Good schools, bad scores?

A beloved charter school in Harlem faces closure because of poor test scores. But parents, with few options, are fighting to keep its doors open.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's 8 a.m., and students and parents are slogging through slushy Harlem streets on their way to the John A. Reisenbach Charter School. Families filter through the school's cheery orange lobby until 8:30 a.m., when breakfast ends and classes begin.

It's a Friday like any other here - a weekly "Color Day," when students celebrate school spirit by wearing the hues of their floor - orange, green, and blue - rather than their usual oxford shirts and gray pinafores or slacks.

Except, this day, and this month, are like no other. State evaluators who oversee New York charter schools have recommended that Reisenbach be shut, due in part to the school's results on eighth-grade state tests. The State University of New York (SUNY) Board of Trustees plans to meet Tuesday to decide whether to act on that recommendation.

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The threatened closure has parents and experts both raising questions about a school's less tangible aspects - qualities no standardized test can measure. How, for instance, do you quantify the environment here - the safe, carefully monitored hallways, or the eager confidence of the students?

"These are important pieces that are part of these schools that perhaps can't be measured under traditional measures of accountability," says Luis Huerta, a professor at Columbia University's Teacher College in New York. Reisenbach's future may come down to "accountability" - modern education's trendiest buzzword, applied to everything from sweeping reform under the No Child Left Behind Act to the work of beleaguered local school boards.

But the charter school movement in particular is built solidly on the offer of greater autonomy in exchange for a promise to perform. So poor test results have serious consequences.

After seeing their children off, a handful of parents paused to talk. Some were disheartened: Wary of traditional public schools, they say they can't afford private or parochial alternatives.

"It's like a punch in the stomach," says Tiffany Foster, whose daughter Briah is in second grade. "All schools in Harlem are failing. Where does that leave my child?"

Both Craig Cobb and his daughter, Brittan who is a third grader, have fallen in love with Reisenbach.

Like other parents with children at Reisenbach, Mr. Cobb is smitten with the high level of parental involvement. Others rave about the safe, courteous atmosphere, an eighth-grade curriculum that includes reading Shakespeare and newspapers, and extras like drama class and a choir as reasons to keep the school open.

For many Reisenbach families, if the school closes, their only option will be a return to neighborhood schools, many of which are considered the city's worst.

Cobb sees Reisenbach as a work in progress - albeit one in need of assistance.

Among the state's first charter schools, Reisenbach is one of three to face re-chartering this year. The two other schools that opened in 1999 have fared a bit better.

Daniel Oscar, president of the Learning Project, a nonprofit that manages Reisenbach, says the school may have started too quickly - with four months from proposal to opening. It's had building troubles, shaky finances, and high teacher turnover.

There is no doubt that the school has not delivered on its promise to raise test scores. The report by SUNY's Charter Schools Institute (CSI) says Reisenbach "has failed to meet the terms of its charter and is not likely to improve student learning and achievement."

But administrators say the school has now hit its stride, with six new classrooms and more state dollars as enrollment has grown. Teacher morale is high. Last year, however, only 13 percent of Reisenbach's eighth-grade class met state standards in English; only 7 percent in math.

Eric Premack, codirector of the Charter Schools Development Center at California State University, Sacramento, cautions that such tests should be used over time - gauging long-term progress rather than relying on "snapshots."

But to others, hard numbers protect a school and should be relied upon. Benjamin Chavis, principal of the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, Calif., is a firm believer in scores, and skeptical of "feel good or other less quantifiable" measures of success.

In 2000, its fourth year, his school nearly had its charter revoked. But by 2001, a year after Dr. Chavis arrived, he'd turned the school around. Now, its scores are among the best in the state. "You can't win by saying, 'This is a safe school,' " he says. "That's a ridiculous argument."

Yet Reisenbach parents, teachers, and administrators point out that 2002 was the first year the school had an eighth- grade class. Some students tested had been there just five months, having arrived from failing neighborhood schools.

Still, says Mr. Oscar, the Learning Project president, there are other ways to hold a school accountable short of closure: a probationary charter, corrective action, requiring those in charge to step down. In fact, the school's director and its board members have offered to resign.

"There are a menu of options available," says Oscar. But closure "strips 432 families of their options."

The argument for shuttering struggling charters goes like this: If the only choice parents have is between a failing charter school and a failing district school, there is no parental choice.

But in the case of Reisenbach, the CSI report leaves some room for hope: "The school's full enrollment, waiting list, student-retention rate, and survey responses indicate a high level of parent satisfaction."

Ms. Popp's (pronounced Pope) first-grade class may be one reason. Her students are rowdy, but attentive.They pop out of chairs for bathroom breaks, but are engaged in a lesson on nouns.

Down the hall, Ms. Yu's kindergartners - her "scholars" as she calls them - are taking a spelling test.

And as for the larger test - the test of Reisenbach's future - some students are as intent as their parents. Two eighth graders explain what shutting the school would mean to them. Jonathan Mitchell worries about his third-grade cousin. Where will he go?

Jahari Mayfield worries about her teachers. "It's a good school," she says. "The teachers are going to lose their jobs. And jobs don't come easy."

Jahari attended a district public school before Reisenbach. "That school was bad. You got to roam the hallways," she says. At Reisenbach, she says, "They teach us right from wrong."

Some argue schools with low test scores but high community support deserve more time to prove themselves.

In 1998, California's Oakland Charter Academy was in a position similar to Reisenbach's. One of the first charter schools in its district, it squeaked through its first renewal. Test scores were bleak, faculty turnover high. But parents rallied to support the Latino educators who understood their Spanish-speaking children and their community's values. Since then, the school has made modest gains in scores - and received its third renewal.

Standards for charter school survival vary widely from state to state - with New York raising the bar higher than most. In many other states, Reisenbach's performance would be considered acceptable.

As of 2002, only 6.7 percent of US charter schools had closed, says the Center for Education Reform - mostly due to financial mismanagement.

In the past, the organizations that grant charters have been thought lax.

Now, says Bruce Fuller, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, if they move to shut down schools loved by communities, they may face their own questions of accountability.

"Do these chartering agencies see their role as policemen ... ? Or is their role more political - trying to help these schools raise kids' learning curves? Those are two fundamentally different connotations linked to the word accountability."

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