Saturday, April 19, 2008

Patrick Henry Charter School?

I see the small white signs posted all along Semmes and Forest Hill avenues south of the river. Some are on private property; others appear on property owned by the public. The red lettering on the signs reads “Patrick Henry Charter School…NOW!” It is clear from the number of signs I see that there are quite a few people in my greater neighborhood that are demanding this Patrick Henry thing.

What, you may ask, is this Patrick Henry thing?

A group of city residents living south of the James River have banded together to form the Patrick Henry School Initiative. The purpose of the Initiative is to operate a public charter school in the building at the intersection of Forest Hill and Semmes avenues that formally housed the Patrick Henry Elementary School. Partly in response to prodding from the mayor to close small, inefficient public schools, the School Board decided to close the Patrick Henry School about two years ago.

Maven, I think I know what a charter school is, but what exactly is a public charter school?

Under state law, a public charter school is defined as
“a public, nonreligious, or non-home-based alternative school located within a public school division.” Virginia Code, section 22.1-212-5.B. The purpose of a public charter school is to

(i) stimulate the development of innovative programs within public education; (ii) provide opportunities for innovative instruction and assessment; (iii) provide parents and students with more options within their school divisions; (iv) provide teachers with a vehicle for establishing schools with alternative innovative instruction and school scheduling, management and structure; (v) encourage the use of performance-based educational programs; (vi) establish and maintain high standards for both teachers and administrators; and (vii) develop models for replication in other public schools.
Section 22.1-212.5.A.

A public charter school is required to be open to all students residing within the school district (in this case, the City of Richmond) subject to a lottery on a space-available basis. Section 22.1-212.6.A. A public charter school is to be operated by a management committee "composed of parents of students enrolled in the school, teachers and administrators working in the school, and representatives of any community sponsors," and shall operate under a charter contract between the committee and the School Board. Under the contract, the charter school may operate "free from specified school division policies and state regulations." However, it is still subject to state Standards of Quality, including SOLs and Standards of Accreditation. Section 22.1-212.6.B. A public charter school receives public funding.

The Patrick Henry School Initiative has applied to the Richmond School Board for the privilege of operating a public charter school in the Patrick Henry building. That application is still pending, although there is some indication that the board will soon decide on whether or not to grant the charter.

Last year, when I first found out about the Patrick Henry Initiative, I publicly opposed it. In a posting on the website of Friends of Fourth District Schools, I concluded that

Since I believe the purpose of the Patrick Henry Initiative is not to test new educational methods but rather to undo the decision of the School Board to close Patrick Henry, I must oppose the Initiative.

Time passes, things change and people can change their minds. So, several weeks ago I decided to reexamine my thinking on the Patrick Henry Initiative. I have engaged in an electronic conversation with those who are advocates for the Initiative. I have listened to arguments from my friends.

Here is where my thinking stands today:

1- I am still generally opposed to charter schools. I think that charter schools, as well as school vouchers, are weapons being used by those who (for their own reasons) are trying to destroy public education in this country. Further, in looking at the experience of the District of Columbia, which has been a fertile ground for the growth of charter schools, I see that on the whole charter schools are not consistently better than public schools. Although there certainly are charter schools whose students out-perform students in public schools, there are also many charter schools whose students perform worse than public school students.

2- I still think that charter schools divert both energy and funding from the task of improving public schools. As I said in an e-mail to an advocate for the Initiative, "I have great respect for the work that your members have done. I only wish that they had invested as much time and energy into working to fix our public schools." Our main task in this city must be to provide a first-class education to all the students in all of our schools. If a charter school is to serve as merely a life boat for the few, while the remainder of our children “go down with the ship,” I must oppose it.

Since last year, however, things have changed:

1- Last year, the proponents of the Initiative were selling their charter school as a neighborhood school. Apparently unaware of the state requirement that public charter schools must be open to all students in a school district, the Initiative indicated that it intended to give preferential enrollment privileges to students living within a mile of the school. Children living outside that circle were to be admitted only if there was room. Now, the proponents of the Initiative have made it clear that admission will be "[o]pen to any elementary age Richmond City child with no admissions criteria." I have also been assured by an advocate for the Initiative that all children in the City will have an equal chance to be admitted to the school.

2- Since last year I have become more and more concerned about the city’s continuing loss of its middle class. I consider the fact that middle class families leave the city when their children reach school age to be a real danger to the future of Richmond. See An Open Letter to Doug and Jackie and Paul and Bill and . . . The city residents who have worked on the Patrick Henry Initiative have put in long hours and great energy in formulating their plan. I fear that if the School Board does not approve the Patrick Henry application, many of these parents will join the long list of those abandoning the city to find greener educational pastures in the boonies.

3. The Patrick Henry Charter School will, if approved, institute several innovative (for Richmond) features.

a- First it will use a modified year-round schedule. Although I have seen year-round scheduling attempted (with no improvement in student performance) in a Fairfax County public school, year-round scheduling will be new to Richmond. Rather than having an extended summer vacation, year-round scheduling is based on four learning periods separated from each other by only a few weeks. The Patrick Henry Initiative defines this as a “progressive quarter” schedule.

b- Second it will require as a condition of enrollment that parents sign a contract requiring them to participate in the education of their children. I think that experience has shown that students whose parents participate in their education learn better and achieve more in school. However, I am concerned that the requirement of parent involvement might preclude some less-affluent students from applying for admission to Patrick Henry.

