Student-Achievement Gains Seen in Phila. Charter Schools

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The distinct educational communities known as charters that have been created in Philadelphia's comprehensive high schools have a significant positive effect on student achievement, a new report concludes.

The city's 22 neighborhood high schools have been working since 1988 to reorganize themselves into charters, each of which comprises a group of teachers and several hundred students and generally emphasizes a particular academic theme or instructional approach.

The charter project is backed by a $16.5 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts--the largest donation ever by a private foundation to a single school district.

The report, by the Center for Assessment and Policy Development, was commissioned by Pew to examine the progress of the reforms.

By last September, Philadelphia schools had created 110 charters serving more than 25,500 students, or 61 percent of all students in the comprehensive high schools.

Even when other factors that affect achievement are taken into account, the study says, the charters "have an independent effect on student performance.''

Students enrolled in three or more major courses within their charters were 11 percent more likely to be promoted to the next grade than were other students.

Charter students were 7 percent more likely, after controlling for demographic differences and prior school experience, to be promoted than were those not in charters.

"This is wonderful news for the small-schools movement,'' said Michelle Fine, a consultant to the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative, which launched the charter initiative. "This creates a moral obligation for the school district, because for a long time we've had evidence of the damaging effects of large schools on children, and now we have evidence of the positive effects of small schools.''

'Fragile' Progress

The benefits of the charters could be enhanced if more students took more courses within their charters, the study says. While 72 percent of 9th graders took three or more courses in their charters, a significant proportion of students was less engaged.

Moreover, the study found, many students do not experience the continuity and stability that charters were designed to foster.

About 46 percent of 9th graders enrolled in charters during the 1992-93 school year did not remain in the same charter this year. Because more than 40 percent of those students stayed in the same school, the study says, "it appears that school and district procedures could be altered to increase year-to-year stability within charters.''

In looking at the educational characteristics of the students in charters, the study found that they were not as heterogeneous as the total school population.

Ninth-grade charter students were less likely to be repeating the grade, to be in special education, and to be overage for their grade than were noncharter students, the report found. Such students represent about 48 percent of all 9th graders, but only 33 percent of charter students.

Charter students also had better attendance records for the previous school year than did other students. They were more likely to have tested eligible for Chapter 1 services, however, with 47 percent of all 9th graders qualifying for services compared with 55 percent of charter students.

In general, student achievement as measured by course-passing rates, promotion to the next grade, and attendance have improved in the comprehensive high schools in the five years since the project began, the study found.

But the report also highlights how far the schools still have to go. The typical 9th grader, it notes, has less than a 50 percent chance of earning enough credits to advance to 10th grade. And more than three-quarters of 9th-grade students are considered at risk of educational failure.

"The sheer number of students in comprehensive high schools who are at risk is staggering,'' it says.

The progress so far is "fragile,'' the study says, and has been disrupted by the district's decision to eliminate remedial summer school.

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