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Experts debate future of charter schools
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire


October 07, 2005

WASHINGTON - In orchestra class, violins are held upright, bows are cocked and postures are proper. The 30 student-musicians are conspicuously silent.

But teacher Sarah Hanks demands more attention. "You're in a jokey mood this morning," Hanks says. "Focus. I want to see perfect orchestra position."

Moments later, she turns on a metronome, and says, "Long bow, D-sharp." The halls of KIPP DC: KEY Academy fill with the cadence of the 12-year-old musicians.

In each classroom at the 320-student KEY Academy, a public charter school that draws minority children from poor neighborhoods for grades five through eight, this scene is replicated: Students are focused and well behaved, with infractions as small as sending a note during a quiet time requiring a parent-administrator conference.

KEY Academy said it received the highest standardized test scores for District of Columbia public schools in 2004. Nearly all of its students, 97 percent, scored proficient in math, and 70 percent were proficient in reading. That compares to overall scores in D.C. public schools of 39 percent in math and 32 percent in reading.

Despite KEY's success, some experts say the charter school movement has hit a brick wall, arguing that the No Child Left Behind Act's reliance on them is misguided.

Charter schools are non-religious, publicly funded schools - each with a specific contract, or "charter," that outlines its goals, teaching styles and school culture. The schools are accountable to their sponsors, usually local school boards.

Charter schools give principals the authority to cut through red tape and create curricula to fit students' needs.

First legalized in 1991 in Minnesota, 3,400 charter schools now operate in 40 states and the District of Columbia, with about a million students enrolled. KIPP, which stands for the Knowledge Is Power Program, educates 9,000 children at 45 schools in 15 states and D.C., according to its Web site.

Joan A. Devlin, an educational expert at the American Federation of Teachers, said most charter schools don't succeed at offering new, effective learning methods.

Devlin cited a 2003 national study conducted by the National Assessment on Educational Progress that found no measurable difference in performance between charter school students and their public school counterparts.

"In almost all cases, they look like the schools down the street," she said. "It becomes about just having a million choices. They don't have to be good choices."

Devlin said the number of charter schools will begin to decline as school districts realize they are over-saturated and begin to enforce tougher standards. "We're seeing a plateau," she said. "All the people who have wanted to start schools have started them, now the bad ones are beginning to get weeded out."

By January 2004, at least 300 charter schools had closed, according to the Charter School Leadership Council.

Other experts think charter schools are the future. Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said parental dissatisfaction with public schools will continue to drive charter school enrollment growth.

"I don't see an upper limit," he said. "If we're lucky, all public schools will be strongly mission driven, with strong accountability."

Also defending the performance of charter schools is a May 2005 report by the Charter School Leadership Council. It argued that charter schools should not be judged only by students' test scores but also on how well schools achieve "mission-related goals."

KEY students, besides having strict teachers, have a nine-hour school day, attend mandatory Saturday school and must take Spanish and music theory.

"It's overwhelming sometimes," said Rodger K. Wilmore, an eighth grader who would like to follow other KEY graduates and attend a private high school. "But if I went to a public school I would be less focused. Here, they push us harder."

June C. Beckwith, who hopes to transfer her son, Darius, into the sixth grade at KEY from a school below the No Child Left Behind standards, said charter schools are a good addition to public schools.

"It gives more options to parents who want their kids to focus on certain topics," she said, adding that Darius is interested in science and professional basketball.

Schaeffler said that since charter schools opened in Washington, public schools have been forced to increase their foreign language and after-school programs.

"The kids are benefiting from the competition," Schaeffler said.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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