Charter Pulse

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ARIZONA Hopes New Charter Schools Can Lift Poor Phoenix Area

arizona-department-of-educationPHOENIX — In Arizona, the charter school movement has sold itself as a safe alternative for middle-class families looking to avoid the maze of underfunded neighborhood schools. The movement is now expanding into this city’s most impoverished area for the first time, starting, in effect, an experiment in urban education.

The goal is to open 25 high-performing schools over five years within the 220 square miles of the Phoenix Union High School District. The district, in South and central Phoenix, whose largely poor, majority Latino student body has grown faster than that of any other school district in the state, conforms to demographic trends that expect minorities to become the majority in Arizona by 2020.

The strategy is grounded in the principle that test scores offer the best way to measure students’ progress and teachers’ abilities, a tenet only modestly embraced by a majority of charter schools in Arizona. It is also a deliberate attempt at creating a solution to one of the key sources of inequity in urban school systems across the country, where the quality of a school is largely determined by the neighborhood that houses it and the children it serves.

“We believe we know what works and we believe we can expand it at scale and at a price point that’s pretty realistic for other states to implement,” Eileen B. Sigmund, the president and chief executive of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, the professional group that conceived the plan, said in an interview.

The cost of operating those schools would be covered by the state, which already gives charter schools nearly twice the funding per pupil it gives to district public schools, although the public schools raise additional money through voter-approved bonds and other measures.

The expansion will permit charter schools to choose their instructional models with an emphasis on arts-infused lessons, science and math, or a mix of virtual and brick-and-mortar classrooms. The philosophy is at the center of a training program paid in large part by the Walton Family Foundation, one of the country’s leading financiers of educational programs. This program is both a test lab and a skill-building exercise for the teams of educators who will be running the schools, many of them Teach for America alumni.

“We take what’s working from other schools across the country, mix it up and get the components to work together,” said Andrew Collins, the senior director for school development at New Schools for Phoenix, the nonprofit that is overseeing the opening of the charter schools. “The traditional-school idea goes out the window.”

It is an ambitious proposition for a state charter movement that so far has little to crow about. In Arizona, one of the first states to authorize charter schools, in 1995, the standardized test scores of charter school students are lower than for those in public schools. Those lower scores represented the equivalent of 22 fewer days of learning in reading and 29 fewer days in math when compared with the scores logged by the district schools those students would have otherwise attended, according to a widely cited study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. (On average, the performance deficit between charter and other public school students is similar across the country.)

“We have this promise of shaping our charter schools based on the needs of our communities, but we haven’t made good on it,” said Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona school superintendent and state legislator, who helped write the state’s charter school law. “We didn’t force the issue of quality in the early days.”

Despite working to raise $3 million to finance the educators’ training, the association and other groups supporting the expansion plan are counting on the Legislature to eventually increase public education funding. This would increase the charter schools’ ability to more aggressively recruit teachers and operators from outside the state — because, in theory, they would be able to pay more. As it stands, the state has only homegrown charters. Ms. Keegan said one of the main reasons is that its per-pupil spending, one of the lowest in the nation, is not enough to attract outside operators.

Arizona spends 17 percent less on public education than the national average and had the country’s largest drop in funding from 2002 to 2012 despite a 12 percent increase in enrollment, according to an analysis by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. Still, Republicans, who are the majority in the Legislature, are generally reluctant to increase taxpayers’ investment in public schools.

“No matter how strong a supporter a person may be of charter, and I certainly have been a supporter of all sorts of school choice, asking for more money seems like a tough sell,” said State Representative Steven B. Yarbrough, a Republican and a longtime proponent of the dollar-for-dollar tax credits the state offers in return for donations to public or private schools.

The training for teachers and administrators costs about $120,000 per team, per year, for a program that is intended to last two years. The first teams spent five months visiting charter schools that serve poor Latinos in Houston and Los Angeles, trying to figure out what works in and outside the classroom and what they could adapt to the schools they are going to start.

At Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, in central Los Angeles, they learned that parent workshops have higher attendance if they are held on weekends. There and elsewhere, they also learned that notes sent home in backpacks or posted on bulletin boards were better at reaching parents than emails, but that the notes worked best if they were also written in Spanish.

Julia Meyerson, the founder and executive director of Vista College Preparatory, a pilot school that opened in South Phoenix in August, serving 60 students in kindergarten and first grade, visited 40 high-performing charters across the country, in places like Sacramento, Nashville and Newark, through the Arizona Charter Schools Association’s training and a national organization’s program. Having rigid routines throughout the school day, she said, was one of the central elements in all of the charters and is something she has also emphasized at her school. The routines come in the form of the “good mornings” she expects from students, whom she greets at the front door, and the drills she leads after breakfast, when she quizzes the children on the calendar or asks them to explain how they solved a math problem.

At Vista Prep, the school days are longer — from 7:40 a.m. to 4 p.m. — and almost half of the time is focused on literacy skills. One recent morning, first-grade students spent time reading “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and then distilling the characteristics of a fairy tale. (“It has a happy ending,” one girl volunteered.)

When the school year started, Ms. Meyerson said, “a lot of them didn’t know letter names and sounds, couldn’t write their names and couldn’t hold a pencil.”

For the first time, failing charter schools across the state have been put on notice and at least three of them could shut their doors by the end of this school year.

Ms. Sigmund, of the charter schools association, said the new schools are expected to score an A on their state report card in their first three years. If they do not, she said, “there are several exit points.”

Source: New York Times – by Fernando Santos

View more articles on Arizona charter schools

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This entry was posted on January 17, 2014 by in Arizona, Charter Schools, States.

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