Charter schools' reviews mixed

First-year study finds poor are served, many students leave, those who stay are satisfied

January 25, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

Overall, Baltimore's charter schools are serving just as many poor and minority students as other public schools in the city, but they have fewer students with disabilities. They have not turned into enclaves for children from wealthy families, as some had feared.

On average, charter schools are losing more students over the course of a year than regular schools, but the parents and children who remain report high levels of satisfaction. And charter students are performing better in reading than they are in math.

These were among the conclusions of a report by the city school system on the first-year performance of Baltimore's charter schools - public schools that operate independently. Last school year, the city opened 12 charter schools that enrolled about 3,000 students. Seven of the schools had existed previously and converted to charters, while five of the schools were new.

In presenting the report to the school board this week, officials were quick to warn about the danger of drawing conclusions using a year's worth of data. Educators widely agree that at least three to five years' data are needed to evaluate the effectiveness of a school reform.

But some board members were eager to start applying successes from the charters in their regular schools.

So far, the schools' performances have been mixed. Six of 10 charters that were assessed last year on standardized tests met state benchmarks on the exams.

The highest performance was at KIPP Ujima Village Academy, which posted the state's highest math scores in seventh and eighth grades. The data in the report also showed that KIPP, which serves fifth- through eighth-graders, was also the school most likely to require a student to repeat a grade.

Last year, 77 percent of KIPP students were promoted to the next grade, compared with a citywide average of 93 percent.

Jason Botel, executive director of KIPP Baltimore, said the school is most likely to hold students back in fifth grade.

"If a student has not achieved a majority of the standards for a particular grade level, we make every effort to have the student repeat that grade level so they'll be successful moving on," Botel said. "If they're not academically prepared, often it's a snowball effect, where they do worse and worse as they go up the grade levels."

The charters' racial and economic compositions appear similar to other schools in their communities. But Benjamin Feldman, who directs the school system's research office, said charter students tend to have an inherent advantage simply by having parents interested enough in their education to seek out a school of choice.

"There has been an adult in the life of the child who has taken the initiative," Feldman said.

The charter schools are attracting more students from outside the system than are other public schools, the report shows, indicating that some parents are choosing charters over private schools. Nevertheless, Feldman said, it does not appear that the charters have created "enclaves of entitlement and privilege," as some had feared when the schools were created.

The biggest demographic difference between charter and regular schools appears to be the number of special education students they enroll.

Special education is one of the few areas in charter schools still controlled centrally by the school system.

And because some of the charters are so small, advocates say the system isn't able to provide every special education service in every school, sometimes requiring severely disabled children to go elsewhere.

"This is not a charter school issue; this is a small-school issue," said Christopher Maher, director of the Baltimore advocacy group Supporting Public Schools of Choice. To make charters and other small schools available to all special-education students, he said, "we need to look at an alternative structure through which to deliver the services."

Some of the charters are involved in a continuing lawsuit against the city school board over how they are funded. The charters want more autonomy over their budgets, including money allocated for special education. Maher said some charters are achieving in every area except special education, which they don't control.

With five more charter schools that opened this school year, Baltimore now is home to 17 of the state's 24 charter schools, and the city school board has approved applications for six more.

The charters operate under three-year contracts with the city school board. By the summer of 2008, the board must decide whether to renew the contracts of the schools in the first batch.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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