Report Finds Charters Struggling Like Other CPS Schools
Poverty dogs students despite schools' flexibility, autonomy
By Joel Hood and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
Chicago Tribune
November 30, 2011
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/education/ct-met-charter-schools-performance-1130-20111130,0,1660032.story

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other city leaders have long
heralded charter schools' innovative approach to
education, but new research suggests many charters in
Chicago are performing no better than traditional
neighborhood schools and some are actually doing much
worse.

More than two dozen schools in some of the city's most
prominent and largest charter networks, including the
United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Chicago
International Charter Schools, University of Chicago and
LEARN, scored well short of district averages on key
standardized tests.

In two of the city's oldest charter networks,
Perspectives and Aspira, only one school - Perspectives'
IIT Math & Science Academy - surpassed CPS' average on
the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, taken by
elementary schoolers, or the Prairie State Achievement
Examination, used in high schools.

At Shabazz International's DuSable Leadership high
school on the South Side, just 7 percent of students met
state standards on the PSAE. A few miles south, nine out
of every 10 students at CICS' Hawkins high school missed
the state benchmark.

The dismal numbers are part of a new set of school
report cards the state is releasing to the public
Wednesday, results sure to reignite the debate over
education reform one day before Chicago Public Schools
is expected to release its long-awaited list of school
closings for next year.

Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of
Charter Schools, acknowledged that maybe a dozen
underperforming charter schools are in need of
"substantial actions" that may include closing. But
simply looking at how many students have met state
benchmarks is not a fair assessment, he said; a more
important indicator is student growth over time.

"We're in this business because we want to prove that
public schools can work," said Juan Rangel, president of
the politically connected UNO charter network, which
operates nine schools in CPS and plans to open three
more next year.

Addressing the failures at UNO's lowest-performing
school, Paz Elementary on the West Side, Rangel said:
"We're at a point where it's do or die. We're either
going to put Paz on course -- or we'll have to consider
whether this is a school we should keep open."

Two years after Illinois lawmakers approved a more
thorough accounting of charter school performance, the
state has released data that will allow the public for
the first time to see how individual charter schools are
measuring up against traditional public schools.

The report cards are somewhat limiting, only looking at
a school's performance in 2010-11. But the trends show
that despite their celebrated autonomy, discipline and
longer school days, charter schools are struggling to
overcome the poverty that so often hampers
underperforming neighborhood schools.

Charters with the highest numbers of students from low-
income families or those with recognized learning
disabilities almost universally scored the lowest last
year on state exams, a trend common throughout CPS.

One exception is the performance of high schools within
the Noble Street Charter network, often touted by
Emanuel and others as some of the best charters have to
offer. Report cards show Noble students did not reach
the level of CPS' elite selective enrollment or magnet
schools on the PSAE, but did score on par with state
averages -- a notable feat for any school in CPS.

But even charters' staunchest supporters admit that
success has not been widespread across all schools. New
Schools for Chicago, which invested in dozens of
charters after then-Mayor Richard Daley launched a
massive charter expansion program in 2010, has compiled
a watch list for poor-performing charters that they've
turned over to CPS.

"In general for charters that have been around for more
than five years and not performing, we're supporting
their closure or restructuring of these schools," said
New Schools Chief Executive Phyllis Lockett. "At the end
of the day, we need the bar set on what achievement
needs to look like."

Over the last decade, the number of charter schools,
which are publicly funded but have relative freedom in
decision-making, has grown to 110, and they have become
a force in Chicago's crowded public school system.

A report to be released Wednesday by the Brown Center on
Education Policy at the Brookings Institution ranks CPS
second among large urban districts in providing choices
for parents aside from traditional neighborhood schools.
Expanding those options is a major point of emphasis for
Emanuel and CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard.

But the majority of charter schools in Chicago and
around the U.S. rely on nonunion teachers, who are
frequently paid lower wages and asked to work longer
hours. That has led to friction with powerful teachers
unions, who accuse charter networks of devaluing the
profession by driving down salaries and of stripping
public money from long-standing neighborhood schools.

"Charter schools, quite frankly, have shown no
innovations in instruction," said Chicago Teachers Union
President Karen Lewis. "The only innovation they have is
in labor management where they can afford to pay a
significantly lower amount to their teachers."

Whatever their flaws, charters have a unique advantage
over other public schools in their ability to make
wholesale changes quickly at schools dogged by poor
performance.

Paz has replaced its principal and about 50 percent of
its teaching staff and lengthened its school year by 17
days in the last two years, Rangel said. Chicago
International Charter, which oversees 16 campuses in
CPS, last year removed the management organization
responsible for day-to-day operations at five schools.

"That's a very serious thing on our end; it's definitely
not something that's taken lightly," said Christine
Poindexter-Harris, chief data analyst at CICS. "But it's
really done with the thought that if you can't provide
the best education for our students then we need to find
someone who can."

At Aspira of Illinois, which operates two high schools
and one middle school that perform below district
averages, officials recently shook up the board of
directors and have plans to grow. They hope to open
another campus in Logan Square in 2013, said new board
President Fernando Grillo.

"We'll never be in a position to say charters are the
magic bullet to the public schools," Rangel said. "But
there is something special happening in them that we
should be paying attention to."

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