Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Charter schools lag in serving the neediest

Good to see that the media is shining a light on "creaming" practices found among charters. Interesting that even after low and/or selective enrollment of ELL and youth receiving special ed services charters STILL don't demonstrate that they are outperforming non-charter public schools. Makes you question if the federal push to lift caps and incentive charters is a viable solution.


Disparity widens rift with districts

Boston Globe
August 8, 2009

Governor Deval Patrick has touted his proposed expansion of charter schools as a way to help students who face the greatest academic challenges, such as language barriers and disabilities. But a Globe analysis shows that charter schools in cities targeted by the proposal tend to enroll few special education students or English language learners.

That imbalance raises questions about how much expertise these schools can offer and about their efforts to recruit such students, whose academic needs are generally greater than those of other youngsters.

In Boston, which hosts a quarter of the state’s charter schools, English language learners represented less than 4 percent of students at all but one of the charter schools last year, although they make up nearly a fifth of the students in the school system. Collectively, the 16 Boston charter schools taught fewer than 100 students who lacked fluency in English; six schools enrolled none.

While Boston charter schools had a higher representation of special education students, more than half still lagged at least 6 percentage points below the school district’s average of 21 percent. In urban districts statewide, special education enrollment was 10 percent or lower at about a third of the charter schools.

The figures highlight a long, divisive debate about charter school success that has grown louder in recent weeks: Are many charter schools achieving dazzling MCAS scores because of innovative teaching or because they enroll fewer disadvantaged students?

Superintendents, school committees, and teachers unions have long accused charter schools of dodging a public duty to teach special education students and English language learners because those youngsters are more expensive to educate and could drag down MCAS scores. But charter schools say that local districts impede efforts to recruit more diverse applicants by refusing to provide mailing lists of district students, for fear that recruiters will instead go after the most gifted students.

Patrick, who filed legislation last month to double the number of charter seats in districts with the lowest MCAS scores, has urged new charter schools to create student bodies that better reflect the makeup of the area in which they are located, including enrolling students with a variety of learning needs.

Paul Reville, the state’s secretary of education, emphasized in an interview that the legislation would replicate only those charter schools, both here and across the country, that have a strong record with special education students, English language learners, or other disadvantaged groups, such as low-income students. He pointed out that charter schools have been successful in raising the achievement of low-income and minority students, who have generally been well represented at urban charter schools.

“We’re unapologetic about this emphasis,’’ Reville said. “Given the cost of adding charter schools at the time of a budget crisis, we need to make judicious use of charter providers and make sure they get to students with the greatest needs.’’Continued...

Charter school proponents, however, have been fighting the measure. Earlier this year, they lobbied against a more stringent proposal that would have established quotas for the percentage of special education and English language students at new charter schools, requiring their enrollment to exceed the district average for those populations.

Dominic Slowey, spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said records indicating a low number of special education students at charter schools do not provide an accurate picture. According to Slowey, a significant number of special education students eventually do so well at charter schools that they no longer need special help and therefore shed that designation on state enrollment reports.

But he expressed disappointment that charter schools have been unable to attract more immigrant students, despite aggressive recruitment by some schools.

At Excel Academy Charter, which opened in East Boston to serve the Latino community and has achieved high MCAS scores, leaders are baffled as to why their school has few English language learners. Although 70 percent of their students last year were Latino and half were not native English speakers, just eight students lacked fluency in English, according to state data.

“I think the school goes to great lengths to make recruitment efforts open to all families,’’ said Rebecca Cass, the school’s interim executive director. She said the school prints materials in English and Spanish, advertises in Spanish-language newspapers, and even goes door to door in immigrant-rich neighborhoods.

Created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, charter schools run under fewer regulatory restrictions, and nearly all run independently of school districts, enabling them to employ nonunion teachers. The freedom is supposed to foster innovative teaching. While many of the state’s 62 charter schools boast high MCAS scores or college-going rates, the state has shuttered a handful for poor performance. In June, it closed Uphams Corner Charter, where nearly a third of students required special education.

Through the years, charter schools and traditional schools have sparred over funding. Each student who departs for a charter school takes along several thousand dollars in state aid, which is allocated largely on a per-student basis. The district schools lose that funding.

Under Patrick’s bill, which the Legislature will consider this fall, new charter schools will have to set enrollment goals for the targeted student groups and develop a recruitment and retention plan to reach the desired numbers. Charter schools will have to justify to the state any unmet goals.

For their part, districts would be required to share the coveted student mailing lists.

“It’s a step in the right direction but not sufficient enough,’’ said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, whose membership preferred Patrick’s original call for quotas.

Some charter schools have emerged as standouts with disadvantaged student groups, Slowey said. At Community Day Charter Public School in Lawrence, for instance, a quarter of students were not fluent in English last year and 19 percent received special education services. The school, which opened to help children learn English, has achieved academic success.

“It’s absolutely essential that charters, like everyone else, face the challenge of educating English language learners and students with disabilities,’’ said John Mudd of Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a nonprofit that works on behalf of disadvantaged students.

“We as a society have to deal with all those students, and we can’t write them off. I think the charter system has to face more broadly the challenge of the neediest.’’

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