Selected readings on US charter schools
Four new charter schools will open in Rochester in the fall, creating a new set of opportunities for children in the city and a further setback for the City School District in its quest to retain students and the state dollars that come with them.
One, Rochester Prep High School, is a partnership with Rochester Institute of Technology that will extend the offerings already in place through operator Uncommon Schools. Rochester Prep hopes eventually to serve about 2,300 students in grades K-12, about one in 12 of all students in the city.
The district views both the expansion of Rochester Prep and the arrival of three new charters as a threat to its funding and overall goal of improving city schools for all students.
Enrollment in Rochester’s charter schools has increased from 659 students in 2005-06 to more than 4,200 projected in 2014-15. The district uses part of its state funding to pay for those students’ education — about $12,000 apiece, adding up to a projected $45 million in 2013-14 when other associated expenses, like transportation, are included. The more money that goes out the door, the tighter the budget for students remaining in the district.
“Our enrollment is declining in a significant way,” Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said. “(But) even if a charter school is successful, a significant number of students will be in the district. It is our responsibility to make sure we have a highly functioning district that is responding to needs of students and families.”
K-12 district enrollment, not counting charter schools, has dropped from 37,000 in 1998-99 to 29,000 in 2013-14, a 21 percent dip.
Two of the three new schools come from out-of-town educators recruited by E3 Rochester, a local organization dedicated to improving the charter school offerings in the city.
One, PUC Achieve Charter School, will run on the same model as 13 schools in the Los Angeles area. It will enroll 100 fifth-graders in the fall and, if things go according to plan, eventually expand to serve about 3,600 students in grades K-12 at three separate schools, according to Jacqueline Duvivier Castillo, PUC’s director of business and development.
The school, located on Mark Street in northeast Rochester in the former Saint Bridget’s Catholic Church, will stress arts as part of the school day. By 2015-16, it will hold classes 205 days a year and will be open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., including early drop-off and after-school activities.
There will also be a clinical counseling program where psychologists and school counselors in training can get experience in the school by providing free help to students and their families.
Duvivier Castillo said PUC National, the Los Angeles-based organization that will manage the Rochester school, decided to open a school in Rochester based partly on demographic similarities to the 13 schools in Los Angeles.
“Our CEO says often that Rochester feels like LA did 15 years ago,” Duvivier Castillo said. “The parents and community had a level of apathy like, ‘We’re stuck with this system, we have no choices.’ … What we want to bring is what we started in LA, a little revolution, informing parents you don’t have to accept a failing school.”
The other imported offering is Vertus Charter School, a high school for boys that is accepting ninth-graders in the fall. Its founders, Perry White and Leigh McGuigan, have experience running successful charter schools in Cleveland and New York City.
The key concept at Vertus will be 12-person learning teams, headed by adult “preceptors” who will be responsible for every aspect of their boys’ performance at school — “someone who can teach our boys how to be men,” McGuigan said.
Academics will be organized into two long lab periods where students do online coursework at their own level and also participate in group work and activities. The afternoons will be dedicated largely to career and technical training and internships.
School days are long and so is the school year, part of an emphasis on strong support and high expectations.
“Most kids don’t want to fail; most kids don’t want to act out,” McGuigan said. “Kids respond to the message of low expectations. If the message is we don’t think you’re smart, we don’t think you can do it, then they don’t care that much. … Finding out ways to reach them and form a relationship and find out what motivates them is the key.”
The third new charter school comes from a more familiar quarter. Former School of the Arts principal David Silver is opening a new arts-based school, the Renaissance Academy Charter School of the Arts, which will enroll students in K-2 in the fall and eventually serve K-6.
He and Donna Marie Cozine, the school’s head of academics, spent several years working at the College Board studying what makes urban schools work and decided to implement their findings in a new charter. The idea, Silver said, is to use the arts as a “ruse” to teach children, like a mother sneaking spinach into brownies.
“Kids love the arts,” he said. “We won’t tell them they’re learning anything — just come and have a good time.”
Each grade level will have a dedicated special educator, reading specialist, speech pathologist and drama teacher who collectively will work on students’ vocabulary gaps — research shows poor children may have heard 30 million fewer words by age 5 than privileged children.
“The main thing that became apparent at SOTA is that all children need a place in the universe to shine,” Silver said. “That community found a way to see the value of all students no matter what they were doing. … What we’re trying to do here, at an elementary level, is to provide students with enough places in the sun that they can stand up and shine.”
While the new charters work on recruiting their inaugural classes, the district administration and the Board of Education are focusing on stemming the tide. District leaders agree that improving performance in the district is the best remedy to the charter school threat.
“If we get our own house in order, it will reduce the competition,” School Board Vice President Cynthia Elliott said. “(But) if parents don’t feel they can get an appropriate education in city schools, they have to do what they have to, whether that means charters or private schools or anything else.”
For many parents, the distinction between charter and district schools is less important than how the programs at each school fit with their children.
Eric Anderson sent both his daughters to Genesee Community Charter School at the Rochester Museum and Science Center because he liked the expeditionary learning curriculum there.
His younger daughter is now in fifth grade there with plans to possibly move on to School of the Arts, while the older girl has advanced to seventh grade at Wilson Foundation Academy.
The family loves Genesee Community Charter School, but Anderson also praised a similar expeditionary learning program at School 58, World of Inquiry.
“We would have been in that lottery too if we’d known,” he said. “I’ve always thought charter schools should be an opportunity to figure out what works in education so you can take those good ideas and try them elsewhere. You see that with World of Inquiry.”
Board President Van White announced in January a plan for his first few months in office, including a goal of opening a new school this fall to replicate success elsewhere in the district and a promise to better adhere to existing policies.
“We could stop some of this (enrollment loss) if we just replicated some of what we do well,” he said. “When you lose the confidence of the people because they can get what they need from somebody else, your ability to compete is diminished, and clearly that has happened in this district.”
The idea of replicating success also extends to what’s working in charter and private schools, White said, and Silver, the public school principal turned charter operator, said he hopes best practices in all buildings will spread to the benefit of city children.
“There’s no such thing as cowboys with white hats and black hats anymore,” he said. “There are fabulous things going on in many city schools that other schools would do well to emulate, and hopefully we’ll have some things we’ll be able to offer. That’s the way it should be.”
Source: Democrat & Chronicle – by Justin Murphy