Choice at charter schools

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Gwendolyn Lones, mother of two students at ACT Charter, reacted immediately when she got a letter in August from the Chicago Public Schools saying that the school had been deemed failing and she could request transfers for her children.

However, Lones, like most other parents whose children attend charters, had transferred her child into a charter to escape neighborhood public schools.

Six of Chicago’s 14 charter schools are on the failing list, and parents like Lones were being offered the chance to transfer back to so-called “non-failing” public schools, not schools in their neighborhoods.

Some jumped at the offer. According to CPS, the parents of 169 eligible charter school students—roughly 5 percent of the eligible charter school population—applied for transfers. Only 10 were approved. (Fewer seats were available to choice transfer students compared to a year ago.)

One of the six charter schools initially required to offer choice, Octavio Paz Charter, has since been removed from the list. Another, Chicago International Charter, was not required to offer choice—it fell short in a couple subgroups this year, but has another year to catch up—but received a transfer request at one of its seven campuses. Other schools may be added or removed from the list in November, when the state releases its final analysis of test scores.

In Illinois, schools must have at least 40 percent of students overall meeting or exceeding state standards in reading and math. Subcategories of students—broken down by race or income, for instance—must come within three points of the 40 percent bar to pass. Schools that have not made adequate progress for two consecutive years must offer choice; after three years, they must also offer tutoring.

For charters, the impact of the choice letters has been moderate.

At Perspectives, the parents of only seven of 155 students applied for transfers; one was approved.

“We got some concerned calls—some of them thought the school was closing down,” reports Assistant Director Glennese Ray, who notes that the parents of higher-achieving students did not apply for transfers.

At Triumphant, the only charter required to offer choice as well as extra tutoring, 15 students applied for transfers. None was approved.

Octavio Paz, the highest-performing school among charters on the failing list, was hit hardest by transfer requests—74 students applied. CPS approved 6 transfers, but the school lost more than 50, according to Principal Kimberly Briscoe, who, like most principals, did not track why they left or where they went.

“We lost good students,” Briscoe says. “There was a lot of misunderstanding about the letter, and many parents thought that you had to go.” Others interpreted the notice as an indication that Paz was “going down the same road” as the neighborhood schools they had tried to avoid, she notes. Now, some parents who left are trying to re-enroll their children at Paz, she says.

In late August, Paz was pulled off the list of failing schools, along with three regular CPS schools (G. R. Clark, Murphy and Zapata elementaries), when further analysis found the schools’ test scores fell within the margin of error for meeting the academic standards.

Paz met the math and reading requirements overall but missed by a hair in three subgroups: reading and math scores for African-American students, and reading scores for low-income children.

Proponents of charter schools say the process is unfair. They note that, in many cases, the numbers of charter school students being tested, particularly in subgroups, is small enough to make test scores results highly variable, and that some charter schools, like Triumphant, are specifically targeting low-achieving students. A CPS report on charter school accountability found those schools generally outperform other public schools [where children would otherwise attend], and often have waiting lists of families who want to enroll their children.

Proportionally fewer charter schools (43 percent) were required to offer choice compared to CPS schools overall (61 percent).

“Some day there will be competition between and among charters and district schools,” says John Ayers, president of Leadership for Quality Education, a charter school proponent. “Until CPS is offering more quality choices, most charter parents will stay put.”

Lones was one such parent. After making a call to the school director, who explained what the letter meant, she decided to stay put. “ACT is a good school,” she says. “I don’t think there is any reason to leave.”