School Choice & Charters

Dayton Feels the Heat From Charter Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — April 24, 2002 14 min read
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On this city’s blighted West Side, Residence Park Primary School is only a memory. But inside the pale brick building that it used to call home, a whole new school life has taken root.

A bright banner draped across the front of the building proclaims its transformation from a regular public school to a charter school: “WOW! World of Wonder Accelerated Learning Community School.” Inside, hallways and classrooms reflect the exclamation point in the banner: A warm and comfortable style permeates this place, where a greeting usually means a hug. Even the daily, two-hour literacy block is a time for children to curl up next to a teacher or sprawl on the carpet with a book.

World of Wonder is one of 12 charter schools that have opened in this economically embattled Rust Belt city in the past three years as eight regular public schools have closed. The ensuing competition for students is literally giving the Dayton public school system a run for its money. Fifteen percent of the district’s school-age population— 3,700 children—now attend charter schools, draining $19 million from the district’s $250 million budget this year in state funding that follows those children.

The loss is particularly keen in a district that is also losing students to private schools, a privately financed school voucher program, declining birthrates, and middle-class flight. Enrollment has fallen 33 percent since 1981, to 20,500 this year.

District Leaders Are Responding

Dayton’s experience is emblematic of the difficulty urban districts can face in coexisting with charter schools, public schools that operate free from most district rules. With the number of charters on the rise nationwide—nearly 2,400 schools enroll 580,000 students—the ease or unease of that coexistence is increasingly important.

How, for instance, do districts deal with the loss of money as alternatives to the regular public schools multiply? Does the loss of students spark positive changes by school systems, as advocates of school choice contend? And will those changes keep families in district schools?

Here, in a district beset with poverty and low achievement, Dayton’s response to charters is an unfinished story, a tale slowly beginning to shift to a more positive tone.

Instead of viewing the newcomer schools as threats, or denying that they’d ever amount to much, district leaders now acknowledge that the migration by students to charters reflects some of the traditional public schools’ own failings and compels them to improve.

A newly unified district administration is embarking on initiatives to raise student achievement in Dayton, which is among the lowest in Ohio, in the hope that the system can rebuild its student base.

“We know if we are going to be competitive, we’re going to have to demonstrate our ability to educate children,” said Jerrie L. Bascome McGill, a soft-spoken veteran of the Dayton schools who is now in her third year as superintendent. “I wouldn’t sit here and tell you charter schools haven’t spurred us to push forward and improve, but by the same token, it’s just appropriate and proper that we do so.”

‘Fight for Our Lives’

Several factors influence how a district experiences the rise of charter schools, a 2001 study by the U.S. Department of Education found.

A district is likely to feel the loss of enrollment and funding more keenly if it is small or declining in population, and if it is not one of the entities sponsoring charter schools, according to the report.

Its experience will also be flavored by how its leadership views charter schools. On the one hand, district leaders can view them as a threat and spend a lot of time and energy fighting them. Or, the report added, districts can view and even embrace charter schools as a spark for change. Some of those approaches can be seen playing out in a sampling of large urban districts where charter school activity has been concentrated

In Washington, 10,650 students attend 35 charters and 70,000 attend the District of Columbia public schools, costing the school system at least $54 million this year. However, spokeswoman Linda Boyd said the migration has not hurt the school district’s bottom line because enrollment, on the whole, is growing, and the system’s budget has grown each year for the past few years.

In Kansas City, Mo., where 17 charter schools enroll 5,800 students—16 percent of the district’s population—the district is giving up $40.7 million in state aid this year, said Chief Financial Officer Bonnie McKelvy, and has had to close several schools since charters first opened three years ago. The Kansas City district, whose board has largely opposed charter schools, has tried to “compete back” with a plan to reconfigure its K-5 schools into K-8 sites, knowing that the middle school transition can be a point at which students switch to charters, Ms. McKelvy said. The district has also increased radio and billboard advertising for its special schools, such as schools focusing on foreign- language immersion, performing arts, and a college-prep curriculum.

In Milwaukee, 9,800 students attend 23 charter schools. But most of those students are enrolled in charters run by the district, either alone or in partnership with other entities. That arrangement enables the district to keep the state aid for those students.

Still, with many other students in charters run by the city or a university, the Milwaukee district is “in a fight for our lives,” said Kenneth C. Holt, the district’s acting director of student services. Milwaukee is trying to win students back, he added. In addition to heavy advertising, the district is adding seats in neighborhood schools, so it can grant more parents their wish to send their children to local schools.

Fiscal Drain

For several years before Dayton’s first charter school opened in 1999, the subject had been a hot one in the district. Some leaders believed the district should run its own charters to avoid losing students. The idea, though, never gained support on the school board or in the community, officials here say.

“The reactions ranged from curiosity, in some places, to an absolute dislike for what we were doing, to the view that we were the reason for all the bad things happening in the district,” said Bonnie Smith, a 25-year Dayton teacher and principal who left her district job in June 1999 to run the 975-student Dayton Academy, a charter K-7 school in the city’s southwest corner.

Today, the district sponsors only one charter, the World of Wonder school, but does not operate it, so it retains none of the state aid that accompanies the school’s students.

“I had district administrators tell me, ‘You will not succeed. You won’t get enough students to come and stay,’ ” Ms. Smith said. “I even had one board member tell me, ‘When we shut you down, I’ll have a job for you.’ ”

Those predictions about charters have proved wrong. Indeed, the success of charter schools in Dayton has had a major impact on the district.

