Can this school make a difference?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As their final homework assignment just before the holidays, ninth-graders at a new charter school in Washington, D.C., were asked to write their goals for the new year. Here are some of their responses, as written: "not to dissopointe my family," "to pass all my classes with at least proeficient or exeeding," "stop being in troble so much," and "try not to liter and to do my best to do right by this community." Doing right by the community is the heart of the mission of Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy. A 1995 law allows public money to fund such new, mission-driven schools in the District. Eighteen charter schools are now up and running here, along with nearly 1,100 nationwide. But for this school to keep its charter, it's not enough that these kids feel good about themselves and their work. Their work has got to get better. Washington's charter movement is pioneering the most comprehensive accountability system in the United States, and Cesar Chavez is at the forefront. "Part of the excitement of the charter experiment is that we will be held accountable," says David Mack, consultant to the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, one of two boards that approve and monitor district charters. When the charter movement got off the ground earlier this decade, critics said that charters would "cream" the best students from regular public schools. In fact, many of those now choosing charters are minorities who've not fared well in traditional schools. In the beginning, charter pioneers argued that the proof their schools worked was that so many students were opting to attend. In Arizona and Michigan, which together account for nearly half of the charters in the country, state authorities have not monitored student achievement to determine whether charters should be renewed. But as more public-school systems turn to high-stakes standardized tests to measure schools, charters are under new pressure to show that they are accountable for higher achievement. "I have businessmen in my office all the time, and the question they all want answers to is: 'Where's the proof?' " says Lex Towle, managing director of the AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation, a nonprofit that provided startup support for Cesar Chavez. Charters often depend on such outside support for facilities and ongoing management not covered by public funding. For teachers at Cesar Chavez, getting students up to grade proficiency is a tall order. A student asks history teacher Randy Littlefield to take a look at the latest revision of her essay on the Constitution. She has reworked it twice, and the expression on her face says that twice ought to be just about enough. "This is the thesis statement," he says, pointing to the lead paragraph and measuring his next words: "I want 20 minutes, and I'll show you how to make your thesis statement like a blueprint. If you get stuck, it will get the job done." She agrees to give it another try. Mr. Littlefield taught in private schools for 20 years before joining Chavez last fall for its startup year. "As prepared as I was, this is still more than I thought about," he says, out of earshot of his class. "We have many ninth-graders reading and writing at a fifth-to-sixth grade level. These students were not well-served by previous schools." "I've had problem students [in private schools]. What's different here is that the problems are magnified.... Dealing with grinding poverty is an ongoing issue." The D.C. Public Charter School Board is modeling its accountability plan after that of Massachusetts, the most rigorous in the nation (see story below). They hope to improve on this model by helping charters build the capacity to track their own performance. This involves more than just hoping that the kids do well enough on year-end standardized tests, board officials say. It means setting achievement goals and measuring progress toward reaching them - keeping records, setting dates, analyzing spreadsheets, and, most important, figuring out how to adjust instruction if goals aren't being met. It's not obvious how to do any of these things, and all involve the resource that is in shortest supply in a startup: time. That's one reason the board is starting early to create a "culture of accountability," both within schools and between charter leaders and the board. "We're going to provide voluminous information about how kids do, and we will do a lot of monitoring," says Nelson Smith, executive director of the board. "Some students enroll in charters precisely because they have done so poorly in the regular school system. We're setting high standards for all kids, but we need to be clear about where some of these kids are starting out." To assist in the effort to develop accountability plans, the Bentonville, Ark.-based Walton Family Foundation is providing $177,800 for professional development for the 10 schools chartered by this board. "It's been far more complicated to implement accountability plans than we imagined," says Mr. Mack, the board consultant. "The fifth year [when the law mandates a charter review] is when the first hard look will be taken. But being able to build a history that can be looked at at that time will be really important." That history must include more than just test scores. The board is asking principals to come up with ways to measure the goals of their schools. Cesar Chavez aims to help students use the resources of the city to understand public policy. In her draft proposal to the board, Principal Irasema Salcido has suggested measures such as: 80 percent of graduates will achieve high school competency, as measured by the Modern Red Schoolhouse academic standards (a national model for reform). 25 percent more students each year will move up at least one level in reading and math on Stanford Achievement Test 9 (SAT 9) standardized tests. 90 percent of students will complete activities that teach public policy. 75 percent of graduates will enroll in competitive four-year colleges. 90 percent of students will attend school daily. "What I'm also doing is to change behavior. We want to be able to say, if they come to this school, they will be better people: less violent, less disrespectful at home and in their community," she says. The D.C. board consultant says that these goals may be too ambitious. "I've said, 'You're setting expectations too high here.' You can make it challenging, but it also has to be achievable," Mack says. "What accountability has done is to focus on the things that really make a difference. The primacy is student outcomes: How well are they learning?" Mrs. Salcido and other D.C. principals involved in this process worry that, come spring, all that may count in the headlines are SAT 9 scores. But they say they don't want to lose what is distinctive about the charter experiment by converting the schools into test-prep camps. "We're not about raising [SAT 9] scores, because all our kids are special-ed and they don't take the test," says Laurence Riccio, principal of The School for Arts in Learning. "People make academic and interpersonal gains through the arts, and we need to quantify it." "I couldn't just teach to that test and get any kind of buy-in from students," says Chavez science teacher Jill Russo-Downey. "I try to meet them where their needs are now and to get them to where they can be successful at anything, including standardized tests." Second in an occasional series. Part 1 appeared Dec. 22. E-mail comments to chaddockg@csps.com

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