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Charter schools backers say new approach needed

by Marquita Brown
Jackson Clarion Ledger
March 3, 2012

While state lawmakers debate how best to make allowances for charter schools in Mississippi, some people are still questioning why traditional public schools can’t be given the same freedoms.

It’s a question Tracie James-Wade asked Friday during a forum on charter schools at Koinonia Coffee House in Jackson.

James-Wade said her concern is the cost of opening charter schools in an already cash-strapped public school system. The traditional public schools that are performing well should be used as models for duplication across the state, she said.

“Why have a model school that you never duplicate?” James-Wade asked.

But charter school supporters argue traditional public schools have had decades to figure out what works best to boost student achievement.

“The problem is how we operate schools, and that is what charters are one solution to,” Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, told The Clarion-Ledger last week.

The differences between charter schools and traditional public schools, she said, include how teachers are hired, retained and paid and how textbooks are chosen. All the money and time can be put into the traditional public school system, “but nothing very good happens in that school, nothing changes in that school.”

Like traditional schools, public charter schools do not charge tuition. Charters can be newly formed schools or they can be converted from existing public schools. Both bills getting most attention at the state Capitol include provisions for conversion schools, and lawmakers supporting those bills have said they hope that is the option most charter applicants take.

Charter school advocates say one major selling point is freedom from bureaucracy. Each school operates independently instead of being governed by a central office of administrators.

State representatives still need to take up House Bill 888, which would allow charter schools across the state. Some major provisions of the bill include multiple authorizing agents and no requirement that teachers and administrators be certified. Senate Bill 2401, which would allow charter schools but with more restrictions, is also pending.

“Charters tend to be places where educational opportunities are a little more innovative” than traditional public schools, said Martha Liddell, interim superintendent of Columbus schools.

Columbus schools use the Magnet Schools of America model, which allows for “having the innovative programs, competitive curriculum, more of the bells and whistles that a lot of traditional school systems don’t have,” Liddell said.

Columbus High and Sale International schools have International Baccalaureate certification.

Sale International School has gone from being on academic watch, a low rating from the state Department of Education, in school year 2008-09, to high performing, the second-highest rating.

The district as a whole is on academic watch. Some of the schools did not show the academic growth needed for higher ratings, Liddell said

“We have ramped up everything this year so we could continue to be successful and move to that next level,” she said.

“We’re going to have to be competitive,” Liddell said of public school districts. “Public schools are entering uncharted waters for many of us.”

But many districts don’t know how to promote and market what they do well, Liddell said.

Jackson has some top performing elementary schools that could be models, James-Wade said.

Some of those schools are not very different from schools in the Delta, she said.

“The needs are the same. You still have a high number of Title I students, a high number of free and reduced lunch students, and all these kids have the same types of issues,” James-Wade said.

She said she is concerned that charter schools would address the needs of a select group of students.

“What ends up happening is a small group of kids end up getting help and then a large group of kids are left outside,” she said.

Barksdale Reading Institute CEO Claiborne Barksdale is among those calling for state lawmakers to limit the number of charter schools that could be opened in Mississippi and to focus on chronically low-performing schools.

Barksdale also said he wants the provisions for virtual schools removed from HB 888.

The rationale for charter schools is not choice, but “to allow students who are trapped in chronically under performing schools to have a … potential escape from those under performing schools,” Barksdale said.

If a school “is providing a strong education, then they are doing what they’re supposed to do,” he said.

If not, he said, “get on the school board. Get involved in the school. Get involved with leadership at the school.”

“Go meet with the teachers,” Barksdale said. “Work with your child on their homework. Insist on excellence at the school board meetings. Make sure that they’re accountable. Get involved.”

Those are the available tools if a public school is failing, he said. “It’s not to set up a parallel school system.”

Mississippi has 17,486 students who are home-schooled and 48,414 in nonparochial private schools, he said. If half of the home-schooled students and a fifth of the private school students left to attend charter schools, “that would be 18,426 students for whom MAEP is now going to be drawn on,” he said. “And that comes to about $76.5 million.”

The Barksdale Reading Institute is trying to show the importance of leadership through a partnership with several rural schools.

After the first year of the three-year project, one school the Barksdale Reading Institute is working with saw marked improvements in students’ proficiency levels on state standardized tests. Gains at the other schools were moderate or flat, Barksdale said.

“We’re trying to put very passionate educators into these schools who work with data, who analyze data, who build education plans around the data, who work intensely with the students,” Barksdale said. Remediation is provided over the summer and after school.

“But at the end of the day, it’s who is in the school and what are they doing there,” Barksdale said. “There’s no magic to this thing. It’s people, people, people. And that’s the issue that faces Mississippi education.”

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