in the middle

In the polarized charter school debate, one study offers a ‘balanced’ picture

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Charter school teachers, principals and staff members gather at a rally organized by Families for Excellent Schools.

In the debate over charter schools, it often feels like there’s no middle ground.

Supporters say charters target under-served children and do a better job educating them. Detractors say charters actually cream the best students and get rid of others with harsh discipline policies.

The reality, according to a new report released by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, is not nearly as clear-cut. Charter schools in New York state and across the country vary widely in who they serve, how well their students perform and how often they suspend students.

“The main thing that I want to push people to deal with is to deal with the charters that we have, and not the pictures or portraits of charters that are useful to the argument we’re making,” said AEI research fellow Nat Malkus, who authored the report. “Charters are not one thing.”

Using 2011-12 federal data, Malkus compared charter schools to their five closest traditional public school neighbors that serve the same grades. Compared to other states, Malkus said New York presented a much more “balanced” picture than others.

Though Malkus hopes to bring nuance to a polarized debate, the study could just as easily be used to fuel either side of the charter school argument.

Who attends charter schools?

In New York state, large swaths of charter schools (often around 50 percent) served roughly similar populations as their neighboring traditional public schools.

But there were some differences. For example, 77 percent of charter schools enrolled more black students than neighboring schools.

Yet, almost half the state’s charter schools served fewer English Language Learners than neighboring schools and only 3 percent served more. Similarly, 41 percent of New York’s charter schools served fewer students with special needs than neighboring schools and only 15 percent served more.

How do charter school students perform?

When compared with their nearest traditional public schools, 62 percent of charters in New York state had higher proficiency rates and only 17 percent had lower proficiency rates.

Malkus cautioned against drawing any quick conclusions from those numbers.

“I don’t know whether that’s because charters are more effective at educating students, or charters are more effective at attracting high-achieving students — or both. And my guess would be both,” Malkus said. “The truth is you can’t separate those two things.”

Do charters suspend more students?

Malkus found that 43 percent of charter schools had higher suspension rates than their neighboring traditional public schools and only four percent had a lower rate.

Malkus said suspensions are “part of the model” for some New York City charters. “They don’t take discipline lightly,” he said.

But again, he pointed out that the picture was far more complicated, with 53 percent of charter schools showing similar suspension rates as traditional public schools.

“Anyone who would say this is how charters operate — all suspend a lot more kids — that is not the case.”

taking action

Commerce City students march to district building asking for a voice in their struggling school’s future

Students from Adams City High School march toward the district building April 25, 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at a struggling high school in Commerce City took to the streets Tuesday to let district officials know they want a new principal and a say in the future of their school.

“We’re tired of not having consistency,” said Maria Castaneda, a 17-year-old senior at Adams City High School. “We’re asking them to hear our voices. Enough is enough.”

Hundreds of students from Adams City High School, joined by a handful of parents and community members, left school at noon to walk a little more than a mile to the district’s administration building.

The district has been searching for a permanent principal for the high school since the beginning of the school year when they promoted the former principal to a district position. The district has tried twice to hire a new principal, even selecting finalists both times. In the latest attempt, the school board decided against voting on the selected finalist meaning the search had to continue for a school leader.

The school — serving about 2,000 students including more than 80 percent who qualify for free or reduced price lunch — is also one of several across the state that are facing state action this spring after more than five years of low performance. The State Board of Education is expected to vote on a plan to turn around the school and the Adams 14 School District as a whole later this spring. Full plans haven’t been made public and several students and parents said they were not informed about what will happen.

“I didn’t know about any of the meetings,” said Socorro Hernandez, the mom of one student at the school. “We’ve just heard the school could close.”

Hernandez said that although she worries that her child isn’t getting a good education at the school, she thinks closing the school would not help.

Most students said what motivated them to walk out was not having a principal this school year. Many students said they have had a different principal every year they’ve been at the school and they worry that many of the teachers or administrators they do trust are leaving. Students also said the instability means work on next year’s schedules is falling behind.

“Who knows the school more than us?” asked Genavee Gonzales, a 17-year-old junior. “I feel like our education isn’t adequate, but it’s not the teachers’ fault. They aren’t getting enough resources or support from the school district.”

Commerce City police officers and security officials from the school escorted the students as they walked along busy Quebec Parkway. Drivers, including some in big trucks, honked and waved at the students as the crowd chanted down the street.

“Whose education?” student leaders shouted. “Our education!”

Almost an hour after arriving at the administration building, Javier Abrego, the Adams 14 School District superintendent, and Timio Archuleta, one of the district’s school board members, came out of the building and answered some of the students’ questions for about half an hour.

Students asked about the future of specific programs that many credited with their success at the school, and asked about funding for arts classes that they felt were in danger.

Abrego told students the school leaders would decide on a lot of those programs, but warned students that the school is in trouble and that attendance and test scores have to improve.

“They can take us over,” Abrego told the students. “Yes, I’m bringing in a new administration and I’m going to tell them these are the things we need to do.”

Another student asked how students we’re supposed to be motivated to go to school if all the adults they form relationships with at the school change each year.

Abrego reiterated that things have to change.

Students of Adams City High School

The district is scheduled May 11 to have a hearing in front of the state board. District officials were initially pursuing a plan to give the school new flexibilities through innovation status, but the district is now going to propose that an outside company take over some portions of the school and district’s work.

The state board may also suggest the school be turned over to a charter operator. However, the state is not allowed to “take over” management of the school or district as Abrego suggested.

Some of the students promised to return Tuesday night for the regularly scheduled school board meeting.

Board member Archuleta encouraged them to continue to provide their opinions in different ways.

“You guys are critically thinking,” Archuleta told the crowd. “That’s what I ask all students to do.”

Newcomers

Pulitzer-Prize winning author tells Indianapolis students a story some know well — of the dangerous journey from Central America to the U.S.

PHOTO: Courtesy: javier Barrera Cervantes, IPS newcomer program
Sonia Nazario signed copies of her book Enrique’s Journey, adapted from a newspaper series, at an event Monday.

For some of the students that heard Sonia Nazario speak at Shortridge High School Monday, the story she told of children making a perilous trip on the roofs and sides of freight trains to reach their parents in America was all too familiar.

Nazario wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper series, Enrique’s Journey, about a boy who traveled alone from Honduras to the United States to reunite with his mother.

“Several children today after my talk came up to me and said, ‘I made the exact same journey as Enrique,’” said Nazario, who also discussed her reporting with an audience of educators and community members Monday evening at an event hosted by Indianapolis Public Schools.

“These kids … are hunted like animals all the way as they migrate north through Mexico,” Nazario said. “There are people who are trying to rob them, rape them, beat them, deport them — all the way as they travel north.”

When IPS opened a newcomer program this year, dedicated to educating children who are new to the country and just learning English, enrollment quickly ballooned with teens who traveled alone from Central America. Chalkbeat spent a day with one student who fled gang violence in Honduras to reunite with her mother in Indianapolis.

Nazario highlighted the Indianapolis newcomer school as one example of how the district is helping kids adjust to America.

“I love newcomer schools,” Nazario said. “Those schools allow kids recently arrived to spend a year with other new arrivals, so that they can get their feet under them.”

Teenagers often make the journey to the U.S. to reconnect with parents who left them in their home countries when they were infants or young children, and Nazario called on educators to help parents and children talk about these painful years of separation.

“If there’s one thing as educators you take away from today, you must bring these parents and kids together to discuss this,” she said. “Until they do, (children) are so red with rage towards their parents, they cannot do anything else. They cannot focus on their studies.”