washtenaw County, the proficiency of students in charter schools ranges from the highest in the area to far below state average.
For example, about 74.7 percent of fourth graders enrolled in AAPS meet the state’s MEAP proficiency standard for math. It’s the highest proficiency rate in the county, and is an increase of 4 percentage points from last year for the district.
Though two of the county’s charter schools — South Arbor Charter Academy and Honey Creek Community School—were above the state’s standard for the percentage of students proficient in fourth-grade math, the rest were below it.
In eighth-grade reading, Honey Creek Community School and South Arbor Charter Academy had the highest rates of student proficiency in the county at 85.7 percent and 84.4 percent, respectively.
But one charter school was below the state’s standard for eighth-grade reading: Multicultural Academy, which achieved 42.9 percent proficiency in reading.
Choice poses challenge for traditional public schools
Ellen Bonter is the superintendent of Lincoln Consolidated Schools in Ypsilanti Township. The district dropped into deficit this school year, partly as a result of declining enrollment over the past several years.
Enrollment in the Lincoln district has suffered as more students have chosen to attend a charter school. In the 2012-13 year, about 1,250 students in the Lincoln district chose a charter school instead, according to state data.
About 451 of those students chose East Arbor Charter Academy in Ypsilanti Township about seven minutes away from Lincoln. It’s a National Heritage Academies school whose enrollment grew about 11 percent this fall.
“Charters are public schools. Unfortunately, it seems as a culture, we are more interested in choice and what appears to be a solution to an immediate issue, than we are about the long-term vitality of public education,” Bonter said.
From a public policy perspective, the concept of choice in K-12 education creates an environment that can become a “death spiral” for traditional public schools, Menzel said.
Parents’ ability to choose where their child goes to school has been maximized through school of choice opportunities and charter school options. At the same time, the number of students overall in Michigan is declining, as well as the state’s funding for each student, Menzel said.
“You’re taking a shrinking pool of students and you’re expanding the number of choices,” Menzel said, explaining that the environment has made some districts winners and others losers. “We’ve placed a financial strain on the system itself.”
The concept of choice in K-12 education also can create an inequitable situation for students, Menzel said. Parents and families with the means to transport their child to a charter school every day are able to take their child out of what’s perceived as a “poor education environment,” Menzel said.
While charter schools can offer a lot of value in education, and the freedom to choose is important, Menzel said it’s important to consider how every student — regardless of where he or she lives or what means the students’ family has — can get a quality education.
Charter schools in Washtenaw County are a part of the WISD as well as traditional public schools. The WISD provides them reimbursements for special education and some preschool programs. The WISD also chartered its own school — Honey Creek Community School — about 20 years ago and is responsible for the accountability of the organization.
“The other thing we try to watch is the movement of students in and out of charter schools, and the demographics related to that,” Menzel said, noting that there’s a concern that charter schools may not serve all students’ needs equally, especially in the case of disabled individuals.
Bonter said there are wonderful non-profit charter schools, though there are political and financial structures that support some charters that result in student populations that are segregated by ethnicity, economic status and religious affiliation.
“That hurts the students whom I serve, threatens the democracy in which I believe, and angers me greatly,” Bonter said.
Source: MLive.com – by Amy Biolchini