"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, November 16, 2009

Arizona Charter Schools Accept Average As Excellent

Kudos to Nick Anderson at WaPo for reporting some of the facts about corporate charter schools. A clip (my bolds):
. . . .Advocates say charter schools . . . have influenced regular schools for the better. Critics call those claims overblown. Arizona State University education professor Gene Glass said he could show a visitor "exciting stuff" in at least 50 regular public schools.

Through test scores, Arizona rates about 24 percent of charter schools as "excelling" or "highly performing." About 37 percent of regular public schools win those marks.

"There's nothing to learn from these charter schools," Glass said. "There's so much mythology about this."

Obama contends that there is much to learn. His $4.35 billion Race to the Top education reform competition aims to lure states to expand the number of high-quality charter schools, which the president said in July would "force the kind of experimentation and innovation that helps to drive excellence in every other aspect of life."

It remains unknown whether states will heed Obama's call, though some have taken modest steps to ease charter restrictions. Eighteen years after Minnesota passed the first charter law, 4,700 charter schools are in operation nationwide. But 10 states have no charter laws, and many have caps on charter schools or give sole authorizing power to local school boards, which are often reluctant to approve a competitor.

The rapid growth of D.C. charter schools shows their appeal in urban areas where regular schools often struggle to lift the achievement of disadvantaged students. Arizona is an example to states such as Virginia and Maryland that good charter schools can compete anywhere. But weeding out weak schools and boosting underperformers can be tricky.

Dropping and flunking out
Arizona has revoked four charters since 2007, one for academic problems and the rest for management issues. Two dozen other charters were surrendered for various reasons, some academic. Now the State Board for Charter Schools, which oversees the sector, is preparing for the first round of charter renewals in state history.

Much is at stake. Arizona charters last 15 years -- longer than it takes a kindergartner to finish high school. Renewals last 20.

In South Phoenix, NFL YET (for "youth education town") College Prep Academy is preparing to apply for renewal next year. Latino leaders launched the school in the mid-1990s. They sought to create a safe harbor in what co-founder Armando Ruiz recalled as a dangerous neighborhood of junked cars, vacant lots, tire dumps and dilapidated apartments.

The school won a $1 million grant from the NFL when the Super Bowl came to Phoenix in 1996 and an additional $1.5 million when it returned in 2008. The grants funded an academic building, two athletic fields and a campus expansion.

Self-esteem and character education are big at this school of roughly 300 students in grades 7 to 12. The word of the week, written one afternoon on whiteboards, was "moral." Some of the uniformed students study leadership in addition to taking honors classes.

"How many of you have eaten in a restaurant where there's a basket of bread?" the leadership teacher asked in a lesson on manners. "What do you do? Where does it go?" She followed up: "You have a little bowl of little balls of butter -- what do you do with that?"

Frank Duarte teaches pre-calculus and aims to start what would be the school's only AP class within a year. "My job is to get to know them and to hook them," he said. "After that, I don't let 'em breathe. It's bam-bam-bam: 'You are going to learn. You can learn.' "

"People don't think we can do as much because we're from the Southside," said Samantha Gardiner, 17, a senior who aspires to attend Northern Arizona University. "That's what's good about this school: They tell us, 'Even though you're from the Southside, you're going to do great things and change the world.' "

For all the zeal of teachers and students, Ruiz acknowledged that the school he leads hasn't lived up to ambitions. Its key state test scores are below average and stagnant, its course offerings somewhat less than challenging.

"We got off-track," Ruiz said. "Why? The hard thing to maintain is the intensity of excellence. About three years ago, we accepted average as being excellent."

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