The Initiative website states that

We are sensitive to parent's time constraints and will work with them to fit their involvement into their schedule either by allowing them to do something for the school at home and log their hours, or allow other family members to donate their time on the parent's behalf. We will do everything we can to help a parent who really makes an effort to be involved, but for whatever reason falls short of the required time.

Further, the advocate for the Initiative with whom I have been conversing has told me:

We are fully aware that the parental involvement policy will not work for all children, as some have foster parents, some live with grandparents, etc.... So we changed the name of the contract to "family commitment." Since this is a key component of the schools success, it will be enforced. However we have discussed that if a child is performing well, but the parents do not comply with the contrat [sic], the child may still be eligible to attend. The school will be flexible as it can be, while still maintaining its core objectives.

Despite these assurances, the managing committee of the Initiative must take care to assure that its parental involvement policy does not deprive children from low-income families of the opportunity of attending the Patrick Henry School.

c- Third, it will use an interdisciplinary approach to learning. As explained on the Initiative’s website:

The different disciplines of learning will intermingle and students will learn how each subject relates to another and the practical applications for the information. Currently many schools teach each subject individually and children are required to learn in the abstract (Math is an excellent example) or students learn different subjects without drawing any apparent connection.

Interdisciplinary approaches to learning have proved very successful, especially in schools participating in the International Baccalaureate programs.

So, Maven, what have you decided?

Having gone through this analysis, I am still torn. I know that there are people in Richmond, whose opinions I highly respect, who will see the School Board’s approval of a charter school proposal as a further action separating our students into two classes of schools. As a dedicated supporter of high quality public education for all our students, I am concerned about the effect of diverting resources to a charter school, even if it is a public charter school. However, after looking at the Patrick Henry Initiative one year later, I see features that will benefit all the students of the city. For one thing, enrollment at Patrick Henry will be open to all children in Richmond. In addition, the Initiative will be trying some innovations that, if successful, can be used by the city’s public schools.

On balance, I think the School Board should approve the Patrick Henry Initiative. There is enough good in the Initiative proposal to merit the gamble. Under the law the board has the authority to put conditions in the charter contract that will protect the interests of all the children of our city. I would recommend, for example, that the board build into the charter requirements that assure that notice of and applications for admission to the school be widely disseminated throughout the city, and that the lottery for admission be operated fairly without preference being given to children living in the Patrick Henry neighborhood. I would also like to see a requirement that the school’s parental involvement policy not result in worthy students being excluded from the school.

Of course, if the board has some doubts about the proposal, it can approve the application for a period shorter than the statutory maximum of five years. Also, if the Patrick Henry Initiative does not succeed the Board has the power under the law to revoke the charter if the charter school

1. Violates the conditions, standards, or procedures established in the public charter school application;
2. Fails to meet or make reasonable progress toward achievement of the content standards or student performance standards identified in the charter application;
3. Fails to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management; or
4. Violates any provision of law from which the public charter school was not specifically exempted.
A charter may be revoked if the local school board determines, in its discretion, that it is not in the public interest or for the welfare of the students within the school division to continue the operation of the school...

Section 22.1-212.12.B.

So, I recommend that . . .

Maven, wait! Don’t put the final period on this posting. Don’t you realize that by changing your mind on this issue someone may accuse you of waffling?

Dear reader. I don’t understand why changing one’s mind should be seen as a sign of weakness. To me, someone who sticks to his position even when it is clearly wrong is a fool. I would much rather be accused of being a waffler than be known as a fool.


Scott said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

I am curious to hear how well the Charter folks have thought this through also.

Gray said...

Charter schools are not my first choice and I philosophically oppose vouchers. I believe, like you said, they “are weapons being used by those who (for their own reasons) are trying to destroy public education in this country.” The republicans call it, “Starving the Beast." Now public education is in a period of Bush’s rapture where the chosen, i.e. families with means, gets the hell out the failing schools or out of the system altogether.

But like you, Maven, I support this Patrick Henry Charter. We need school choice; we need something other than what RPS is offering. Families are tired of entering lotteries for a couple of slots in the good schools and are tired of moving and worrying.

My hope is the formation of more magnet schools at all grade levels specializing in everything from the arts to science to implementing the Montessori or Reggio Emilia approaches to learning. Even an unschooling school like the Albany Free School wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Maybe this Charter School could give RPS a healthy dose of competition.

I admire the folk supporting this school --they are digging in instead of leaving the city and demanding that their children receive the education they deserve.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Richmond and live in Northern Virginia now, and taught in DC. I stumbled upon your blog looking for good blogs about Richmond schools, in case I come back to the area.

While I don't know the ins and outs of this particular charter school movement, I hate that Virginia has such a restrictive charter school law. It's certainly true that charters on the whole don't offer "better" results than public schools. What they offer is a) alternative settings and b) a dose of often much-needed competition. As Gray implied, charters

If this is playing out as a charters vs. "public schools" (never mind that charters are by definition public schools) thing, I'm disappointed. It's also really surprising to me that (it sounds like) this is also a race issue; in DC their is generally very strong black support for charter schools, partly because of really strong ones like KIPP, but also for reasons like perceived safety and community as well.

I just now realized I've written all this in a month old post. crap.