Charter schools still get no respect
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A lot of folks who see the need for innovation in urban public schooling are wondering whether and where that innovation is happening. It is happening, and where may be a surprise to you.
See how you do on the following quiz:
1. What Allegheny County school was the top performing high-poverty school on last year's state tests?
Propel Charter School McKeesport (88 percent of its students were economically disadvantaged and 74 percent were proficient on state tests).
2. What Allegheny County school was the only school in the last three years to be recognized as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education?
Manchester Academic Charter School was named a 2008 Blue Ribbon School (99 percent of its students are African-American).
3. What local school was the focus of a recent ABC "Good Morning America" segment highlighting urban-school success stories?
City Charter High School was featured on Sept. 18.
4. What majority African-American school system posted top state test scores among black children?
Propel Schools (black students at Propel's four charter schools outperformed the state average by 17 percent last year).
If you're surprised that charter schools are part of the answer to all of these questions, you have company. Apparently, many people leading local urban school districts also have missed the news that charter schools have become a major source of innovation in Allegheny County and across the country.
I've served as the executive director of Propel Schools for six years and been involved with charter schools for more than a decade, and this almost willful decision to ignore what is happening in charter schools still surprises me. This attitude was on display last month when the Woodland Hills School District voted down a Propel charter application that would have expanded our presence in that community.
One of Propel's five existing charter schools already is located in Woodland Hills, and more than 5 percent of the district's children currently attend a Propel school. But parent demand for a Propel education far outstrips our current enrollment capacity (our 1,000-plus student waiting list includes more than 400 Woodland Hills residents) and parents of Propel K-8 students want a Propel high school option. Woodland Hills, on the other hand, has struggled over a period of years with low performance on state tests and (perhaps not surprisingly) declining enrollment.
Despite all this, and despite evidence that Propel is outperforming Woodland Hills on every possible measure (23 percent more Propel students met grade level on state tests last year), some on the Woodland Hills school board are still wondering aloud about whether there is anything innovative going on at Propel's schools. That amazes me. Why is it that parents are finding innovation where school district leaders are not?
One simple explanation is that they are looking. Parents are actively seeking better options for their children. They visit our schools; they talk to us. They want information, such as that provided in the A+ Schools publication whose release the Post-Gazette reported yesterday ("Report Tracks Students' Progress").
Unfortunately, those who run urban districts like Duquesne and Woodland Hills seem to studiously avoid any engagement with charter schools. Even when school districts attempt to replicate programs with which charter schools have significant experience, the phone is silent. Even as Woodland Hills school directors and administrators reviewed our recent charter application, not a single one paid us a visit.
All of this wouldn't matter so much if our country's future weren't in such desperate need of strong urban schools able to graduate talented innovators. If the urban schools that serve most children of color in this country don't deliver soon, we'll see even wider racial and class gaps that could have dangerous ramifications for the social fabric of our country. As our population ages, the economy also will need the talents of those growing up in urban areas to support those no longer working.
That's why it's so distressing that the people running urban school districts ignore the innovation going on in charter schools.
Given that charter schools do compete successfully against public schools for students and dollars, perhaps their reluctance is understandable. But it is critical that we recognize public school-district platitudes about the lack of innovation in charter schools for the self-serving rhetoric that it is.
Let's celebrate the parents who are lining up for innovation and find ways to expand successful charter schools -- even if it has to be over the objection of local school districts.
First Published November 12, 2008 12:00 am