Charter Schools: Judging Those Institutions Depends on Their Mission

Nov 1, 2011

Day No. 1 at ChicagoQuest Charter School, one of 16 schools run by the Chicago International Charter School.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
When a student sits at Vickie Kimmel Forby’s desk and says he’s thinking about dropping out of Tomorrow’s Builders YouthBuild Charter School in East St. Louis, she makes sure there is a clear view of the bulletin board behind her.

On it are 23 obituaries of former students, most lost to murder. “I want them to reflect,” Forby says. “I have success stories all over, but there’s not a name they don’t know or a face they don’t recognize up there.” 

The school’s 108 students come from grim circumstances where violence and extreme poverty are a way of life. About 30 percent of students don’t live with their parents, many of them “sofa surfing,” rotating their nights on different friends’ couches, essentially homeless. A parole officer visits the school to check in with about 20 percent of students. Forby, or Miss Vickie as everyone calls her, has grieved at their funerals, raced to the hospital when they have been shot, attended the births of their babies and picked up the phone when they have called in the middle of the night.

Forby has the distinction of being the executive director of what has been called the worst charter school not only in Illinois but in the nation. 

On paper, Tomorrow’s Builders’ academic record is abysmal. In 2010, none of the high school’s students met or exceeded academic state standards in any area, and the school’s average ACT score was a 13.4. The state average that year was 20.7.

Compare that with the Noble Network of Charter Schools, seven college prep high schools in Chicago serving about 6,500 students. In 2010, all of the Noble schools scored in the top 10 of Chicago’s open-enrollment high schools on the ACT, with average scores ranging from 18.7 to 20. Just like Tomorrow’s Builders, the top two ACT-scoring schools — Pritzker and Noble Street — serve low-income students.

It is easy to say Tomorrow’s Builders is failing while the Noble schools are succeeding. But the better question might be whether only comparing test scores is the best measure of charter school success. Most of the Tomorrow’s Builders students read at a fifth-grade level or lower and had previously dropped out of school. “We’re specifically set up to serve the lowest learners,” Forby says. Meanwhile, the fact that all the Noble schools are “college prep” means students there likely have an interest in furthering their education, in effect weeding out other kids. Comparing the two programs is to some degree like apples and oranges. 

Weighing the success of different schools is tricky, experts say. “When a charter school is created, there is a disincentive to work with the disadvantaged, who likely are not served well in public schools,” says Peter Weitzel, who works in research for the University of Illinois Springfield and co-edited the 2010 book, The Charter School Experiment. “There is great need for innovation in that area. If you really want innovation, do you measure charter schools in the same way that you measure regular schools? There are definitely big problems with the mathematical approach to school and teacher performance.” 

Results of studies on the success of charter schools vary, but in nationwide comparisons, Illinois has fared pretty well. Experts say Illinois charters are some of the most successful in the nation. For instance, a 2007 study of six Great Lakes states by Western Michigan University showed Illinois had the best performance. 

“I would speculate that is because Illinois has had slower growth and has smaller charter school reform and a higher proportion of school closures, which means better oversight,” says Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan. Tempering that good news, Miron points out that a compilation of more than 80 national studies on charter schools revealed there is no overall difference in how students perform in charter schools versus public schools. That said, there are some successful charter schools in each state, as well as some where students perform worse than their peers in public schools.

Experts agree charter school success comes with oversight and the ability to shut down poorly performing schools. This is where Illinois succeeds. Local school districts not only approve charter schools in their districts but also decide whether to renew a school’s charter if it isn’t doing well. Local school district and charter school officials know each other. “The charter schools [in Illinois] know they are being watched and that they are accountable,” Miron says. Most proposals for new schools in Illinois are rejected. In Chicago, about 15 to 25 new charter school applications are considered each year. Only five to eight of those are typically approved, says Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. 

States with less discernment, that believed in a “free-market” approach, now have struggling charter school programs. Lax oversight caused by the quick growth of charter schools has kept states such as Michigan, with 175 schools opening in five years, from closing poorly performing schools, Miron says. It has been difficult for those states to keep track of the charter schools that open and to hold them to rigorous accountability standards when they weren’t in place from the beginning. “The expectation was that these schools would go out of business because families would turn their back on underperforming schools,” he says. “That hasn’t really happened.” In fact, there are waiting lists at schools where students perform worse than their peers in public schools, says Chris Lubienski, an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and co-editor of The Charter School Experiment.

Meanwhile, Illinois’ slow growth has been purposeful. In 1996, four years after the first charter school opened in Minnesota, Illinois legislators initially allowed for the creation of 45 schools — 15 each in Chicago, the collar counties including suburban Cook County and downstate. The hope was that charter schools would improve educational opportunities for students, particularly those at risk in Illinois, through innovative operations and teaching methods. “It was a new way of thinking of a public school,” Broy says.

The law exempts charters from most state laws and school code regulations, allowing the schools to focus more on results, Broy says. That freedom means flexibility for longer school days, original curricula and last-minute budget shifts to better meet students’ needs, says Jennifer Cline, communications director for New Schools for Chicago. For example, some charter schools have extra instruction in math and reading, while others build social/emotional support into the day with guidance counselors and social workers. A school might structure the school day so that all students are occupied in music at the same time, giving teachers in other areas time to meet for professional development. Or, Cline says, a school might opt to hold off buying new computers to pay for a teacher’s aide for a difficult class.

