Selected readings on US charter schools
She’s helped them raise money. She’s made space for them in district schools. She’s been heckled at public meetings for defending them.
But now she is worried, because some of the charter schools are not taking their fair share of students facing special hurdles, including extreme poverty or learning disabilities.
That rigs the game against the district. It means the toughest cases are concentrated in district schools, a segregation that makes it even tougher to get good results. And because the charters are growing so fast, the problem can no longer be ignored.
“The doomsday scenario is that the students in greatest need are stuck in the most struggling schools,” she says. “If you only have students who are struggling, it makes it harder. Diversity is critical.”
Her answer? The district itself is taking over the assignment of students to charter schools and will put its thumb on the scale to make sure they take on more tough cases.
For the first time, Newark families will get a menu of school options, with charter and district schools in the mix. They will rank their choices, and the district will make assignments. The days when parents had to run around town chasing rumors and joining lotteries are coming to an end.
This is a vintage Anderson move. A veteran of New York City’s charter wars, she is the sort of woman who seems always ready to bang her head into a brick wall to get her way.
The new system might not even be legal. The state’s charter school law goes to great length to guarantee open admissions and lotteries at charters, a move intended to make sure their doors are open to all. The only preference the law explicitly allows when filling vacancies is to favor siblings of enrolled students.
Anderson is going well beyond that, considering poverty, special needs and English proficiency — as well as geographic proximity.
“There is some gray there,” she concedes. “But my feeling is there is a consensus on what the intent of the law was.”
But wouldn’t it be better if the state law were amended to explicitly permit this?
“Ideally, yes,” she concedes.
So far, though, the launch is going well. About 20 percent of the charters have told her to back off, with 80 percent agreeing to play.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Ryan Hill, who runs the TEAM Academy’s six charters in Newark, is considered a hero by many in the movement. His schools are showing remarkable results, and he takes his fair share of tough cases. The North Star Academy, which runs nine schools, is in the same class.
“We basically bombard the poorest neighborhoods with as much information about our schools as possible,” he says.
His staffers bring fliers to grocery stores and barber shops. They target mailers to low-income homes with kids and follow up with phone calls. They let families sign up any way they want — in person, online, by phone, by fax, by email. Parents are not required to attend a lottery or stand in line. Even a busy parent — or a dysfunctional one — can handle it.
“That’s why our population is what it is,” Hill says.
On the other end of the spectrum is the most famous charter of them all, the Robert Treat Academy. A K-8 school, it is producing the highest scores in the city and beating many suburban schools as well.
But it’s precisely the kind of school that worries Anderson: Just 52 percent of its kids qualify for free lunches, compared with 84 percent in district schools. Only 3 percent are in special education programs, compared with 16 percent in district schools. The same pattern holds for English proficiency.
So the game is rigged.
“The easiest way to get high outcomes is to get students who can generate those numbers for you,” says Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education. “That’s true for charters, and it’s true for district magnet schools.”
STICKING TO THE SYSTEM
Robert Treat is refusing to join Anderson’s new system, and so it will again pick its own students next year.
“We are seen as the bad guys if we don’t buy into this,” says Wilfredo Caraballo, a board member and former state assemblyman. “We have a system that has produced some pretty good results.”
The school is indeed an inspiration. Students wear uniforms, stay late every day and attend classes on Saturdays. And unlike many charter schools, Robert Treat has low turnover. Families get in and they stay put, with one sibling following another.
As for the mission of finding the toughest kids to educate, Robert Treat officials point to the second school they opened in the Central Ward, a poorer area than the North Ward, where the founding school sits.
They can’t get answers to simple questions, such as how vacancies that occur during the year will be filled. And they simply don’t trust the competence of the school district.
“It (the district) is not an organization with any record of success,” says Robert Treat board member James Caulfield, a former suburban superintendent.
Newark will have a new mayor next year, and that makes the school’s officials nervous, too. The leading candidate, Councilman Ras Baraka, has been mostly hostile to the charter school movement. What if he is elected and the state finally surrenders control of the school system to the city? Why would Robert Treat risk its success by committing to this partnership now?
“We get attacked all the time,” Caraballo says. “And now we’re being asked to go back into the system?”
A final concern: Federal aid to charter schools might be lost if Newark gives some students preference in admissions.
“We are absolutely in favor of this policy,” says Carlos Perez, president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. “But we feel somewhat torn.”
‘THIS IS ABOUT EQUITY’
In 2008, traditional district schools educated 95 percent of Newark children. That’s down to 78 percent now, and Anderson expects it to drop to 60 percent within three years. It seems inevitable that charters will eventually educate the majority of Newark kids.
This is why Anderson is in a rush. She fears that if admissions to charter schools remain a free-for-all, with each charter recruiting its own students, her doomsday scenario will become reality. The toughest kids will be concentrated in district schools, creating a new hurdle for the students.
It would be perverse indeed if the charter movement had that effect. Most of the people running these schools are driven by the desire to bring new opportunity to urban kids trapped in failing districts. That’s why most swallowed their hesitations and signed up for Anderson’s new system.
“The bottom line is this is about equity,” she says. “Those without time, without a car and without the ability to push back in the face of bureaucracy, they tend not to exercise choice.”
For next year, their choices will be listed on a single menu and placed on every kitchen table. Most charters will get a new crop of students with a healthy mix of challenges.
Robert Treat will only watch for now. And that means its success will come with a caveat. It is winning the race. But part of the reason is that it gave itself a head start.
Source: NJ.com – by Tom Moran