Charting a New Course

As charter schools shift from education experiments to established institutions, they're making a strong imprint on the future of American education.

Melissa Solomon

MAIKER HER WAS A GOOD STUDENT. SHE WENT TO CLASS, LISTENED to her teachers and maintained a 3.0 grade-point average. But sophomore year, everything changed. She lost both her parents in a murder-suicide.

“I was ditching classes 14 days in a row,” says Her, “so I got kicked out of school.” She stayed out of school for more than two years, living with her uncle. “I basically thought my whole future was just there, doing nothing,” she explains.

One day, a house painter her uncle had hired told her about City Academy, a nearby charter school in St. Paul, Minn. She was impressed by the small size, the supportive faculty and the overall structure.

“You can learn and grow at your own pace,” says Her, who graduated this spring. “You’re never made to feel like you’re failing or you’re not good enough.”

Many students do just fine in traditional public schools, but Her is living proof that educational institutions designed for the masses don’t work for everyone. At first considered a passing trend, charter schools have surprised skeptics and become a core component of American education, growing exponentially more popular throughout the last decade.

What makes these schools so appealing to parents and students? Their small class sizes? Specialized curriculum? Frequent student assessment?

None of the above, says Jed Wallace, chief operating officer at the Gary & Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High, a group of California-based charter schools. It’s impossible to make generalizations, he explains, because “charter schools are all over the map.”

Their common denominator is that while they receive state funds for every student, they’re run independently, and many parlay their lack of conformity and government bureaucracy into unique teaching environments. “Parents are desperately craving differentiated choices, and school districts are ill-equipped to provide anything but standardized offerings,” Wallace says.

Different Choices

Wilhemenia Greene first sensed trouble when she offered to volunteer in her daughter’s first-grade classroom. The teacher and principal said they didn’t use volunteers. Greene insisted and they reluctantly gave in, but other problems ensued, so she decided to consider private schooling.

Then she heard about a new charter school coming to Pontiac, Mich. Her brother, a public school principal in Virginia, warned that charters were just a passing phase, but at the informational meetings for Walton Charter Academy, officials spoke of a challenging math and reading curriculum and a moral focus.

“I heard all the things I wanted to hear,” Greene recalls. So she went with her gut feelings and enrolled her daughter, Ellen Evans, in second grade at Walton in the fall of 1999.

Six years later, Ellen is starting eighth grade at Walton, one of 51 K-8 charter schools run by National Heritage Academies (NHA). The family moved to a good school district in 2001, but Ellen stayed at Walton, commuting 40 minutes. When Ellen ages out next year, she’ll attend her local public high school.

NHA’s founder and CEO, J.C. Huizenga, is an entrepreneur who has done well with a diverse group of manufacturing plants. “I knew nothing about education,” he admits. But Huizenga says he knows how to run a successful organization, and he’s convinced that the same principles that foster success in business also apply to education.

In 1994, when Huizenga’s son was born, “it all clicked into place,” he recalls. “I saw it as a parental choice issue.”

He partnered with some colleagues, designed a curriculum and, in 1995, was issued a charter to open Excel Charter Academy in Grand Rapids, Mich. The 50 NHA schools that followed in Excel’s footsteps are scattered across five states, but all are managed by NHA’s Grand Rapids headquarters.

NHA is a for-profit company, and it runs its schools in a businesslike way, the founder says. The result, according to Huizenga, is a school that is “safer, friendlier, more parent focused and more focused on successful student achievement.”

For instance, NHA’s centralized technology infrastructure is rather straightforward compared with many traditional schools. (See “Front & Center ” on page 67.) “There are some Taj Mahal schools around that have state-of-the-art everything,” adds Excel Principal Bill Knoester. “The technology we use is functional.”

NHA’s buildings are another area where standardization has helped rein in costs. Since charters don’t receive local funding or bond issues for buildings, NHA cuts costs by replicating its building designs. “So far, NHA has saved the taxpayer a quarter of a billion dollars … in just 10 years,” Huizenga says.

There are no employee unions at NHA, and salaries and benefits are lower than what states offer, so it’s hard to attract quality teachers, Knoester says. The trade-off is that teachers “don’t focus on master contracts or collective bargaining,” he explains. Instead, they are committed to the principles of NHA’s back-to-basics curriculum, moral focus, parental involvement and, of course, free-market structure.

“It’s only through competition that people or organizations strive to do their best,” says Huizenga. If NHA raises the bar on quality, so must its neighboring schools that are competing for the same students and state dollars.

With about 27,000 students enrolled in NHA’s schools and a waiting list of thousands, the competition is significant. NHA has consistently turned a profit. In addition, student test scores—both state standardized exams and frequent private NHA testing—are high compared with their peers. (See “The People’s Choice ” on page 62.)

“The best way to attract children is to do an excellent job in the classroom,” points out Aric Dershem, NHA’s vice president of human resources. “If charter schools don’t do an excellent job, they go out of business.”

Real-World Relevance

High Tech High schools represent a compelling example of innovative charter schools. Unlike NHA, the High Tech High schools are nonprofit, their design principles emphasize creativity, and while their test scores are high, they believe that assessment is more meaningful when it takes into account students’ ability to apply their learning to projects that have relevance to the real world. “We look at assessment in a more holistic way,” Wallace says.

High Tech High opened in 2000 and did so well that it received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help get similar public schools off the ground. High Tech Middle opened in 2003, and a second high school, High Tech High International, followed the next year.

This fall, the organization is opening two new schools in San Diego—High Tech High Media Arts and High Tech Middle Media Arts—and is bringing a third school, Explorer Elementary Charter School, within the charter management organization. A fourth new school, High Tech High Bayshore, will be opening in Redwood City.

