Sunday, June 11, 2006

Of Texas schools in worst trouble, most are charters

Based on a new law (formerly SB2), "schools deemed academically unacceptable for four years must be shut down or be subject to management by a private, nonprofit company." I guess the private companies--and not the public schools--know better even though 9 of the 11 schools slotted for closure or radical alteration are charter schools. In any case, this is a punishing, rather than a supportive role, particularly in light of the fact that most charters target low-performing student populations. I'm not saying that these schools shouldn't get special attention. They should. It's just the kind of attention they get that concerns me. -Angela

Jeanne Russell
Express-News Staff Writer

New legislation aimed at ridding Texas of failing public schools will have an outsized effect on charter schools.

While the numbers are small, the percentages make it clear that Texas charters are in for a blow. Nine of the 11 public schools ranked academically unacceptable for three years under the state's accountability system are charters.

The taxpayer-financed, privately managed campuses make up less than 4 percent of Texas public schools but represent 73 percent of the repeat failures.

Three of the schools facing the most serious sanctions — closure or being taken over by a nonprofit — are in San Antonio: the San Antonio School for Inquiry and Creativity, the Eagle Academy of San Antonio, and the Career Plus Learning Academy.

"The statistics speak for themselves," said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who designed the provision and is a charter school supporter. "We cannot fund in any way bad schools for our students. If they are not producing for our children, they need to be closed."

At risk schools

Recent legislation mandates that struggling schools in the state must either improve or risk closing permanently or coming under new management. The 11 schools at risk for sanctions are:

Career Plus Learning Academy in San Antonio
San Antonio School for Inquiry and Creativity
Eagle Academy of San Antonio
*Eagle Academy of Bryan
Eagle Academy of Fort Worth
*Eagle Academy of Dallas
Honors Academy in Dallas
Crossroad Community Education Center Charter
Gulf Shores High
Kashmere High in Houston
Sam Houston High in Houston
*Eagle Academies of Bryan and Dallas were closed by the operator.

Source: Texas Education Agency

The stringent new oversight measures were part of a school finance bill signed by Gov. Rick Perry in May. Now, schools deemed academically unacceptable for four years must be shut down or be subject to management by a private, nonprofit company.

The state will release new school rankings, based on this year's Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores, in August. Schools are ranked exemplary, recognized, academically acceptable and academically unacceptable based largely on test performance.

Because the law was just passed, Education Secretary Shirley Neeley can decide whether to close or take over the flagged schools immediately or give them a year's reprieve, said Suzanne Marchman, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. Neeley is expected to make a decision by August.

This year's scores at San Antonio School for Inquiry and Creativity, which opened in 2000, appear good enough to earn an acceptable rating for the first time and avert state sanctions, said Debbie DeLeon, the school's principal and superintendent.

The school's 220 students in grades kindergarten through 12 were motivated to do well on the test in order to keep the school's doors open, DeLeon said.

"In 2004-2005 it was a 'whatever' attitude," said Shawn White, the school's vice principal and science teacher. "This year it was an uplifting experience."

The Eagle Academy of San Antonio serves about 140 students in grades six though 12. The San Antonio campus, one of four statewide in the chain, has been low-performing three times since it opened in 1999, though it performed better on the TAKS last year.

"Eagle Academy of San Antonio had an academically acceptable TAKS passing rate last year and we have seen a continued increase and even higher preliminary scores this year," said Julie Conde, a spokeswoman for the Lewisville-based Eagle Academies of Texas, which closed its low-performing campuses in Bryan and Dallas. "We are proud to report a continual increase in student performance."

At Career Plus Learning Academy, another repeat low-performer, phone calls seeking comment were not returned. The school opened in 1999 and serves about 40 students in grades six through 12, according to the Texas Education Agency Web site.

Charters grew out of a national movement to reform public education by lifting regulations to allow for innovation and competition. Since Texas awarded its first charter in 1996, lawmakers have struggled to balance oversight with maintaining the freedom that is the hallmark of charter schools.

Flexibility is credited with creative approaches such as those taken by the Knowledge Is Power Program, with which the Aspire Academy in San Antonio is affiliated, leading to impressive middle school achievement.

Mike Lopez, deputy superintendent of the John H. Wood Jr. Public Charter System, echoed other charter boosters who say uncurbed abuses have damaged the reputation and agility of well-run charter schools.

"If a school can't clean up its act in three years, there's something majorly wrong," said Lopez, who is also board president of the Association of Charter School Educators of Texas. "The state has cooperated with the charter school movement on not acting capriciously to close schools."

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