Baltimore charter schools record small edge over public schools in tests

Alonso says that while performance gap remains narrow, recent scores in both types of schools show stalled progress

August 23, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore charter school students continue to outperform their traditional counterparts, a finding that comes months after officials grappled with whether to allow such schools to continue when their performance lags.

This year, school officials declined to renew the license of Dr. Rayner Browne Academy, an East Baltimore elementary and middle charter school where students scored lower than the city average on state assessment tests. Baltimore has 27 charter schools, and their number has grown significantly during the tenure of system CEO Andrés Alonso.

In the last academic year, charter schools recorded a 5 percentage-point lead in the number of students who showed proficiency in math and reading when compared with traditional schools, test results show.

But the achievement gap is narrow, and Alonso said both types of institutions are doing their jobs.

"Charters tend to do better than traditional schools, but it's a small gap that signals the district is moving forward," Alonso said. "It should be a small gap because the schools are being treated very similarly in their choices, resources, and leadership selection."

He added: "It's clear that schools don't need to be chartered to be successful."

About 10 percent of Baltimore students now receive their education in charter schools, which are independently operated but receive public funding.

Alonso said he remains a proponent of charter schools, pointing to their commitment to innovation and autonomy. He acknowledges, however, that they have created tension in the district because some people think they are favored, and can have access to extra resources from their operators.

"I believe charters are engines for innovation," Alonso said. "They're a place that people can own the work. But I treat all my schools the same and bring the same lens that I bring in looking at others."

Patterson Park Public Charter School ranked among the highest performers last year. Principal Chad Kramer said his students made double-digit gains because of a curriculum that includes experience-based lessons in the neighborhood.

"For us, what it came down to was that we had the autonomy to develop our own curriculum," Kramer said. "It was about engaging them in that curriculum, and more than just answering to some test. This is a test that only the adults care about."

On the 2010 Maryland School Assessments, 70 percent of the city's elementary and middle school charter school students scored proficient or advanced in mathematics, compared with 65 percent of traditional students, school system data showed.

About 77 percent of charter school students scored advanced or proficient in reading, while 72 percent of traditional school students did. Students attending both types schools have shown similar growth in reading in mathematics in the last three years. Overall, progress on the tests stalled this year among both charter schools and their traditional counterparts in the city.

Rayner Browne also showed test gains, just months after the Baltimore school board revoked its license. It was the first school in the city not to be issued a charter contract renewal.

Alonso's February recommendation to revoke the license spurred a debate about how charter schools should be evaluated during the license renewal process.

The city's school board and a charter school committee is currently devising a streamlined method for the reviews, he said.

Rayner Browne noted significant leaps in test scores this year, some exceeding 30 percentage points, and made its adequate yearly progress targets for the first time.

When asked if he thought he acted prematurely in revoking the school's charter license, Alonso said: "I'm glad that the school showed progress after a long record of not moving, and we hope that growth is sustainable."

Jack Pannell, executive director for the Baltimore Curriculum Project, the former operator of Rayner Browne and four other charter schools, said the "hard work" by students at the school "paid off."

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