Selected readings on US charter schools
The New Schools for Phoenix group is a spinoff of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, a non-profit organization that has long helped new charters open across the state through various programs. Though they share many of the same staff members, New Schools for Phoenix operates as a separate non-profit.
Unlike the association’s previous efforts in helping open charter schools, New Schools for Phoenix is zeroing in on Phoenix’s urban core — specifically, the 220 square miles of the Phoenix Union High School District.
“To be really significant and to make the impact we want to see, we needed to narrow our geographic area in order to prove that excellent options were available for students at scale,” said Eileen Sigmund, president of the charter association and manager for New Schools for Phoenix. The group chose to target Phoenix because its population reflects demographic trends across Arizona.
Even with the refocused effort, it is a lofty mission. The district encompasses a sprawling area that covers most of central and south Phoenix and, in some parts, stretches as far west as 83rd Avenue and as far east as 64th Street.
It is a fast-growing, mostly Latino population struggling with high poverty and, so far, limited academic achievement.
Within that area, 211 public schools serve 134,000 students. Of those, officials consider 169 schools — representing about 116,000 students — high-poverty, meaning more than 70 percent of the student population qualifies for free and reduced-price lunches.
Only 17 high-poverty schools, or about one in 10, has an A rating. Those schools serve about 6 percent of the total Phoenix student population and are split fairly evenly between traditional district schools and charter schools.
“What New Schools for Phoenix is about, it’s about great options for kids,” Sigmund said. “It’s not about charter options, district options. If we continue to look at the governance model, that’s not going to succeed. ‘Us vs. them’ isn’t going to work.”
Not ‘us vs. them’
Charter schools are hardly a new phenomenon in Phoenix. In 1994, then-Gov. Fife Symington signed Arizona’s charter law, and many school-choice advocates across the U.S. noted the 20th anniversary last week in celebration of National School Choice Week.
Between open district enrollment and the proliferation of charter schools, Arizona is known as a state where school choice reigns. With the proliferation of charters came a natural tension between them and Arizona’s public-school districts. Both faced competition for the same students and for funding from the state.
Phoenix Union Superintendent Kent Scribner said he does not consider the group’s mission a threat to the district’s schools, even though New Schools for Phoenix is targeting their boundaries, including the elementary schools that feed into the district.
“It’s encouraging that they’re aspiring to open high-quality schools,” Scribner said. “Arizona is known for its quantity of charter schools, not necessarily for their quality. … I’m more interested in good schools for Phoenix than new schools for Phoenix.”
Scribner said he has had several meetings with Sigmund and the charter group, echoing their sentiment that it “is not an us-vs.- them endeavor.” He also does not take offense to New Schools for Phoenix’s website, which proclaims that the movement will “serve students and neighborhoods most in need” and “shatter the destructive cycle of poverty and poor education.”
“Parents should have choice. They should be able to choose a smaller charter school if it makes sense for their students and their family,” Scribner said. “What Phoenix Union offers are comprehensive high schools in addition to small, specialized schools. … We take all comers and aspire to retain all students.”
The Phoenix Union district grew by about 700 students this year. At 27,000, its student population is at its highest since 1978, in contrast with neighboring districts where rolls have stayed flat or dropped in recent years.
“I don’t view this as competing for students,” Scribner said. “Parents and students are choosing Phoenix Union. … There are some things that we can learn from the charters in terms of being nimble and having more autonomy. There are certainly some things charters can learn from high-performing district schools.”
Using best practices
On a recent afternoon, proprietors from six new charter schools set to open across Phoenix this fall gathered at the Arizona Charter Schools Association headquarters to present their final plans to each other.
The meeting was partly an entrepreneurial pitch party — wine chilled in a corner and the smell of freshly baked cookies and hors d’oeuvres wafted from the first floor. It was also partly an educational dialogue, as the two dozen attendees discussed class sizes, best practices and blended learning strategies.
