A forced conversion to charter school

The decision to shut down Cole Middle School this year was not a popular one in northeast Denver. No matter that the school was consistently the worst performer in the state, with reading and math proficiency levels generally less than half the state averages. Parents still worried that reopening it as a charter school would be traumatic for their kids. They saw signs of improvement, they insisted. And they felt that state officials didn't give sufficient weight to their views when choosing to let the nonprofit group KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program) administer the new charter school.

Many of those parents have slowly been won over by the tireless efforts of the new school's director to explain the charter and the fact that they can choose to send their children elsewhere. Still, when Cole College Prep opens this summer, a lot of people will be watching.

It's the first forced charter conversion mandated under a new Colorado law for schools that don't show improvement over three years. It's also an early example of what will occur in many more states as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements kick in: Schools failing to improve enough after five years will be replaced by charters or other new schools.

Critics are skeptical, saying such school reforms are relying too much on the largely unknown record of charters. Even charter supporters are split; some see the coming school conversions as a wonderful opportunity, while others say that forcing the schools on a community might destroy the tenet of choice that's so pivotal to their movement.

"The fear is that ... there will be quite a number of schools opening up in the next several years that are called charter schools, but have a totally different history and different culture within them because of the way they were started," says Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

That's exactly what KIPP officials have tried to avoid in Denver. For starters, they quashed the idea early on that students of the former Cole would have to attend the new school. "We said, 'That's not how we work. One of our pillars is choice,' " says spokesman Stephen Mancini. "We don't consider it a takeover; we consider it a transformation."

New leader makes house calls

Chris Clemons, director of the new school, has been making door-to-door visits to students' homes to explain the school and its unique requirements - like a 9.5-hour school day, alternating Saturday attendance, and extra weeks in the summer. "There were all these rumors - that we're militaristic, that kids speaking Spanish can't come," says Mr. Clemons, a friendly man with glasses and a goatee. "My job is to tell parents what will and won't be happening."

At Petra Castorena's home, he has the help of an interpreter as he talks to her children Thomas and Angelica, who attend Cole. "Do you guys know what a commitment is?" Clemons asks. "How about a promise? I'm promising to educate you. But for me to be successful, I need you to promise certain things."

The children read a list of pledges - that they'll ask questions in class and call their teacher at night if they have trouble with homework, that they'll get to school on time and listen to teachers and classmates. Both are shy, but they decide to sign the commitment form.

Initially, their mother says, she was unhappy to hear of Cole's closing, and had heard rumors that parents would have to pay for their kids to attend the new school.

But now, she says in Spanish, "I think it's going to be a better school."

That's a conclusion that few debate. KIPP, which operates 38 schools (not including 10 scheduled to open this summer), has one of the best records of any charter-school system. All its schools focus on low-income and underserved communities, and more than 80 percent of graduates from the original two schools were accepted to college. KIPP students who took the national Stanford 10 exams showed average proficiency gains of 22 percent in reading and 29 percent in math between 2003 and 2004.

Skeptics say not all charters are equal

But critics of forced conversions point out that not all charter schools are KIPP, and shutting down a school offers no guarantee that its replacement will be better.

The law "presumes you've got a rational way of deciding this is the only way left for the school," says Gerald Bracey, an associate at High/Scope Educational Research Foundation and professor at George Mason University. "The idea [behind the charter movement] was that it was a way of improving student achievement, and that hasn't happened. Sure, it's happened in isolated schools, but it has [happened] in isolated public schools, too."

He points to studies that show charter schools keeping pace with public schools - but he questions the worth of that if the public schools are failing miserably.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has centered his plans for education reform on charter schools, proposing to make it far easier for failing schools to convert to charters. Under his proposals, failing schools could also be handed over to state-appointed management teams.

Under NCLB, failing schools will have options other than becoming a charter. But the predicted onslaught of school closings will probably produce large numbers of new charters.

"It's the most exciting thing to happen to the charter movement in a while," says Clemons. "If ... charter conversion proves successful, then that could be the next plane for education."

The danger, others say, is that it will be too much, too fast - especially if laws like Colorado's force charters on a community, rather than continuing the grass-roots approach that has been the cornerstone of charter schools.

"I don't think it will work if it's forced on people," says Mr. Richmond. He believes it is sometimes necessary to close down persistently failing schools, as long as the change truly gives the school a fresh start - with a new staff, new leader, new educational design. That could be done through a contract school or even staying within the district. But "the temptation will be to just change the sign over the door and call the school a charter school."

Clemons and the KIPP leadership insisted on making the new Denver school a choice, rather than the default option. Both parents and students need to sign on to the longer days and longer school year.

But this will also be the first time a KIPP school has begun out of an existing school, without a year of preparation, and with a seventh and eighth grade in place. Typically, the schools start with a fifth grade, and then add a grade each year as the students move up - ensuring that all students understand the culture. Cole College Prep will eventually serve grades 5-8.

Mr. Mancini of KIPP acknowledges the new model poses challenges, but says that "here you have the best of both worlds - an imperative coming from the state, but then a grass-roots model."

A bumpy road for local parents

Parents seem to be responding to the grass-roots side. The home visits have done a lot to ease anxieties, as has the choice of Clemons, a young man originally from northeast Denver, to lead the school.

Many, though, were frustrated by the charter selection process last fall. A parent group had overwhelmingly voted for a school proposed by Padres Unidos, a local group. As a second choice (out of four), parents preferred Edison Schools.

"We believe they didn't take our opinions into account," says Jose Arteaga, a parent who originally opposed KIPP. The state law gives schools enough time to improve, he says. Many parents didn't understand why Cole needed to be closed.

"It made me feel very bad, because my kids felt like they were the ones to blame," says Erlinda Moreno, a young mother with a daughter in eighth grade and a son in seventh. Her son chose not to go to KIPP next year, because he didn't like the schedule. Still, she and the others now say they think KIPP will be a good option.

Arteaga has even taken a job with KIPP as a community liaison, and often accompanies Clemons on home visits. "The more we get to know the school," he says in Spanish, "the more we think that it's better."

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