By the numbers

For charter schools serving overage or homeless students, typical metrics don’t add up

The evaluation of ROADS II, a charter school in the Bronx, is peppered with compliments about the school’s leaders and their ability to help at-risk students.

Yet ROADS II is also failing by a basic statistical standard: Almost none of its students graduate within four years.

The school is one of a handful of charter schools that serve a subset of New York City’s neediest students, often those who are over-age and under-credited, homeless, or in foster care. Like all charter schools, it is expected to meet strict standards or face closure.

Yet schools like ROADS II present a tough question for the authorizers that oversee them: What happens when serving an important group of students makes it nearly impossible to meet normal benchmarks?

“I think it makes sense they hold the bar high,” said Jemina Bernard, the chief executive officer at ROADS. But, she said, “If it takes them five, six years to [graduate], it’s not anything that we’re ashamed of.”

The city has long grappled with similar questions about how to measure its non-traditional schools. Now, the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute, which oversees more than 100 charter schools in New York City, is facing a deadline to tackle the problem. Three charter schools serving especially high-needs students — Broome Street Academy, ROADS I, and ROADS II — are up for renewal this year and next.

Susan Miller Barker, the institute’s executive director, said that officials there haven’t yet come up with exactly how those schools will be evaluated. But they are working to adjust SUNY’s focus on graduation rates and test scores to determine whether these schools are performing well.

“We think that all kids coming out of high school ought to have a high school degree,” Miller Barker said. “But we’re looking at them and saying, is there something else that would tell us how well the schools are doing?”

The current guidelines set a high bar. Charter schools are generally expected to aim for 75 percent student proficiency on state exams, for 75 percent of their students to graduate in four years, and for 95 percent to graduate within five years.

Those numbers, charter school operators and advocates said, are unreasonable for schools designed to take in students who are older than their peers and have already struggled to make progress in school.

For example, high school students learning at a middle school level might make years of progress, but that growth is invisible if measured only by Regents exams designed for high school students, said Leslie Talbot, an education consultant and a leader of the Pathways to Opportunity Project, which focuses on helping off-track youth.

The benchmarks for credit accumulation and graduation timelines are also troublesome.

At John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy Charter School in lower Manhattan, the majority of students are over 16 and have earned fewer than nine credits, according to principal Ron Tabano. For them, graduating within six years is difficult and within five is nearly impossible, he said.

Instead, Wildcat Academy, which is overseen by the city’s education department and was converted into a charter school in 2000, has historically been compared to the city’s other transfer schools. Its six-year graduation rate, not the four-year rate, is tracked over time.

“There has to be a different set of measures,” Tabano said. If schools like his were punished for not graduating students in four years, he said, “They’d get killed.”

In 2011, the Bloomberg administration adapted its school letter grade system and progress reports for transfer schools, focusing on six-year graduation rates. The de Blasio administration did not release its own school “snapshots” for those schools last year, but the education department is looking to account for factors like student homelessness in its reports for all schools.

Schools like Broome Street, which gives preference to students who are homeless or in foster care, also help the charter sector combat the perception that it doesn’t serve its fair share of the highest-needs students. Chancellor Carmen Fariña has criticized charter schools for serving lower-than-average numbers of special education students and English learners but praised Broome Street — even speaking at its graduation ceremony this year.

SUNY’s challenge now is sticking to the essential bargain offered to New York charter schools — outperform traditional schools or be closed — without discouraging prospective school operators from trying to find new models to serve needy students.

The trick, New York City Charter Center CEO James Merriman said, is to engage in “smart accountability,” or finding reasonable standards for schools that need alternatives while ensuring that they don’t become a veiled effort to protect schools from accountability.

“This is not easy to do,” he said.

As SUNY works toward decisions about new measures, it also must decide which schools qualify for them.

States like Colorado, Texas, and Arizona have defined alternative charter schools and created separate accountability standards for them in law, said Jim Griffin, president of Momentum Strategy and Research, an organization that works to improve charter school accountability. New York does not have such a clear formula, he said.

For now, SUNY appears to be looking at schools designed from the start to serve special groups of students. Officials say they may focus on measures like attendance rates, student progress towards graduation, or even the support offered to students who are parents or who are involved in the court system, though graduation rates and state test scores will remain important.

“If you want to run a charter school, you agree to being measured based on how well you prepare students to succeed when they leave you,” Miller Barker said.

Politics & Policy

Indiana ranked no. 1 for charter-friendly environment by national advocacy group

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A national group that pushes for charter schools to operate freely says Indiana is doing almost everything right.

But the group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, dinged Indy’s lack of regulation for online charter schools in its newest report ranking states on charter school regulation. A recent Chalkbeat series documented the persistently low test scores at the schools — which educate more than 11,442 students.

