•  A charter school report card: Which ones make the grade?

       BY EVA-MARIE AYALA     *       STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER        * Sunday, January 13, 2008




    Shin-Ho Lee

    More than a decade since they arrived in Tarrant County, charter schools are mastering some tough lessons. They attract the most inexperienced teachers and battle higher teacher turnover rates when compared with traditional public schools.  They tend to struggle academically and financially, a Star-Telegram analysis of the county’s nearly 20 charter schools found.


    But many charter schools are helping students most at risk of failing or dropping out of traditional public schools, said Clyde Steelman, a deputy executive director at Region XI Education Service center in Fort Worth.  “Four or five years ago, I had a negative outlook on charter schools because you just heard a lot of bad stuff about them”’ Steelman said,  “and there are some bad ones out there . . . but there are definitely good ones out there making a difference for students that truly need it”.


    About half of all Texas charters are designated as alternative education schools. Statewide, charter schools enroll larger proportions of African-American and low-income students and fewer Anglo The group compared charter schools with traditional schools serving demographically similar students and found no significant differences in the 2006 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills Reading/ English language arts scores. Low performing students enrolled in charter schools earned higher 2006 TAKS math scores than comparable students enrolled in traditional public schools.   . . . Most charter schools can’t compete with the pay offered by traditional public school districts.  Starting pay in Tarrant County is around $45,000, but at charter schools it is closer to the low $30,000s.



    Some charter leaders concede that they had no idea what they were getting into when they opened their schools.  . . .


    Stable leadership is key to a successful charter school, experts say.  And that has been a hallmark of East Fort Worth Montessori Academy.  About 90 percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a population that often performs below other groups on standardized tests.  But East Fort Worth Montessori has been rated as recognized, the second-highest rating on the state’s four-tier scale, for the past two years.


    Joyce Brown founded the academy as a preschool to give poor and minority students access to the Montessori method of self-directed, hands-on learning.  She has since helped it grow into a self-supported charter school that teaches through fifth grade.  “It’s easier if you are working with affluent families,” she said,  “but when your’re working with 90 percent free- and reduced- [lunch} students – and those are the students who really need to be in High-quality programs – it’s expensive.  And it’s challenging.  And it’s not easy to replicate.”  The school focuses on much more than classroom learning, Brown said.


    Under her leadership, the school has built a peace labyrinth for meditation and a wheelchair-accessible flower garden to share with visiting senior citizens.  It boasts many multicultural offerings, such as Mexican ballet folklorico, African dancing and Japanese tea time.  Additionally, Brown formed a partnership with the Tarrant Area Food Bank to provide nutritious meals to students while the bank trains participants in its welfare-to-work program to be chefs using the school’s cafeteria.  Food bank staffers fill students’ backpacks with nutritional groceries for the weekends.  Because many of the school’s families are Hispanic or Somali, the school offers parents English and parenting classes with on-site child care for parents and teachers.
    Still, there is much more to do, Brown said.  One student was recently overheard at lunch saying he was going to go to high school, college, then jail and prison because that’s where people learn to become a man, Brown said.  Soon after, Brown met with local Black ministers and pastors to develop a mentoring program for students.  “I just don’t know how you change that kind of mind-set that prison is inevitable." She said,  “but we try.  Whenever there is an issue we see, we try to address it.  I think that is why we are successful.”

    Brown and Bradley


    Charter schools have been supported buy state tax dollars since 1995.  Supporters hailed them as an alternative not subjected to all the rules and regulations of public schools.  Since passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, they have become more accountable to state and federal requirements.  Statewide, there a 211 active charters run by nonprofits, for-profits and sometimes a small group of elected parents.



    Parents should find as much data available on specific charter schools before enrolling their child said Robin Lake, executive director of the National Charter School Research Project.  The Texas Education Agency collects testing, student and teacher data for all public schools, including charter schools, in its Academic Excellence Indicator System reports available online, Lake said.  Parents should consider: Test scores and accountability information.  Look at how a school has improved, or not improved, over several years.  The school’s mission,  Is it clear?  Does it match your family’s goals and values?  School leadership,  Is it strong and stable?  Teacher turnover rates are higher at charter schools, but stable leadership can make up for that.  Teacher quality,  Do teachers work well together?  Are they qualified?  .   .    .