Creating a school community

To write Our School: Searching for Community in the Era of Choice, Sam Chaltain spent a year following two Washington D.C. schools, Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School and Bancroft Elementary School.

In both the charter and the district school, “he found caring teachers and administrators in vibrant schools who struggle to meet new standards with little guidance and at times little support,” reports the Washington Post.

Not everything can be measured, writes Chaltain. However, it’s “just as it is true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than basic-skills test scores.”

My book about Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter high school, also is titled Our School. Last week, I went to DCP’s 10th commencement ceremony, which honored both the class of 2014 and the pioneer class of 2004.

DCP, which has added two middle schools and a second high school campus, now has an alumni association and an alumni seat on the board. Graduates are raising scholarship money. When students visit California universities, they can talk to DCP graduates who are students there. Some DCP graduates have returned as teachers.

In low-income, Latino immigrant communities, DCP has made college-going the “new normal,” said Jennifer Andaluz, DCP’s co-founder and executive director.

Special ed quotas for charters?

Some propose requiring charter schools to enroll the same percentage of “special needs” students as district schools, notes an Education Next forum.

Charter schools should serve all kinds of students, argues Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University.  On average, only 8 to 10 percent of charter students are in special education compared to 13.1 percent in district schools. Severely disabled students also are much less likely to attend charter schools.

Some charter schools “counsel out” disabled students, telling parents the school is not a “good fit” for their child.

Charters that recruit and enroll disabled students would receive more funding, making it possible to hire special ed staff that would help all students, he argues. And charters would be taking their “fair share.”

Special ed quotas are a bad idea, responds Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

It would create “perverse incentives for schools to overidentify students as disabled.” Some charters work hard to avoid labeling students as “learning disabled” or “emotionally disordered.”

. . . as schools of choice, not all charter schools will be equally attractive to, or effective with, kids with disabilities. A “no excuses” school may be a good fit for students who respond well to a highly structured and very strict culture but not be effective at all for others. Although a school’s “mission” should never be an excuse for a charter school to exclude students whose families feel it is the right fit, we also should not expect that all charter schools will attract an equal number of all types of students.

Disabled students should have access to schools that have the staff and resources to meet their needs, writes Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University.  Often, they’re concentrated in low-performing schools that are overwhelmed by students’ needs.

Many high-performing district schools “employ strategies to screen out such students as well, either by not providing the services needed for special education students, or by employing admissions policies that make it difficult or unlikely for such students to gain access.”

New Orleans: Traditional public schools close

Akili Academy first-grader Kyron Bourgeois, 6, raises his hand in the class of Hannah Bunis on May 27, 2014 in New Orleans. Akili Academy in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans will be absorbing some students from the city's closing public schools.Akili Academy first-grader Kyron Bourgeois, 6, raises his hand. The New Orleans charter school will take some students from closing schools. (Edmund D. Fountain/For The Washington Post)

New Orleans schools won’t all be charters next year, but the post-Katrina state agency that controls most of the city’s public schools has closed its last traditional school, reports the Washington Post. Recovery School District students will use OneApp, a computerized lottery, to find a place in one of 58 charter schools. The city’s old school board, the Orleans Parish Board, also runs six schools and has chartered 14 more.

Critics of the all-charter New Orleans model say it is undemocratic, because leaders of charter schools are not accountable to voters. They also say the system is challenging for parents, who have to figure out logistics that were not an issue when their children walked to neighborhood schools. . . . Advocates say the all-charter model empowers parents. “We’ve reinvented how schools run,” said Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, which promotes and supports charter schools. . .  “If I am unhappy with service I’m getting in a school, I can pull my kid out and go to another school tomorrow. I don’t have to wait four years for an election cycle so I can vote for one member of a seven-member board that historically has been corrupt.”

Before the hurricane, New Orleans was one of the worst school districts in the nation. The Orleans Parish Board was “bankrupt and couldn’t account for about $71 million in federal money, reports the Post. After Katrina, the school board was left in control of a small number of magnet and selective-admissions schools. Activists complain the board’s admissions policies limit black enrollment, though a very high proportion of OPB — and RSD — students are black. The state’s Recovery School District seized 102 low-performing schools. The schools have improved significantly, “although it’s difficult to make direct comparisons” because many students never returned to New Orleans, reports the Post.

Before the storm, the city’s high school graduation rate was 54.4 percent. In 2013, the rate for the Recovery School District was 77.6 percent. On average, 57 percent of students performed at grade level in math and reading in 2013, up from 23?percent in 2007, according to the state.

“The difference between now and pre-Katrina is that we’re replacing schools that are not performing well,” (RSD Superintendent Patrick) Dobard said. “We don’t let children languish in chronically poor performing neighborhood schools.”