High Tech High schools distinguish themselves in a few ways. Instead of rotating classes every hour, related subjects like math and science, and history and English, are taught in two-hour blocks so students have time to develop stronger relationships with fewer teachers.

Students are encouraged to be creators of technology rather than consumers of mass-produced products. As a result, there are few off-the-shelf applications at High Tech High.

High Tech High schools are also integrated with the adult community, so that when students graduate, they are not thrown unprepared into the so-called real world. Parents and professionals regularly visit the school and participate in classes, and students go off campus for academic internships.

“Isolating students in remote enclaves during their adolescence is a poor way to prepare them for the adult world,” Wallace points out.

Catching Up

City Academy also helps to ease students into the real world beyond high school. For instance, when Her started looking into colleges, City Academy’s founder and administrator, Milo Cutter, took her to visit campuses.

Cutter teaches half the day, she handles administrative tasks, and she’s in charge of grant writing and producing reports for the state. “We are very lean at the top,” Cutter explains. “Everyone here wears more than one hat.”

The bare-bones staff saves dollars that City Academy uses to keep class sizes to about 10 students. Each student is assigned an advisor, who has a caseload of about 10 to 15 students.

One graduation requirement is that students must be accepted to a college and have a financial aid plan in place. From the start, advisors work with the students to review their skills and prior learning and devise a graduation plan.

Students take college and career classes, where they practice for placement tests and research programs to prepare them for their chosen careers. They work in internships and programs throughout St. Paul.

Because charters are often small, they are ideal for research and design, Cutter says, and their lessons learned could be put to use in all schools for all students.

The program works. City Academy has always had a waiting list, and its vision of local design—by students, parents and educators—has thrived since its inception.

“You have to give people control, and that’s intimidating,” Cutter points out. “It takes away unnecessary control mechanisms and puts learning back in the hands of learners.”

THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE

Since 1992, when parents were first given a choice to send their children to geographically zoned public schools or charter schools, a growing number of parents across the nation have opted for the latter. But are charters better than traditional schools?

A study by the National Assessment Governing Board of the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that charter school students, on average, score lower than students in traditional public schools on national standardized exams. However, when the performance of charter and public school students of similar racial or ethnic groups is compared, their scores are usually similar.

Jed Wallace, chief operating officer of High Tech High, says it’s inappropriate to make blanket analyses of charter schools since achievement levels vary widely. By April 2005, there were about 3,400 charter schools in the United States, with nearly 1 million students enrolled, according to the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

High Tech High is one of four schools in San Diego that has scored a 10/10 ranking as measured by California’s Academic Performance Index, and the only one of those four with a diverse student body.

Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, analyzed the scores of National Heritage Academies students on the 2003-2004 Metropolitan Achievement Test, and found that while they enter the schools on par with their peers around the nation, their achievement rises substantially after attending NHA schools.

All of High Tech High’s students are provided with a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum, and 100 percent of its graduates have enrolled in college, says Wallace. With a vastly diverse student body—culturally, economically and ethnically—that means that about half will be the first in their families to graduate from college, he adds.

“High schools are very poor predictors of student ability,” Wallace points out. “Even if they were good predictors, they should not contribute to the channeling of kids to different opportunities.”

FINDING THEIR FOOTING

Charter school regulations keep getting tougher, making it more difficult for charters to implement bureaucracy-free solutions to educational challenges, says Jed Wallace, chief operating officer at the Gary & Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High. When charter legislation first passed in California, charter schools were not required to employ certified teachers. That has changed, forcing schools like High Tech High to devise creative solutions.

In August 2004, High Tech High became the first charter school organization in California authorized to operate its own teacher-credentialing program. The program currently has about 25 participants, and there are plans for rapid expansion.

“It’s a regulatory conundrum to figure out how to operate a charter school,” Wallace says. “Every time there’s been a charter school blow up … the proposed solution is either, A, ‘Let’s get rid of charter schools,’ or B, ‘Let’s pass a new law restricting charter school autonomy.’

“I don’t think that’s a recipe for success. Do we say that we should get rid of school districts or teachers’ unions any time there is a scandal that they are responsible for? No, they remove the bad apples. The same standard should apply to charter schools.”

“Very often the critics of charter schools say we skim the cream of the crop,” says Bill Knoester, principal of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Excel Charter Academy, the first of National Heritage Academies’ 51 charter schools. But Excel chooses its students through a lottery, which guarantees its diversity, he says. Forty percent of its students are minorities, 35 percent receive free or reduced-priced lunches, 30 percent are considered at-risk and 11 percent qualify for special education.

Many students at City Academy in St. Paul, Minn., the nation’s first charter school, didn’t make it in traditional schools, so they started City Academy in their junior or senior year needing to catch up quickly. Between 20 and 25 percent of the school’s students live on their own, and about 30 percent have children. “That tells us that our school has to be a place that has some flexibility because there are too many spots in their lives that are inflexible,” says founder and administrator Milo Cutter.

As a result, the school designs individual curricula for each student and revisits them every five weeks, making adjustments based on their grades: A, B or In Progress. “Some may take longer to get there than others, and that’s OK,” Cutter says.

High Tech High is working with traditional San Diego schools to implement some of its core components, such as smaller schools in the form of specialized academies within larger schools. Its emphasis on excellence is clearly making local schools pay attention, Wallace says.

“We cannot tolerate a school that does not meet our standards,” he says. “Every one has got to be great.”

Melissa Solomon, a freelance writer, lives in Brooklyn, N. Y.

Oct 31 2006

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