Disparities Noted In Charter, Public Schools

April 28, 2009|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

Students at Baltimore's charter schools tend to come from more advantaged backgrounds than their peers at regular city schools, according to a new report to be presented to the board of education Tuesday.

The city's charter schools serve fewer special education students, over-age students who have repeated a grade, and students eligible for federally subsidized meals because of family poverty. Overall, they are also more racially diverse than traditional schools, attracting more whites and Latinos, though some that converted from neighborhood schools are almost entirely segregated. Seventy-nine percent of students attending charter elementary schools last year were black, compared with 88 percent of those at regular city elementary schools.

The report - compiled by the school system's Division of Research, Evaluation, Assessment and Accountability - examines the first three years of performance at Baltimore's charters, which are public schools that operate independently in exchange for results. Baltimore opened its first charters in 2005 and is home to the majority of such schools in the state. It had 22 last year, operates 25 now and will have 27 by August. Enrollment grew from 2,925 in the 2005-2006 academic year to 5,520 last school year, representing 6.8 percent of the system's total.

The charters are more popular among parents and students and have better attendance than regular city schools, the report found, but academic performance has varied significantly. The biggest differences, in academics and climate, came at the middle school level. Six percent of students in charter middle schools missed more than 20 days of school last year, compared with 38 percent in regular city middle schools.

Dave Miller, executive director of the Maryland Charter School Network, said he wasn't surprised by the findings but that the report underscores the need to recruit parents who aren't seeking out a school of choice.

The report found that in general, charters are not drawing in a large number of students from outside the city school system. But seven charters, including Midtown Academy, City Neighbors and The Green School, see more than 40 percent of their students enroll from outside the system, indicating that they are attracting families who might not otherwise send their children to public schools. Charter students are also less likely to transfer out.

Bobbi Macdonald, president of the City Neighbors governing board, which plans to open a second school in August, said she recently heard a principal complain that City Neighbors is taking his "best" families away. "My response was, 'Look at your program,' " said Macdonald, also co-chair of the Coalition of Baltimore Charter Schools. "If every school looks at their program and makes sure they are creating the best school they can imagine, we won't be worrying about which families are going to which schools."

With 55 percent of students black and 44 percent white, City Neighbors is one of Baltimore's most diverse schools.

"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense at this point to speak of charters as a whole," said Jeanine Hildreth, an author of the report. "They're very, very different and need to stand on their own merits."

Under the leadership of schools chief Andr?s Alonso, all city schools are taking on more of the characteristics of charters as principals are given autonomy for decision-making and schools form parent and community governing boards.

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