Charting charters

The good, the bad and the so-so: What a new report says about Memphis charter schools

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools

The first annual report on Shelby County Schools’ growing charter sector shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.

Under development for a year, the report released Tuesday identifies several charter schools that outperformed the rest of the district in suspension, graduation and student retention rates in the 2014-15 school year. They include Memphis Business Academy elementary, middle and high schools, Memphis School of Excellence, Power Center middle and high schools, Soulsville and Star Academy.

It also shows a charter sector that basically mirrors the district’s traditional schools when it comes to student scores on end-of-course exams and the state’s standardized tests.

The report is designed to be a tool to help parents make sense of charter school data and show how the performance of its then-45 charter schools compared with traditional schools in 2014-15. Its rollout indicates that the role of charter schools in the district are solidified for years to come as Shelby County Schools seeks innovative ways to improve academic performance.

“The presence of effective charter schools assists us in providing more high quality school options for families, which is a critical part of SCS’ Destination 2025,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in citing the district’s strategic improvement plan.

The city’s charter sector has grown significantly in recent years. In the 2014-15 school year, there were about 12,200 students, or about 10 percent of the district’s population, in charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools. That’s more than double compared to five years prior and does not include Memphis charters authorized by the state-run Achievement School District.

Should current trends continue, one in five students in Shelby County Schools could be attending charter schools by 2020, with total enrollment exceeding 20,000.

The report also outlines plans to better track and report on the quality of both charter and traditional schools.

The district will introduce a “school performance framework” that measures school quality on a 1-to-5 scale and will factor in state and college readiness test scores, academic growth, student attendance and teacher effectiveness. The timetable for the rollout is still being worked out.

Beginning this fall, charter schools also will receive a 1-to-5 ranking on its “operations scorecard” based on financials, federal and state compliance, and student discipline, among other factors.

Brad Leon, the district’s chief of strategy and innovation, said the annual report and scores will give parents easy access to already public information about charter schools and aid in their decisions on where to send their child.

This week’s report comes only months after confusion erupted over the district’s policies for revoking charters of schools that district administrators said were under-performing, under-enrolled or had administrative issues. This spring, Shelby County Schools came under fire for its fast-track revocation of three charters in the midst of a budget crunch. The operators lost their appeals to the State Board of Education in May, but not without the panel chastising the district over its process.

Shelby County Schools is trying to rebuild trust between the district and its charters.

“The spirit of this report reflects both the Board’s and administration’s belief that all of our charter schools are, in fact and in belief, Shelby County schools and that some of the historic challenges between the District and its charter sector can be overcome through improved relationships and a shared commitment to informing our community,” Hopson said.

To ensure clear guidelines for charters, Leon recently announced that each charter operator would sign a contract prior to being approved to open a school under Shelby County Schools. Until now, the operator’s application served as its outline of academic and financial expectations. The new contract will be based on the school performance framework guidelines once they are finalized, Leon said.

In addition to the contract, 4 percent of the public funds the charter would receive per student will be charged as an annual fee to the district to help cover administration costs. Three people in the district’s charter office oversee nearly 50 charter schools. The Achievement School District and the Tennessee State Board of Education charge similar fees to charter operators.

In January, Shelby County’s school board also approved the creation of a charter compact agreement. The compact is designed to help the district work with its charters through sticky issues such as how school space gets used and how schools get funding to serve students with disabilities.

To view the charter report in full, click here.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”