California Charter Group Gets Tough on Charters

Association calls for shutting down 10 schools that fall short of its standards

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One organization that has taken an unusually public stance in lobbying for the closure of underperforming charters is the California Charter Schools Association, a statewide advocacy group.

The association late last year called for the nonrenewal and closure of 10 charters that did not meet the organization’s standards for academic performance, as measured by growth in student achievement, comparisons with schools serving similar populations, and other factors.

Those standards drew praise from some quarters, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said in a statement that charter leaders need to “hold their schools accountable,” and called the association a “true leader on this front.”

But the association’s recommendations angered others, such as Eric Premack, the executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center, a Sacramento-based organization that advocates for and consults with charters. Mr. Premack said the association’s methodology placed too heavy an emphasis on test scores and did not do enough to account for the challenges faced by individual schools.

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Describing himself as a “charter originalist,” Mr. Premack said he believes “each school should be free to articulate, within reason, what its instructional goals will be and the means by which [they will] be assessed.”

But charter association officials say their metrics accurately judge the performance of schools with different needs and demographics. Myrna Castrejón, the organization’s senior vice president for achievement and performance management, added that the association’s standards are far more consistent and transparent than those used to judge charters by local authorizers across the state, whose practices vary enormously.

While the association considers itself an advocacy group, she said, it believes low-performing charters should be held to account. (The association receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which supports coverage of parent-empowerment issues in Education Week.)

“There is not a constituency for closure at the school or authorizer level,” Ms. Castrejón said. While many of the state’s charter schools are prospering, she said, there are “some schools we just shouldn’t be defending.”

One of the schools that wound up on the association’s list for closure was West County Community High, in the Bay Area community of Richmond.

Parental Resistance

The school’s authorizer, the 29,000-student West Contra Costa district, voted in June to deny its bid for renewal, over the objections of some parents. School officials appealed the district’s decision to the Contra Costa County office of education, whose board this month rejected the school’s plea to remain open, citing concerns about its academic performance and financial well-being, said Peggy Marshburn, a spokeswoman for the office.

Francis Spruit, the president of the school’s board, said supporters of West County are weighing whether to appeal the county office’s decision to the state's board of education. He said the 120-student school, which serves a predominantly Latino, impoverished population, has made academic gains and has many students who are not ready, socially or academically, for larger high schools.

His son, Dante Spruit, counts himself as one of those students. The 17-year-old said he struggled in middle school, partly because his classes were so crowded, and he lacked confidence to participate. He said he’s made progress at West County, in part due to the extra attention he receives. If the school closes, the teenager said he may take courses online, an option that doesn’t satisfy him.

“I’m a hands-on person, and I get distracted easily,” he said.

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Another school the association recommended be shut down, Leadership High School in San Francisco, will stay open after its authorizer, the city’s school board, voted in favor of renewal. A number of board members praised the school and criticized the association's rankings.

While Leadership High’s test scores have been low, they are comparable to schools serving disadvantaged populations, said Elizabeth W. Rood, the school’s executive director. Many of the school’s strengths—such as its success in helping students reach college—aren’t reflected in test scores, she said.

Ms. Rood said she agrees that charters should be judged by high standards. But she also said the views of parents and students should be taken into account, and that authorizers could provide more guidance to the charters they oversee.

“It’s not just about setting some bar and having [schools] close,” Ms. Rood said. “Everyone would benefit from more dialogue about what expectations are.”

Vol. 32, Issue 01, Page 22

Published in Print: August 22, 2012, as California Organization Sets High Bar for Charters
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