The charter school race

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The students’ cheering and whooping grow louder as classmates line up on stage for the finale. Like at an old-fashioned pep rally, studentsraise placards with hand-painted letters as teacher Tim Brown calls out to the crowd at Noble Street Charter High School.

“Gimme an ‘N!'” he shouts.

“N!” they shout back. …

“S!” … “C!” … “H!” … “S!”

“Waddaya spell?”

“Noble Street!”

What Chicago’s charter school boosters hope this enthusiasm spells is a lasting movement, one that grows –or survives–in the bruising process of Chicago school reform.

The exuberant rally at Noble Street, housed on the campus of the Northwestern University Settlement House in West Town, is part of a bi- weekly talent show, called a Town Hall, that displays student knowledge and builds school identity. It’s one of the more obvious expressions of what all charter schools seek to be–public schools with a difference.

There are 13 charter holders in the city, more than double the number that first opened schools in 1997, but two shy of the legal limit of 15. They enroll 6,500 students, fewer than 2 percent of the school system’s 435,000 students.

The people who run Chicago’s charter schools, including many former Chicago Public Schools teachers and principals, are motivated much like charter school leaders nationwide. They want to satisfy parents’ demand for an alternative to their neighborhood public schools, while being free from union work rules and local and state regulations to try new educational approaches.

Yet Chicago’s charter community is one with a difference, too. Elsewhere, school boards generally have resisted charters because they syphon both students and money. In Chicago, the Board of Education, which has the sole authority to grant charters in the city, welcomed them, going so far as to provide extra money to help them buy furniture and meet other capital needs.

Elsewhere, most charter-granting authorities have focused on elementary schools, which are cheaper to start and operate and more likely to show rapid test score gains. In Chicago, the Board of Education, which has had limited success improving its own high schools, has encouraged the development of charter high schools.

Further, Chicago’s board-backed, small-schools movement, which has created teacher-led mini-schools inside regular schools, provided a unique training ground for charter operators.

The most striking difference in Chicago, however, is the strict accountability it imposes on charter schools. Elsewhere, charters are lightly regulated and rarely closed. Here, they are judged primarily by the same standardized tests that the School Board has made the cornerstone of reform system-wide, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in elementary schools and the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency in high schools. And only 18 months into the charter school experience, the board closed one charter school for mismanagement.

“They take [standardized tests] seriously, and the public responds to those tests,” says Cindy Zautcke, director of the Wisconsin Charter School Resource Center.

Similarly, CPS was the first charter authorizer nationally to require applicants to respond to a request for proposals that demanded detailed information about capacity and plans, according to Margaret Lin, a charter consultant who worked to help start charters in Chicago.

Mixed results

Yet despite these unique conditions, only a few of Chicago’s charters have shown distinctive results. While media attention has focused on the closing of the one charter, the other schools that have operated for three years have had an uneven academic showing.

“Charters are not riding into town and providing far superior services,” says CPS Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. “The results of the charters have been mixed. About have half been successful, the other half has not.”

Greg Richmond, CPS charter schools director, agrees that the jury is still out. “We don’t know what the results are yet,” he says. Richmond and Vallas say that one or two charters likely will not be renewed in 2002, when the first five-year contracts end.

John Ayers, executive director of Leadership for Quality Education (LQE), a business-backed charter advocate, believes charters have fulfilled their early promise and deserve a chance to grow. “There are some great schools and not-so-great schools. But I think it’s a darn good batting average,” he says. “I don’t think CPS creates great schools. I’ll take our battling average over theirs.”

Farm team

The groundwork for many of Chicago’s first charters was laid by a grass- roots initiative that sprouted in the early 1990s and has grown under the Vallas administration: small schools. Decrying the so-called factory model of schools today, small schools enthusiasts created smaller school units, typically schools-within-a-school, to pave the way for a shared vision among staff members and to maximize contact between teachers and students.

This movement, in turn, spawned the leaders of five charter schools: Noble Street, Academy of Communications and Technology (ACT), Nuestra America (formerly ACORN), Perspectives and Young Women’s Leadership.

While several of these leaders enjoyed successes in crafting unique and separate environments inside regular schools, they all welcomed the opportunity to get out on their own and have a free hand in managing their operations.

For example, Noble Street hired a Peruvian ecologist and naturalist, though he lacks state certification, to teach environmental science. Principal Michael Milkie says that with proper support, talented people who haven’t studied teaching can become excellent teachers. “You learn pretty quickly in the classroom the things you learn in certification,” he says.

About two-thirds of charter school teachers are certified, according to a Catalyst survey of schools. It is not clear how many are teaching in their area of certification.

Lacking a formal gymnasium and not wanting to hire gym teachers, Noble Street also contracts with fitness teachers at a nearby health club to teach physical education, which includes spinning, yoga and aerobics.

