Charter Schools: Serving Those Left Behind

A few weeks ago, the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty released a report about the state of charter schools in Minnesota.  One of the biggest issues was, as usual, student performance.  The other issue was news to me that this was even an issue worth talking about – segregation.  Before I tackle these accusations with my thoughts, I would like to step back and speak a bit about my experience with charter schools.

In the past nine years, I have had the joy of working in three different charter schools. Each was different in its focus, but each one succeeded in reaching students who may not have otherwise been reached.  PACT Charter School’s focus is to create a partnership among parents, students, and teachers in order to build the best school experience possible for all.  With a special education population of 20-25%, this school’s focus attracts families who have felt left behind in the IEP process.  Wolf Creek Online High School’s focus was to reach students through its online curriculum.  Each student has a teacher-advisor who has a caseload of only 25 students. This allows for a personalized education plan that allows student to choose the level of rigor that they desire.  My current employer, Minnesota Transitions Charter Schools, has a school for everyone. Students who want to learn online have two options; students who want to pursue health or digital media careers will find a place for them as well.  When the need for a Somali focused school in the metro area surfaced, MTS answered the call.

In addition to working in charter schools, my own children attended a charter school. We were happy with our children attending the local district school until the teachers there thought that they would be better served in a more challenging environment.  Although investing in our community school was important, our children’s education was also a priority.  We would not have considered a charter school until this suggestion by the district teachers themselves who saw our children needing more challenge that the hours and hours of reading and math instruction.

Each of these schools had its birth in one common foundation – student need.  If there had not been a need for the type of school that a charter school is, the school would not succeed.  Each of the three schools in which I have worked has succeeded – they are financially sound, their enrollment continues to grow steadily, and some even have waiting lists. They are able to find and retain committed teachers without the chains of union bureaucracy. I can be assured that I will have a job next year as long as I continue to do my job.  I do not have to worry about losing my position to the person above me with more seniority who decides she wants my job.  I also can negotiate my pay (and will only be granted a raise if I perform) rather than seeing what I should expect based on steps and lanes.  This keeps me in charter schools and probably will for the rest of my education career.

So – why the criticism of charter schools?

Student performance typically comes under the microscope whenever we talk about schools in general but especially when we talk about charter schools who apparently, though created in legislation, are not considered “real schools” unless they out-perform the traditional district schools. Consider for a moment that students in charter schools rarely start in the charter schools as most students start at the charter school where they test.  This is especially true at the high school level where students become more mobile.

Imagine if you were tested on your parenting skills with children that you received only weeks before the test? Is it fair to hold any school accountable for the reading abilities of 10th graders who likely had reading instruction at several different schools between kindergarten and 9th grade? Would it not be more important for us to focus on individual student improvement rather than the percentage of students who have achieved some determined number on a tests?

I recently had a conversation with a person who works at a charter school in the metro area. I will not name names or schools as I fear that it might cause negative retribution for this school and teacher.  The person mentioned the fact that a co-worker’s class was making leaps and bounds of improvement in both reading and math, but the students in this class would still not be considered at grade level by the end of the year. This means that the school will likely be on the “naughty” list that is published each summer after the MCA tests are scored.  Would it not be a good idea to mention, in some way, the improvements made by students?  I understand the need for standardized tests, but can we not also have some measure of improvement?  If a student is in 10th grade and started the year at a 6th grade reading level, would it not be impressive if that student made it to 8th grade reading level by the end of the year?  Yes – the student still misses the mark for the standard, but do we disregard the improvements made by only seeing the “failing” mark yet again?

I have digressed…

In the latest report on charter schools, they were “docked” because of their segregation.  With schools that focus on the Hmong, Somali, and Native American populations, I guess this is a fair criticism.  The question I have is, ‘”So what?”

Charter schools are a choice. There is not a single charter school in Minnesota that has district boundaries that require anyone to attend them.

There is something about these schools that attracts the students to them. Perhaps parents are more comfortable because someone at the school speaks their native language.  Perhaps the fact that most kids have ESL classes rather than feeling singled out is attractive to students who struggle with English.  Whatever the attraction, it is there, and we must remember that charter schools are choice.  If segregation happens, it is should not immediately be seen as a problem. Rather, we should question what it is that makes this segregation appealing.

If certain populations are feeling better served in a “segregated setting,” that should tell us all that something is missing in the traditional setting. Charter schools, with their local control, [often] smaller classes, and specific focus, seem to attract some populations.  Those families feel as though they are being served well in those settings.  If they were not, the school choice would allow them to change settings.  I am still not sure what the point of this criticism was.

Are there bad charter schools?  Of course!  Are there bad district schools? Of course!  The difference between bad charter schools and bad district schools, though, is that there is an accountability level for charter schools – both at the department of education level as well as at the sponsor level.  When was the last time that the department of education recommended that a district close one of its schools?

Charter schools have their place.  I am obviously a huge proponent of charter schools. I love the fact that teachers, community members, and parents make up the school boards of charter schools.  I love that, although many schools give stipends for board members’ attendance at meetings, no board member could make enough to consider it even their part-time job.  I love that charter school board members did not affiliate themselves with a political party when running for election.

If there had not been a need for charter schools, they would not exist.  Rather than constantly finding all of the reasons why they are bad (which, by the way, are typically the same reasons that traditional school districts are bad), we should focus on what they teach us about the schools that existed before they did.  What lessons should we learn from them, how can we make all schools “good” for all students, and how can we ensure that no student is left behind?

If you want more information about charter schools in Minnesota, check out their website: http://mncharterschools.org.

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