Almost all of them had gone through New Schools for Phoenix’s intensive, two-year training program for those seeking to open new charters. The program involves applying for a selective five-month fellowship that includes visits to successful charter schools across the country, then spending several more months preparing their charter applications, developing business plans and fulfilling short-term residencies at high-performing schools.
It costs about $100,000 to train each team that will open a unique school, said Andrew Collins, senior director of school development at New Schools for Phoenix.
A grant from the Walton Family Foundation funded recruitment and training of the pilot cohort.
Over the next five years, New Schools for Phoenix hopes to raise $2.5 million, through corporate contributions and foundation grants, toward its goal of opening 25 A-rated schools.
“Four years ago on my first day of teaching, I would not have seen myself opening a school,” said Peter Boyle, who this fall plans to open Western School of Science and Technology, a charter school for middle- and high-school students, at 67th Avenue and Indian School Road.
“Now, I know this is where I was meant to be,” he said.
A former eighth-grade teacher at Pioneer Prep, a charter elementary in the same area, Boyle said he began thinking about opening a charter school after watching his students leave his care and move on to high schools with low graduation rates.
“We were able to make amazing gains with our children,” Boyle said. “But it was sort of a bittersweet experience because we couldn’t be sure that our students would be well-served.”
Of the neighborhoods Boyle is targeting with the Western School of Science and Technology, there are 75,000 students “and not one ‘A’ high school or middle school,” based on 2012 data. The state rated three of the six high schools a “D” that year, he said. “We believe we can do much better for our Maryvale community,” Boyle said.
This first official cohort of New Schools for Phoenix hopes to follow the success of other Phoenix charters, such as Empower College Prep, which opened two years ago inside the North Phoenix Baptist Church at Central Avenue and Bethany Home Road.
Empower College Prep founder Brian Holman is a Teach for America alum who left the classroom in 2008 and went through a pilot version of what would become New School for Phoenix’s training program.
“I was struck when students came to me how far behind they were. And then, despite all we did together to close that gap, the high schools they went to, oftentimes they did not graduate,” Holman said. “I began thinking, in my second year of teaching: How do I start with kids early enough and stay with them long enough … so that apathy doesn’t set in?”
Since Empower College Prep opened, the school has grown from 70 to 180 students, increasing from two grades to five. More than 96 percent of its students, mostly from the surrounding Alhambra and Osborn elementary school districts, live in poverty, and 17 percent qualify for special needs.
In its first year, Empower College Prep earned an “A” grade from the state, with a score of 163 points.
An A grade requires 140 points or above. On standardized tests, its students outperformed the state average in every grade and subject, with an 80 percent overall pass rate.
But one of the school’s less obvious points of pride, Holman said, is that one of its co-founders, Angelica Cruz, is taking her experiences to open a new charter school with the help of New Schools for Phoenix.
With Nicole Fernandez, Cruz plans to open SySTEM Phoenix, with a curriculum that emphasizes science, technology, engineering and mathematics, at 15th Street and Thomas Road this fall.
“Angelica is irreplaceable,” Holman said. “At the same time, part of what makes a leader an incredible leader is they empower others to take their place and do even greater things by building off of what they have done.”
In essence, this is also a significant part of what New Schools for Phoenix hopes to accomplish.
If the charter movement is an experiment to improve urban education, then the intensive training and support of its leaders will be the means through which they achieve that goal, Sigmund said.
“The reason we did that is to really create a culture of leaders who could, as a team, move forward each other, too,” Sigmund said. “What we’re doing is saying the bar is set high. Every year, we are figuring out what’s working and what’s not and improving to better train our leaders.”
Twenty-five A-rated schools by 2020 may seem lofty, Sigmund said, but broken down — five schools a year — she believes it is doable.
“We have used that based on what we have seen works both in Arizona and nationally,” Sigmund said. “While it’s ambitious, we also believe it’s realistic, and we believe it’s urgent.”
Source: AZ Central – by AMy B Wang