Giving Charter Schools a Chance
Ask a supporter of charter schools whether that vogue new concept holds promise for inner-city children. By way of an answer, you might get invited to a quiet corner in the hardscrabble Dorchester neighborhood of Boston.
There, in a building one could easily miss while searching for a school, a remarkable story is unfolding. Inside the warm, cozy classrooms of the Neighborhood House Charter School, the 180 students enjoy class sizes of 18 students--and two teachers. The student-teacher ratio, at less than 10 to 1, would be the envy of some expensive private schools; the typical public school ratio is 17 to 1. Founded by the local settlement-house network--a movement that has long offered services to ease the transition of new immigrants--the school serves as a center for healthcare, social services, after-school activities and adult education. A local newspaper reports, "Collaboration has been expanded beyond the building walls, and the entire community is recognizing the benefits."
New families are welcomed by a coordinator in the school's parent center, who visits homes and helps connect parents to services they need. The coordinator also oversees the "family learning contracts"--a promise parents sign to help with their child's studies, get their kid to school on time and help develop the child's "Individual Learning Plan." An independent evaluation notes, "Every teacher in the school makes detailed observations about each of his or her students every day. The teacher-student ratio is so low that most teachers have totally internalized the ILP of their individual advisees." Students attend school from 8 am until as late as 6 pm, when adult education begins. And they attend with a vengeance, posting an impressive 97 percent attendance rate. No child has ever been expelled from Neighborhood House.
The student body, while not a precise mirror of the neighborhood, is mostly black and mostly poor; white students make up less than a third of the enrollment, and 51 percent of the students are eligible for a free lunch. Yet Headmaster Kevin Andrews, who worked as a principal in the posh Newton and Brookline suburbs, has brought the standards of affluent, largely white schools to the inner city. Despite a pay scale at least $5,000 below other Boston public schools--a trade-off for the small classes--he has attracted a staff dominated by experienced teachers. Many are graduates of Ivy League schools and hold master's degrees.
Among parents, he has tried to build the same sense of "entitlement," as he puts it, that prevails in the suburbs. Some parents accustomed to busing their kids to the suburbs, Andrews says, hesitated to raise their voices in those schools "to avoid blowing it." Here, he pushes them to fight for the best. The results have drawn national notice. On recent statewide tests--which despite all their limitations are the main measuring stick for the media and the public--Neighborhood House fourth graders outperformed every other school in Massachusetts in English and language arts. In math and science Neighborhood House took the top scores in Boston.
As for the latter numbers, only Andrews seems unimpressed. "Because they're the best in Boston, what's so wonderful about that?" he asked. "If we were testing like Newton, that would be wonderful."
It would also be wonderful if all urban charter schools were like Neighborhood House. They're not. Charter schools are independent public schools freed from most rules governing school districts and from the attendant bureaucracy. Instead of promising to follow a maze of regulations, they promise results, measured in student performance and parent satisfaction; that promise is embodied in a document called a charter. (Generally, charters must win approval from a local school board or state.) But while they exist outside the system, charter schools adhere to the definition of public schools: They cannot charge tuition, teach religion or discriminate in admission. Many charter schools were created to serve the needs of children who are not doing well in traditional schools. Nationally, charter schools enroll a higher proportion of poor and minority students than other public schools.
It's too soon to say whether charter schools, by and large, are better than the public schools down the street. The first charter school opened in 1992; most of the 1,700 now in existence opened in the last two years. Indeed, it would probably be a mistake at any point to try to draw broad performance conclusions about "the charter movement." By design, that "movement" is a collection of unique schools ranging from international baccalaureate academies to intensive last resorts for juvenile lawbreakers; taking their average temperature probably wouldn't be enlightening.
What's painfully clear, however, is that many inner-city charters aren't doing as well as Neighborhood House. In Oakland, California, for instance, several charter schools are struggling for bare survival. At one, a Latino-oriented school that was among the nation's first charters, a wrenching struggle for control between founding teachers and a new principal played out recently before local television cameras. Last summer parents picketed a small charter school for Native American students when it became clear the majority had failed and were being held back in their grade. And in April a third Oakland school, founded on ideals of tolerance and racial harmony, became the first local school to have its charter revoked amid heavy debts and multiple staff resignations.
Teeth-gnashing struggles like Oakland's, while not the rule, demonstrate a key early lesson of urban charter schools: If one hopes to create an effective inner-city school, good intentions, adequate resources, community legitimacy, a herculean work ethic and a ticket out of the bureaucracy may be necessary, but they are not sufficient. This desperately important task also requires wisdom, forethought, genius. These schools could use some help.