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Home » CER in the News » Charter schools have smaller classes, higher test scores — but what are the drawbacks?

Charter schools have smaller classes, higher test scores — but what are the drawbacks?

By Jennifer Bonnett
Lodi News-Sentinel
February 6, 2011

This spring, hundreds of students’ names will go into a bucket. They are from families seeking one of 66 spots available at Aspire’s Vincent Shalvey Academy, housed in a former Sibbs grocery store in Morada.

At Shalvey, the competition for enrollment is keen, test scores are high, and parents are generally engaged and satisfied.

Shalvey is just one example of a dramatic trend in education: the rise of the charters.

In Lodi Unified School District, there are now five charters with 1,800 students enrolled. In 1992, there were none. Charter schools are rising steadily, drawing praise — and stirring controversy. Some hail charters as prototypes of the future, where teachers can innovate faster and better, and students excel academically. Champions of charters say they are cost-effective and nimble, while many traditional public schools are chafed by regulations, laws and union rules.

Critics, though, say charters pull not only money but top students away from public schools, lack accountability and threaten the traditional bedrock of public education in America. They say comparing charters to public schools is in no way an apple-to-apple parallel.

While charter schools have the ability to appeal to a niche group, public schools must accept everyone who walks in their doors. Pulling students from public schools means the money follows, leaving less funds to educate the remaining students.

Jeff Johnston, veteran teacher and president of the Lodi teachers’ union, said problems can arise when charter schools pull the best and brightest from public schools.

“Public schools are mandated to educate every student that comes in the door … regardless of their challenges,” he said.

He admits that charter schools have racked up some achievements, but so have public schools, he insists.

“There’s no data that supports that charter schools are any more successful than public schools. Some public schools are successful and some are struggling. Same with charter schools,” Johnston said.

It is a controversy that is likely to heat up before it cools down: Now pending in Lodi Unified is another petition that would create a sixth charter. A decision has yet to be made on Community Charter School of the Arts, which would be located at the old Clements School.

In the beginning

Charter schools are independent public schools that receive both state and federal money but are overseen by their own boards. To exist, they must successfully petition a school district, the county office of education or the state to approve the charter.

The charter school movement started three decades ago. Now, 7 percent of the country’s 55 million students are enrolled in a charter.

About 8,900 of the 136,303 students in San Joaquin County attend a charter school. This includes independent study programs offered through a non-traditional school.

“The popularity of charter schools has grown because it gives parents a choice for a public school education rather than only enrolling their children at their home school, which is based upon where they live,” said Karla Fachner, principal of Vincent Shalvey in Morada.

Colleen Selling, whose children attend Joe Serna Jr. Charter School, believe it’s because there is more accountability at all levels, from the faculty, to the students and to the parents who are required to work in the classroom or accompany students on field trips.

When Vincent Shalvey opened in 1999, it was the district’s first charter school. Today, students in kindergarten through fifth grade wear uniforms and learn in classrooms named for colleges and universities. Like the other schools under the Aspire Charter Schools umbrella, their motto is “College for Certain.”

If the college pennants hanging in each classroom aren’t a clue, then the kid-friendly steps to getting into college listed on each white board make it clear. On the first week back from winter recess, this included being able to solve fractions and analyze a book character.

Aspire is big on order and respect for authority. “When you’re here, you’re college-ready,” Vincent Shalvey teacher Dawn Drake said. “They know what’s expected of them.”

The school’s lobby posts pictures of each staff member under the banner “committed to excellence.” There have been no layoffs in recent years, and although class sizes increased by two in the lower grade levels, there are still only 22 students in each kindergarten through third-grade class.

The fact that the principal and her board control the budget allows Aspire schools to still offer band, chorus and regular field trips.

The school can hand-pick its teachers based on how they might mesh with current staff. “We get to be pretty choosy,” said Drake, whose salary is in line with traditional public school teachers.

Charter schools set their own hours; Vincent Shalvey students attend school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and are in class a week longer than Lodi Unified students — something teachers feel is necessary to create high-performing students.

Aspire believes that if educators have high expectations of all students — even those with special needs — then they will rise to them.

For example, one student came in this school year from a traditional Lodi Unified classroom two to three reading levels behind his peers. Because of the personalized attention he received in reading, the student is now at an average level.

Drake credits teachers using guided reading with like-level children in groups, as opposed to using a district-mandated, one-size-fits-all reading program. “We don’t have to have a program,” she said. “We do what we think works.”

For the Kaplan family, it’s all working. Marc Kaplan has such a high level of confidence in the school, he said, that he would never consider relocating because of the education his two children are receiving.

“They not only demand performance of their instructors, but of the students as well. My sons have benefited in countless ways from their attendance at VSA,” Kaplan said.

Standardized test scores in most Lodi Unified charter schools are among the highest districtwide. In 2010, Vincent Shalvey’s 927 Academic Performance Index score topped the district’s 737 average.

In 2009, Aspire’s more than 21 schools statewide boasted a 95 percent college acceptance rate — compared to just 6 percent from the neighborhoods where the schools are located, according to co-founder Don Shalvey.

But do charter school students have an elitist attitude, possibly because of the recognition associated with over-the-top test scores?

Drake says no.

“(Students) feel lucky to be chosen in the lottery. They feel lucky to have dedicated teachers that have high expectations for them,” she said.