The nonprofit National Alliance for Public Charter Schools pushes for greater funding and flexibility for charter schools across the nation.

Its report highlights Indiana because the state does not have cap on the number of charter schools that can open. Multiple organizations also have the authority to authorize schools (including private universities and state organizations). And Indiana charter schools have significant autonomy from the strictures of district unions and many of the state regulations that cover traditional districts. But they can be closed for persistently low test scores.

Indiana has a large ecosystem of charter schools that serve more than 43,000 students — exceeding any district in the state. It’s one piece of a statewide embrace of school choice that features many of the programs U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Trump support — including one of the largest voucher programs in the nation, open enrollment across district boundaries, and district-run choice programs.

Five questions

Why this Memphis Republican supports school vouchers — but is concerned about accountability

PHOTO: TN.gov
From left: Rep. Mark White of Memphis speaks with Gov. Bill Haslam at a bill-signing ceremony at the State Capitol.

Only one school voucher bill remains under consideration in Tennessee, and it’s all about Memphis.

The proposal, which would pilot a voucher program exclusively for students in Shelby County Schools, is putting a spotlight on the 16 state lawmakers who represent Memphis and Shelby County, including Rep. Mark White.

White is one of only four from the county’s legislative delegation to pledge support for the bill, which would allow some Memphis parents to use public education funding to pay for private school tuition.

The East Memphis Republican, whose district includes Germantown, has long supported vouchers. But he’s also concerned about how private schools would be held accountable if they accept public money.

Chalkbeat spoke with White this week about the legislature’s last remaining voucher proposal, as well as a bill to give in-state tuition to Tennessee high school students who are undocumented immigrants.

If vouchers pass, what kinds of things would you look for to ensure they’re effective?

PHOTO: TN.gov
<strong>Rep. Mark White</strong>

Accountability is important. Five years ago, when we we first considered vouchers full force, I was in agreement totally with vouchers, with not a lot of limitations. But … if we’re going to hold our public schools accountable, we need to hold everyone accountable, and that’s why I want to get to the part about TNReady (testing).

Can the Department (of Education) and can (the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability) manage what the bill is asking them to do? I want to answer those questions. If we want to ensure that a student taking a voucher takes the TNReady test, who is going to oversee that? Who is going to make that happen? That’s the part I think we still need to work out if it moves forward through the various committees. It’s not good to go to the floor without all of the answers.

Most elected officials in Memphis oppose vouchers and are also concerned that this bill goes against local control over education. How do you respond to that?

I’d rather it be statewide. But you know, they’ve tried that in the past. The reason it got to be Shelby County is because we had more low-performing schools in the bottom 5 percent. And so therefore the bill got tied to Shelby County. If it was more someplace else, it would have gone there.

Shelby County Schools has made major improvements, boosting its graduation rate and receiving national attention for its school turnaround program, the Innovation Zone. Would vouchers undermine those efforts by diverting students and funding from the district?

Go back to 2002. We were looking for answers, so we started pushing charters. Those who wanted to preserve public schools fought that tooth and nail. Then we went to the Achievement School District. As a result, Shelby County Schools has created the Innovation Zone. …  Memphis is now known as Teacher Town. We’ve brought so much competition into the market. It’s a place where the best teachers are in demand. That’s what you want in every industry.

A lot of good things have come about, and I think it’s because we have pushed the envelope. Is this voucher thing one thing that keeps pushing us forward? I like that it’s a pilot, and we can stop it if we see things that aren’t working. I think trying all of these things and putting competition into the market has made things improve.

Every Memphis parent, student, and teacher who testified this week before a House education committee opposed vouchers. You’ve been steadfast in your support of them. What do you take away from hearing those speakers?

Any time you talk about children, people get passionate, and that’s a good thing. Conflict can be a good thing, because then we can move to resolve it. If you have an issue, look at it head on and let’s talk about it. If you don’t agree with vouchers, if you do agree vouchers, let’s talk about ways we can stop failing our children.

I’ve heard from just as many on the other side; they just weren’t here (on Tuesday). I’ve had an office full of people just begging us to pass this. I’ve had people on all sides want this.

I think this bill still has a long way to fly. We’ll see where it goes. But I think the challenge is good for all of us. It makes us look at ourselves.

You’re the sponsor of another bill to provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students. This is the third year you’ve filed the bill. Why is that issue important?

What I’m trying to do is fix a situation for people who want to get a higher education degree. They’re caught up in the political mess of 2017, and all we’re trying to do is say, ‘Hey, you were brought to this country, and now we want to help you realize your dreams.’ We’re not trying to address any federal immigration issue. Everyone deserves a chance for an education.