It’s about meeting the needs of students and propelling them forward, says Beth Purvis, CEO of Chicago International Charter School. “Our job is to create an environment where they will move,” she says. That means giving a hungry child breakfast before school, figuring out how to add some rest into a tired kindergartener’s day and matching classroom material with a student. “We meet the kid where they are and move them to the next level; it has nothing to do with complexity,” Purvis says. 

Charter schools also are exempt from union contract requirements approved by school boards in their district, although some charter schools do have unions in place. Of late, the charter school movement in Chicago has met with resistance after taking off in 2004 when Mayor Richard M. Daley and Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan unveiled an initiative called Renaissance 2010, aimed at opening 100 new charter schools in the city. The initiative raised more than $50 million to open 70 new schools. Now called New Schools for Chicago, the group is working toward opening an additional 50 charter schools in the next five years. 

That doesn’t sit well with the Chicago Public Schools teachers union, which pushed in January for a moratorium on charters. Also, the union is cool to the current effort to lengthen the school day in Chicago schools, although six public schools have already lengthened their instructional days. The change was supported by charter schools, which provide a longer day for students. Advocates for charters say that is a good example of competition spurring a change in public schools.

According to a financial study of Chicago charter schools released by the Civic Federation in October, charter schools spent about 15 percent less per pupil, $10,960, than Chicago public schools, $12,920, in 2008. “There’s an inequity,” says Cline of New Schools for Chicago.

Money has been cited as major factor in the failure to open more charter schools in the collar counties and downstate. Currently, there are only 14 charter schools outside Chicago. Because charter schools are public, a percentage of tax dollars follows students. “School districts lose money [to charters],” Broy says. “Some districts have been unwilling to give charters a fair hearing, making it difficult to sell Illinois to national charter groups.” For instance, he says, a charter school proposed in Waukegan in 2008 was well-supported in the community and would have been a good option. According to news reports, the charter was voted down because of fear it would drain funds and bright students from Waukegan High School. The charter hoped to eventually serve about 600 students, which would have diverted millions of dollars away from the high school.

Also, consider the number of school districts in Illinois — 868 with the smallest of them serving fewer than 100 students. Charter schools are unlikely in small, well-performing districts. Thanks to a new state law approved this year establishing an independent commission with the authority to approve and oversee public charter schools, Broy expects more charter schools to open outside Chicago. “We’re optimistic that we’re going to see more realistic support for new schools,” Broy says. “I suspect we’ll see the number of charter school applications [downstate and in the collar counties] go up dramatically.” 

There is room for growth throughout the state. 

Over the years, Illinois charter school legislation has been expanded to allow for a total of 120 charters with 70 permitted in Chicago, an additional five allowed in Chicago devoted to serving re-enrolled dropouts, and 45 in the rest of the state.

Statewide, 51,000 students are served with about 16,000 on waiting lists, Broy says. Because charters can operate more than one campus, there are 109 schools located in Chicago with 29 charters still available in the city, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. An additional five are available for Chicago programs that would serve dropout students. In the collar counties and downstate, there are 31 charters still available and 14 charter schools open, according to the ISBE.

Illinois charter schools vary in the programs they offer: A dual language school teaches half in English and half in Spanish. An environmentally focused school has students experience the outdoors daily. Another school focuses on healthy living, eating and exercising. Some serve all girls or all boys. Others are college prep. Some are innovative in the way they operate. An example is The Chicago International Charter School, which uses portfolio management to oversee 15 schools in the city and one in Rockford. The charter runs operations but has enlisted five school management organizations to hire teachers and outline the school day. “Our innovation has been focused around our business model,” says Purvis, CEO of Chicago International. The charter allows schools to enjoy economy of scale but also gives them independence in the way they operate.

Four schools in the charter are run by a national organization called Victory that features a “high quality, back-to-basics” curriculum. Character development is emphasized, and assessments are used to determine what instruction is provided to students. If tests reveal students haven’t grasped phonemic awareness, lessons will focus on that weakness until students get it. In contrast, the Chicago International just opened ChicagoQuest, which holds longer classes combining subjects. Assignments are missions. For instance, students might have to help a tribe of people leave their homeland because of flooding. They have to build a new village and along the way master curriculum standards. “The delivery of education is very different. That’s what our portfolio allows us to do,” Purvis says. “Quest is an innovation and a risk. In three to five years, we’ll know if this accelerates learning. If it does, we could replicate it in the network, and if not, we would have one of our other portfolio managers come in and take over.”

Successful charters share some positive benchmarks such as academic growth of students, good retention rates, college-bound students who enroll and graduate, and financial accountability. “This isn’t just about creating more schools,” Broy says. “It’s about making sure the schools are great schools and are transforming students’ lives in meaningful ways.” In contrast, failing schools typically lose students, have poor test results, aren’t financially sound and have a disconnect between teachers and management.

Despite the lack of solid data that would definitively show charter schools outperform public schools, it appears charter schools are here to stay, says Don Shalvey, deputy director of U.S. Programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has invested about $700 million in charter schools. “The reason we support the charters is because they are a part of what the best education system ought to be,” Shalvey says.

Forby believes her Tomorrow’s Builders program is a valuable part of that system. “The test scores really beat us down,” she says. 

“We take young people who have learned to navigate the streets and survive. We’re trying to teach them how to compete — to read, do math and talk to people. The value in what we’re doing is that we’re trying to teach them to be contributing citizens, not existing citizens.”

Kristy Kennedy is a Naperville-based freelance writer.

Illinois Issues, November 2011