At Octavio Paz Charter School, serving the Pilsen and Little Village communities, CEO Cuttie Bacon has fired five teachers since arriving in January. He says he didn’t like doing it but, after working 30 years as an administrator under traditional employee rules, he appreciates having the option to quickly remove ineffective teachers.

At most Chicago charters, teachers work on one-year contracts, though a few charters offer longer contracts. In general, they offer competitive salaries for teachers in the early years of their careers. A few provide salary increases based on years of service; some offer only cost-of-living raises.

Charters also have flexibility in deciding how to apportion their money, where to buy materials, how to schedule the school day and year, and what private vendors to use.

Sarah Howard, co-director of ACT in West Garfield, says that having all that responsibility is taxing. ACT went through three security firms before finding one that stuck. After trying to contract with janitorial services, she decided to hire a janitor on her own.

‘Won’t accept mediocrity’

While CPS is focusing on test scores to determine whether a charter should be renewed, Paul Vallas says he has no “straight test-score cut off” in mind. He says the board will give more time to charters that show improving scores and high rates of attendance and graduation, as well as solid community support and financial management.

He adds that the board will become more aggressive in helping such “promising” charters with their facility needs.

Charters whose scores don’t get out of single digits or that remain stagnant will be closed, he says. “We don’t have to accept mediocrity,” he insists.

The flexibility charters enjoy should enable them to approach national norms on academic indicators faster than other public schools, Vallas adds. “If you can’t make a difference in three or four years, then you don’t got it,” he says.

Richmond says that while the board has made some mistakes in choosing charter operators, he believes it has a sound process. “If you don’t meet our standards, I don’t think you should be running a school,” he says.

Chicago Preparatory Charter High School, which the board closed in early 1999, clearly has been the board’s biggest mistake. While it had a number of prominent Chicagoans on its board and was created with help from the Mayor’s Office of Substance Abuse, Richmond says the school lacked a mission and enough capable people to guide it.

Richmond says that within months of the school’s opening, he started hearing complaints from parents, and disarray was obvious when he visited the school. A board investigation uncovered erratic bookkeeping, missing funds and insufficient academic records, though no criminal wrongdoing was found.

Red flags also have risen at Nuestra America, which was opened in 1997 by ACORN, a community organization. According to a board evaluation, the charter’s board of directors has not functioned well and needs to improve. ACORN officials say they want to move the school from West Humboldt Park to Little Village, their home base, but the school’s principal says the organization has few resources to secure a building there.

‘Testing could backfire’

Frederick Hess, assistant professor of educational, government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, says the charter performance picture is murky nationwide because there is no agreement on how to compare charter and regular schools.

Charters tend to start life with ambitious students who are pushed by families looking for a better alternative and with teachers and administrators excited about starting a new enterprise. These factors alone undermine common methods of comparison, he says.

“We have no evidence that charters are systematically doing better than public schools,” concludes Hess, who soon will publish an analysis of Milwaukee’s 11 charter schools.

Hess says that, paradoxically, Chicago’s rigorous accountability system could prove to be a drag on charters’ potential. Standardized testing, he explains, can have a chilling effect on experimentation with curriculum and assessment, which is what charters are supposed to do.

“We’re walking a strange tightrope,” agrees ACT’s Howard. “The law says we’re supposed to be laboratories, but then the board expects these outcomes” on the tests.

Diana Shulla, co-director at Perspectives Charter School on the Near South Side, says that while charters initially should be held to the same standards as other public schools, they also should test and refine new methods of assessment.

Last year, Perspectives began requiring students to investigate an issue, such as diversity, and develop a body of work that examines the issue from different angles. The work is then judged against a set of teacher-written standards.

“Hopefully, 10 years from now, alternative assessments will be … considered worthy,” Shulla says.

Ayers of LQE agrees that standardized tests are an inescapable part of education reform at the moment. But he worries about the fate of schools that take on the most challenging students. He says Triumphant Charter Middle School on the Southwest Side has distinguished itself by keeping its students coming.

“These guys are saints for taking the toughest kids,” Ayers says.

Strong demand

Demand remains strong for charters, according to Richmond. Most charters opened with waiting lists, and applications for new charters continue to come in, though in fewer numbers.

Yet, with possibly two charters on the chopping block, and the 15-charter cap still in place, Chicago lacks a critical mass for fulfilling one of the charter movement’s goals, prodding change in regular schools.

“There is not a strong sense that we, as a district, should learn from them,” Richmond says. “We work in different worlds.”

Allen Bearden, director of the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center, which has supported small schools, also doubts there will be much transfer. Unlike Quest-backed small schools, charters “don’t have the opportunity for networking,” he says. “Each is doing its separate thing.”

Ayers casts the issue in different tones. He says that the charter school opportunity in Chicago has proven that the city has a wealth of private expertise and resources that have only begun to be used. He says cultural institutions, from the Field Museum to the Old Town School of Folk Music, are exploring charters to educate children directly.

“I don’t think it’s an ‘either or,'” he says. “It’s not do charters or reform the system. Do both.”