Districts of Choice compete for students

California’s Districts of Choice are competing for students, writes June Kronholz in Education Next.  State law lets choice districts accept transfers without approval from students’ home districts.

The Riverside Unified School District east of Los Angeles was losing enrollment till it expanded choice options and opened the door to transfers.

. . . the district launched a science and technology middle school, a dual-language immersion elementary, an all-digital high school, an arts-centered grade school, a virtual school starting at grade 3, and more. Kids from other districts could enroll in the new programs, or, if the programs were oversubscribed, could enter admissions lotteries and, in some cases, stood the same chance of winning as Riverside youngsters.

Ninth-grade students at Riverside STEM Academy work together in a STEM Research Methodologies class

Ninth-grade students at Riverside STEM Academy work together in a STEM Research Methodologies class.
(Photo/Courtesy Riverside STEM Academy)

 

In 2013–14, the third choice year, 535 students transferred in to Riverside schools. Enrollment — and state funding — rose.

Thirty-one districts in the state have declared themselves “districts of choice.”

Districts can’t recruit star athletes or other outstanding students, writes Kronholz. ” Transfers can’t exacerbate racial segregation, and a district can’t take so many students that the transfers undermine another district’s financial stability.” They can’t reject special education students or  English Learners.

The law is controversial, writes Kronholz. Riverside parents aren’t always happy to see transfers compete for seats in popular programs.

Superintendents are wary of upsetting colleagues in neighboring districts, says Adonai Mack of the school administrators association. Many superintendents “aren’t entrepreneurial,” he adds.

We know what works, but it’s not easy

We Know (A Few) Things That Work to improve high-poverty schools, write economists Greg J. Duncan of University of California at Irvine’s School of Education and Richard J. Murnane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  In Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education, they describe the success of Boston’s pre-K program, the University of Chicago’s K-12 charter school network and New York City’s small high schools of choice. 

Flash: Charters aren’t a silver bullet

Applying to Washington D.C. charter schools taught Conor Williams that school choice relies on chance. Lots of parents want to get their kids into the good charters. A lottery decides who makes it.

There are Hebrew, Chinese, and Spanish language schools. One promises Spanish immersion, discovery-based learning, and an emphasis on ecological sustainability. There are multiple Montessori charters in our area . . .

D.C. has some “great” district-run schools, but they’re open only to people who can afford million-dollar homes, Williams writes. So parents have turned to charter schools. “In 2012, there were more than 35,000 students on charter schools’ waitlists (though some were duplicates). There were only 77,000 students in the city that year.”

Charters’ lotteries are neutral, he writes. His “son, with his two highly educated, almost-middle-class, white parents” has no advantage “over his friend whose mother dropped out of high school and is raising her child alone.”

It’s not perfect. Savvy parents can “get around town” and apply to multiple lotteries, he complains. However, D.C. has unified its district and charter lotteries.  While “a handful of high-performing charters stayed outside the system,” parents can apply to most schools with one application.

The D.C. Council has considered letting charter schools give admissions preference to students who live nearby. As the city gentrifies, that could lock low-income families out of high-performing charters, Williams writes. What about weighted lotteries to give a preference to disadvantaged students?

He doesn’t mention helping good charters expand, so they can serve more students.

The headline says Williams “learned about inequality” but his conclusion is that charters are a “mild corrective to inequity” though not a “solution.” Not a silver bullet? Really! 

Does choice create quality?

Accountability doesn’t mean “government-imposed standards and testing” argues an education manifesto signed by leaders of the Cato Institute, the Friedman Foundation, the Heartland Institute, the Center for Education Reform and others. “True accountability” comes from “parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality.”

Despite his strong bias toward school choice and parental prerogative, Robert Pondiscio is “not quite ready to act upon the argument that choice, not standards, is the best guarantee of excellence, he writes on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences.

I taught in the lowest-performing school in New York City’s lowest-performing district. There was choice available to the families we served. The original South Bronx KIPP Academy was a few blocks away. There were other charter schools and good Catholic schools, too. In my school, meanwhile, our principal knew all the families by name, spoke fluent Spanish, and parents appreciated that we were respectful and nice to the kids. Our motto was written in big, bold letters on the playground wall: “Job Number One: Keep Everyone Safe!” Job Number Two, directly under it, read “Get a Good Education.”

Those were the de facto standards that arose at my school. One hundred percent of our students were safe. Sixteen percent could read on grade level.

Choice and standards need each other, writes Kathleen Porter-Magee. Not all parents want no-excuses, data-driven instruction.” In Washington, D.C., parents can choose Montessori charters, Catholic charters, Hebrew immersion, Reggio Emilia, No Excuses, and on. “All are held accountable to the same standards, but real innovation is not only possible — it is encouraged and thriving. In fact, that innovation is possible not in spite of the standards but because of them.”

