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Gains Seen in Philadelphia Schools With 'Charters'

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Philadelphia students who are attached to "charters''--small units within the city's large, comprehensive high schools--earn better grades and attend classes more frequently than other students, data from the school district show.

Since 1988, with more than $16 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Philadelphia school district has been encouraging teachers to form charters in the city's 22 neighborhood high schools. The charters, which are like "schools within schools,'' serve 200 to 400 students and are run by teams of 10 to 12 teachers.

Each charter has a distinctive theme or focus, such as multicultural studies, the humanities, law and justice, or science and technology. (See Education Week, Nov. 18, 1992.)

There are now 94 charters in Philadelphia, serving 20,898 of the 39,803 students who attend the comprehensive high schools. The rest of the city's high school students are enrolled in magnet or alternative schools.

The comprehensive high schools have been the focus of the reform effort, spearheaded by the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative, because of their discouraging academic records.

The data from the second reporting period of this school year suggest that the approach is paying off.

Ninth graders--the focus of special attention under the charter movement--had an average daily attendance rate of 75.7 percent in charters, compared with 67.6 percent for students not in charters. The attendance rate for all students in charters was 79.3 percent, compared with 73.5 percent for students not in charters.

Students in charters also were more likely to pass courses in major subjects. In English, 70.7 percent of students in charters received a passing grade, compared with 62.2 percent of students who were not.

In social studies, 70.8 percent of charter students passed, while 66.9 percent of students not attached to charters earned passing grades.

In mathematics, 65.2 percent of students in charters passed, compared with 60.3 percent of students who were not in charters.

And in science, 71.4 percent of charter students received credit, while 63.6 percent of students who were not in charters passed.

Push for Autonomy

Michelle Fine, a senior consultant to the collaborative, called the findings "very nice news.''

Ms. Fine, Janis I. Sommerville, the executive director of the collaborative, and some teachers who work in charters are now arguing that the charters should become fully independent.

"The data would suggest that moving to smaller, autonomous, accountable public schools should be a strategy for the district,'' Ms. Fine said. "That's part of what teachers are asking for and [Superintendent Constance E.] Clayton is pressing for. But that makes a lot of people nervous.''

In fact, the data about the performance of students in charters was greeted in Philadelphia with a certain degree of skepticism.

A top district official questioned whether the charters' apparent success was due to attracting more motivated students, according to a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and a member of the board of education suggested that teachers in charters might be giving students better grades because they had had a chance to get to know them more intimately. The officials did not return calls for comment last week.

Ms. Fine said the collaborative had done an analysis of demographically similar students, controlling for various factors, that found charter students to be outperforming their non-chartered peers.

"The suspicion is less about the data,'' she said, "and more about its implications.''

Rotan E. Lee, the president of the board of education, called the charter data welcome, adding the idea is "certainly a concept whose time may have come.''

But in deciding how to proceed, he cautioned, the district must guard against creating imbalances between charters.

"Assuming you can have uniformity of excellence between and among the charters, it can work well,'' he said. "What we can't do is to create a brain drain into certain charters and have other charters don't work because they don't have highly motivated kids who create a standard of excellence. That's dangerous.''

To assure that charters have the resources and decisionmaking authority they need, Ms. Fine said, the collaborative wants to issue a request for proposals inviting charters to apply to become autonomous schools.

But Ted Kirsch, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said last week that the majority of the city's teachers do not want the charters to become schools because it could involve teachers' giving up their contractual rights.

The data on student achievement in the charters, he argued, show that it is unnecessary for the units to be fully independent in order for them to turn schools around.

"There is no reason to mess with the union contract,'' he said.

Ms. Fine said her proposal for autonomous schools would be done "absolutely within the spirit of the contract.''

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