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Texas' top charter schools demand more from students, parents, teachers
11:55 AM CDT on Monday, September 20, 2010
BY HOLLY K. HACKER / The Dallas Morning News
Students at Richland Collegiate High School take a full load of college classes and conduct a year-long research project.
KIPP school students commit to nine-hour days during the week, plus two Saturday and month and three weeks in the summer.
Yes Prep students agree to do all the work needed to get into a four-year college.
The missions and methods may vary, but these campuses have something in common: They're Texas charter schools that earn high academic marks year after year.
Recently released 2010 ratings and TAKS scores show that Texas charter schools are more likely to earn either the very best or worst state ratings – exemplary or unacceptable – than regular public schools. This also holds true for the more than 120 charter schools in North Texas.
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Given these extremes, it is little wonder researchers have reached no consensus on whether charter schools – public schools run by private groups and freed of many state rules – outperform traditional public schools.
Charter schools, by design, vary too much in their missions and kinds of students served. While regular schools serve everyone, one charter campus may cater to motivated college-bound students and another to struggling former dropouts.
Still, politicians and philanthropists want to understand why some charter schools do so well so that their success stories can be replicated across Texas and the rest of the country.
A closer look at local top-rated charter schools shows there is no one secret, but one thing is clear: They demand more from their students, parents and teachers.
"This is not for the faint of heart," Richland Collegiate High superintendent Donna Walker said of the charter school's grown-up expectations of its students.
Walker's school, located at the Richland College campus in far northeast Dallas, gives juniors and seniors the chance to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate's degree.
There is no separate high school campus. Richland Collegiate students take classes taught by Richland College instructors, often alongside college students. While a typical college load is 12 to 15 credit hours, these students take 19 to 21. They're expected to be on campus every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"You have to be really mature to be in this program," said Aash Bansal, a senior from Plano.
No administrators roam the halls ordering students to class. No dress codes ban body piercings or flip-flops. Students can leave campus for lunch.
Bansal said she was plenty challenged at Jasper High School in Plano. But her mother learned about Richland Collegiate from a friend. Bansal liked the idea of getting two years of college free. (By law, charter schools cannot charge tuition, and Richland provides all textbooks.)
Senior Alecsander Lopez said he was bored at his old school, Bryan Adams High in Dallas. He said he loved the school, especially playing drums in the marching band, but he didn't put in much effort and still earned A's.
Lopez learned about Richland Collegiate from a cousin and jumped at the chance.
"I wanted to see what I could do," he said. "I really had to push myself to another level."
Lopez said some of his Richland classmates returned to their old high schools because they couldn't keep up with the work, which includes three or more hours of daily homework and a senior research project.
This spring, 98 percent of Richland juniors passed their TAKS exams in all four subjects. And nearly half of them scored at the higher "commended" level in reading and math. The school has been rated "exemplary" every year since 2006, when it opened.
Not every charter school demands such maturity of its students, but experts say the highest-performing charters typically require more from families than do traditional campuses.
Common traits include:
More classroom time. Houston-based KIPP schools, which include KIPP TRUTH Academy in Dallas, run from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, with four hours on some Saturdays and three extra weeks in the summer.
Rigorous classes. North Hills School, part of Irving-based Uplift Education, and Westlake Academy, run by the town of Westlake, offer the International Baccalaureate program from elementary through high school. It's one of the most demanding courses of study a student can undertake.
Extra commitment from families. KIPP, Yes Prep and Uplift schools are among college-prep charters that ask parents and students to sign pledges. For instance, students promise to finish all homework on time. Parents agree to attend all parent-teacher conferences. And while charter schools cannot legally expel students if, say, their parents skip a school meeting, those pledges make a school's expectations clear.
Extra demands of teachers. Teachers in charter schools often work longer days. Many college-prep charters encourage students who need homework help to call teachers on their cellphones. Charter schools also have more leeway to fire teachers.
Private donations. Unlike traditional public schools, Texas charter schools receive no state money for buildings. But big donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and the Communities Foundation of Texas have given millions of dollars to help promising charter systems build schools and cover other expenses.
School culture. "The culture of the school is the most important factor that teachers, principals and students talk about," said Robin Lake, associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. "The curriculum or teaching style might vary, but the mission is the same. It's about norms and expectations.
Clear and concrete missions. Devora Davis, research manager at Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, said effective charter schools have goals that can be measured, like sending every student to college.
Slapping a catchy slogan on school letterhead doesn't count.
"It's in the conversation on a regular basis. It's not just something that's in the mission and gets buried," said Davis, who spent two years with KIPP as an information analyst.
Higher student churn
By law, charter schools must accept all students who apply and hold a random lottery if there are more applicants than available spots.
But charter school student bodies can reflect the types of students and families they target, and who are drawn to the mission. Some charters also lose more students along the way than traditional schools do.
"At best they lose as many kids as a typical neighborhood school. At worst they lose significantly more," said Ed Fuller, an education researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.
For instance, Harmony Science Academy in Dallas began with 69 freshmen in 2006-07 and ended with 24 seniors in 2009-10. The school has been rated exemplary four of the past five years.
Peak Preparatory School in Dallas, part of Uplift Education, celebrated this spring because all 26 seniors – its first graduating class – were college-bound. But that class started with 43 freshmen, which translates into a 40 percent attrition rate.
Uplift officials said that most students who leave their schools say the family moved and can no longer provide transportation to school, or because students want a more-typical high school experience.
"We don't have these huge athletic programs or extracurricular activities that your traditional high schools do," said Deborah Bigham, Uplift's chief development officer. "You lose a little bit of that in a public charter school."
Charter districts such as KIPP, Yes Prep, Idea, Harmony and Uplift show amazing results with low-income students, but they tend to attract more motivated students and parents, Fuller said.
"They're not enrolling the kid who's significantly far behind," he said. "They don't serve the same kids as the typical neighborhood school."
Other researchers point to charters that take students who have chronically failed in regular schools.
"There's no evidence that charter schools systematically take more-advantaged students and leave the district with the most difficult kids," said Lake, the University of Washington researcher. "In urban districts, the opposite is often true."