But Aspire is not the only charter option in Lodi Unified.

Joe Serna serves 300 kindergarten through eighth-graders in a Spanish-language dual immersion program in which English students become proficient in Spanish and Spanish students in English.

Principal Michael Gillespie, who opened the school in 2000 with 180 K-5 students, said that while the dual immersion program has worked in both charter and traditional schools, charters like Serna do not need to get waivers from parents. Waivers are required when schools teach curriculum different that what is dictated by state law.

Gillespie also pointed out that charter schools have more flexibility in curriculum choices. “Almost all teachers and staff at Serna are bilingual, which also gives us more flexibility (than a traditional school) in implementing the dual immersion program.”

Mike and Colleen Selling’s oldest daughter began attending the school as a kindergartner in 2008 after looking at other options, including other charter schools and private schools. However, they were particularly interested in Serna’s dual-immersion curriculum after talking to friends whose children attended the school.

“We greatly valued that our children would become fluent in another language,” Colleen Selling said.

“We also saw the close-knit atmosphere at the school. Everyone from the principal to teachers and other staff to parents promote and encourage an extended family-type environment.”

Today, their secondand third-graders are already bilingual, a trait that Colleen Selling said will improve their employment opportunities. “We feel it also increases their self-confidence, teaches them an appreciation of different cultures, as well as affords them greater opportunities for meeting people and friendships.”

On a lighter note, their parents are looking forward to a Central American vacation where their daughters can be their translators.

‘Having problems’

But even the best-planned charter school can fail to measure up, as evidenced in a recent study by The Center for Education Reform. It found that 15 percent of charter schools nationwide have closed since 1992.

In that same time period, 187 have shut down in California, the state with the largest number of charters. Among the causes were financial mismanagement, district hostility and non-suitable facilities, according to the report.

Lodi Unified school board president Ron Heberle is most concerned with singular charters, the start-ups that don’t operate under a corporate umbrella.

“They’re having problems with a lot of these singular charters not really fulfilling the things they said they would,” the school board president said. Community Charter School of the Arts being proposed in Lodi Unified is a singular charter.

Although it has not happened in Lodi Unified, the failure of a charter school can cast a shadow on the parent district, which can make trustees cautious about approval.

“You have to look at a charter as still one of your schools because, bottom line, we are responsible for it,” Heberle said. “We should be able to hold charter schools accountable … and they don’t even come close to having the same restrictions as us.”

While school districts must approve a charter school’s plan, trustees have little say over what they teach. This concerns Heberle, who would like to see charter schools focus less on specific subjects and technology and more on general standards. For example, charter schools in general can rely too much on computers instead of pencil and paper for working out math problems, he said.

“Not all the subjects are being covered as well as they should be,” Heberle said.

“We certainly can deny a charter if the finances are not there or the curriculum isn’t up to par. Just because you have a great idea, it doesn’t always happen.”

Pending legislation could change that. On Monday, the state Assembly passed a union-backed bill that would allow charter school petitions to be rejected if they negatively affect a school district’s finances.

Others worry that opening more charters will literally cost school districts. When districts lose students to charter schools, they lose their per-student allocations of state money, Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer confirmed.

“That’s always a concern,” school board member George Neely said. “I want to make our public schools so good that charters are not an option.

“They sometimes have a little more flexibility in their offerings, which is great for some kids. But it requires that parental involvement.”

Nichols-Washer also pointed out that charters are not bound by many of the rules and restrictions that apply to non-charter public schools, which allows them to use funds in different ways.

“It would be great if all schools had that type of flexibility,” she said.

Racial imbalance?

Then there’s the issue of possible segregation in charter schools because enrollment does not always represent the areas the schools serve. In fact, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, claimed that charter schools are more segregated than public schools.

Locally, Vincent Shalvey’s student body is unlike the district’s. The school is made up of 55 percent white students, 26 percent Hispanic, 7 percent multi-ethnic, 3 percent Filipino and 4 percent of each black and Asian.

Lodi Unified’s enrollment is 27 percent white, 40 percent Hispanic, 17 percent Asian, 8 percent black and 5 percent Filipino. Less than 1 percent are multi-ethnic.

Although it has no attendance boundaries, Aspire strives to open schools in lower-income neighborhoods. River Oaks, for example, is in Stockton’s Fox Creek neighborhood.

But anyone can attend if they secure a spot. Vincent Shalvey has drawn students from Elk Grove and Tracy.

Each spring, charter schools across America hold public lotteries required by law to determine who gets in because there are often not enough student slots. It’s a process that will likely play out as more charters are founded.

This school year, 100 new charter schools opened their doors in California, including six in San Joaquin County. Enrollment statewide surged by more than 13 percent, from 364,024 students in 2010-11 to more than 412,000 students.

This growth brings the total number of charters in California to 982 — the most of any state in the nation, according to the California Charter Schools Association.

Jed Wallace, president and chief executive officer, said the growth shows momentum for the charter movement, as it took place despite incredible budget challenges and proposed legislation against charter schools.

“The charter school movement in California continues to experience great momentum and growth because more and more parents, students and communities are demanding quality public school choices,” he said, adding that educators and community leaders are to be commended for bring charter school opportunities forward.

“The (enrollment) numbers show that more and more parents are joining charters and recognizing that they are a symbol of hope.”