“Having standards to which all publicly funded schools are held accountable doesn’t strike me as an undue burden,” writes Pondiscio.

On This Week in Education, Paul Bruno takes on the faulty logic of the “other people’s children” argument. Reform critics charge reformers push for ideas — such as the “no excuses” model — that they wouldn’t want for their own kids.

. . . it seems plausible that different kids have different educational needs and that the children of prominent reformers are likely to be systematically different than other children, particularly the least-privileged children who tend to be the focus of reform efforts.

That makes sense to me — if low-income parents have a choice of different school models, as in Washington D.C. 

Expulsion is ‘heartbreaking but necessary’

Chicago charter schools expel 6 of every 1,000 students compared to .5 for public schools, the district reported. “At three campuses in the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has faced backlash over its disciplinary approach, anywhere from 2 percent to nearly 5 percent of students were expelled in the last school year,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

Expulsion is heartbreaking but necessary, argues Michael Milkie, founder and superintendent of the Noble schools, in a Chicago Sun-Times commentary.

Milkie and his wife taught in Chicago public schools before starting Noble 15 years ago. They saw a disruptive minority make it difficult to teach and learn. Their 14 charter schools are known for strict discipline.  

We believed that the best way to support students’ success in college, career and life was to run schools with a culture of high expectations and personal accountability. 

. . . We’ve made a promise to our parents that their children will learn in a safe, calm and focused environment. We promise that our classrooms and halls will be free from violence and disruptive behavior. We promise that we will socially and academically support our students while holding high expectations for them despite the many social issues they face.

Noble schools don’t have metal detectors, police, bullying or fighting, Milkie writes. Attendance and graduation rates are high and 90 percent of graduates go on to college.

Students “who threaten the safety and environment of others” are expelled, he writes. The network’s expulsion rate is about 1 percent per year.  Noble will not “compromise the culture and learning environment of the 99 percent of students for the disruptive 1 percent.”

The well-meaning campaign to reduce suspensions and expulsions may backfire, writes Michael Goldstein on Puzzl_Ed, the Match Education blog. If a school environment is “crazy,” teachers will leave. “Kids in the most troubled schools typically lack choice.”

Goldstein remembers heartbreaking expulsion decisions in Match High‘s early years.

Fritz was carrying a weapon which he said . . . was to protect him from gang members in his neighborhood, and he would never use it in our school community. We believed him. We had a clear rule, though, and he was expelled. . . . You end up thinking crazy things like “Should our students be able to check their weapons at the door, like a saloon in the Wild West, and pick them up on the way home, because the police in Boston are utterly unable to protect (minority) kids from gangs?”

. . . There’s part of an educator that thinks “Hey if that was my kid, and he had to live in that unsafe neighborhood, and the reality was that yes, carrying a weapon poses obvious risks (of escalation, of arrest), but also genuinely also serves as a deterrent so he can go to and from school without humiliation, what would I tell my kid to do?” It’s not always an easy question.

Schools should be clear about rules and consequences, Goldstein concludes. Let parents decide whether they want a strict or lax regime.

Many Chicago and suburban public schools aren’t reporting campus violence, despite a state law, reports NBC.

Common Core? What’s that?

The Education Roadtrip is 50CAN’s new survey of Americans’ attitudes toward education. Results can be broken out by region.

Respondents trust teachers to improve schools, but not teachers’ unions. And definitely not “elected officials in Washington, D.C.”  Eighty percent said they “do not trust” officials.

Americans aren’t well-informed or consistent, notes Sarah Garland on the Hechinger Report. Nearly three-fourths backed school choice and letting schools cut through red tape to make changes. Yet only 54 percent wanted to open more charter schools and 58 percent supported “using public school funding to create schools that are allowed to set their own administrative rules and explore innovative solutions.” Forty-four percent thought charters are private schools.

Most people — 58 percent — said they didn’t know what the Common Core is. Less than a third supported the standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. Twelve percent were opposed.

Two thirds of those surveyed backed “holding all students across the country to a uniform set of high standards,” the report’s authors noted. “Most Americans would support the Common Core if they just knew what it was.”

D.C. faces middle-school slump

As Washington D.C. gentrifies, more educated parents are sending their children to neighborhood elementary schools. But choosy parents aren’t choosing district-run middle schools, reports the Washington Post.

Ross Elementary in Dupont Circle has a long wait list for pre-k, but few fifth graders. Many D.C. charters start in fifth grade. Those who finish at Ross typically go to charters, private schools or the suburbs, reports the Post. “In the past three years, just one Ross fifth-grader out of 47 went on to attend the assigned public middle school, which many parents consider substandard.”

Among parents who send their children to a D.C. public school, 31 percent say they’d send a child to a DCPS middle school, 30 percent would seek a charter middle school and the rest say “they would look to private schools or leave the city.”