The downward enrollment trend, fueled in part by charters, also has translated into cutbacks in the district’s administrative, custodial, and support staff that have been “fairly deep,” Ms. McGill said. The teaching force of 1,800 three years ago has been whittled to 1,650 through attrition. Eleven of the district’s 58 school buildings stand empty, and maintaining them costs the district $750,000 to $1 million a year, said Michael A. Sullivan, the chief of business operations and support services.

The enrollment decline has put a new strain on school transportation, already stretched by a 26-year-old desegregation order that requires many Dayton students to be bused to schools outside their neighborhoods, Mr. Sullivan said. The district is obligated to transport all students in its boundaries, public or private. To do so, it deploys 230 buses in its 7-square-mile area, Mr. Sullivan said, and is “whipsawed” by having to schedule traditional public school transportation around the varying opening and closing bells of charters and private schools.

Many district employees, however, still harbor skepticism about how much of a competitive threat charters pose to the district’s enrollment. Stephanie Jopson, who teaches a 3rd and 4th grade combination class at Cornell Heights Elementary, a traditional public school in East Dayton, says charter schools aren’t a concern.

“I’m not worried about [charter schools], because they’re going to see they have all the same problems we have,” she said.

Indeed, their enrollment may be growing, but charters do have problems. While surveys show high degrees of parent satisfaction with Dayton’s charter schools, their academic performance, as a group, has lagged behind that of the regular public schools—a pattern also seen elsewhere.

Officials here and in other cities also are beginning to report that students are trickling back from charter schools to regular public schools.

But district leaders in Dayton don’t believe they can relax while hundreds of families still choose to leave the district.

Ms. McGill and a new, reform-driven school board majority are driving hard to refocus the district on achievement in literacy and mathematics and on accountability, student behavior, and professional development. Their unified front has set a new tone in the district, observers here say.

“When charters first started in Dayton, there was a euphoria that finally we have an alternative, because the Dayton schools were so dysfunctional that anything would be better,” said Thomas J. Lasley, the dean of the school of education at the University of Dayton, which has worked closely with other local universities and the district to improve schools.

“Now, a new phase is setting in: that educating urban youngsters in one of the poorest cities in the United States is tough stuff, in regular schools or in charters,” he said. “People are coming together more now and focusing on how to create a viable education system that includes all these various options.”

Applying Leeches

Charter school advocates say Dayton’s new campaign to improve student achievement is exactly the market-driven response they would hope for.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which has helped found and support Dayton charter schools, says critics of school choice forget the difference between “public schools” and “schools in the public interest.”

He has little sympathy for those who bemoan the loss of money to charters.

“Losing enrollment is a consequence of a failed system, not the cause of a failed system,” Mr. Finn said.

But others who are more critical of charter schools say the impact of lost enrollment and money cannot be ignored, since it can cripple a school district’s power to do its job.

“We have urban districts that are already bleeding, and [charter advocates] say, ‘Let’s apply leeches.’ Then they say, ‘Oh? Are you still bleeding?’ and they apply more leeches,” said Tom Mooney, the president of the 20,000-member Ohio Federation of Teachers. “It’s an outdated cure, and they’ll bleed the patient dry.”

The OFT, joined by a coalition of other school groups, and the other state teachers’ union, the Ohio Education Association, are pressing separate lawsuits that challenge aspects of Ohio’s charter school law. They argue, among other points, that the law violates a portion of the state constitution that says schools will be run by local, elected boards of education.

At the same time, state lawmakers in Columbus are considering providing charter schools with more resources and allowing groups other than the state or school districts to obtain charters to operate them.

Driven in part by a February state auditor’s report criticizing Ohio as providing weak oversight of charter schools, legislators are also discussing ways to clarify and strengthen the state’s role. (“Audit Spurs Drive to Revamp Ohio’s Charter School System,” Feb. 27, 2002.)

Question of Vision

Even as districts seek appropriate responses to an increasing number of schooling options, some experts doubt that the competition-driven approach to school improvement can produce lasting, meaningful improvement.

Frederick M. Hess, an assistant professor of government and education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, has just completed a study of three districts’ responses to charters and voucher programs. He said the private-sector model does not translate well to public-sector entities because the two sectors have different incentives.

“What drives [for-profit] organizations to pursue improvement ruthlessly is the desire to capture market share, and that is not what school administrators are rewarded for,” Mr. Hess said. “Real competition means that people are scared, and they operate at peak efficiency because they don’t want to be replaced. We could build incentives into [the school system] so that administrators get paid more if more students attend. But I don’t even know if that would be good for schools.”

Many charter school operators, including those at World of Wonder, believe that their schools can offer a model of change for regular public schools. But some who study the issue doubt that the public schools will learn by example.

Ted Kolderie, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Studies at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., has helped craft many states’ charter school laws. He has come to question whether traditional school systems are capable of anything but incremental change.

To provide true choice, he says, a whole new system of alternative schools must be built outside the regular system, free of its entrenched ways of operating.

“We’ve been trying to get the schools we need by changing the schools we have,” Mr. Kolderie said. “Charter laws are a gift that the legislatures have handed the school boards. The challenge for the school boards is, how do they see themselves? Are they school boards, that simply run the schools, or are they education boards, that provide education in a variety of ways?”

Striking Contrast

It takes only a morning at World of Wonder Accelerated Learning Community School, which serves 303 children in grades K-4—most of them black and from low-income families—to understand why many charter schools are filling up.

Roxanna Redick said the school, nicknamed WOW, has been a godsend to her and her 4th grade daughter. When she went to regular Dayton public schools, 10-year-old Sarah never woke up wanting to go to school. But WOW’s climate of affection and excitement has turned Sarah around in the last two years, according to her mother.

“Now she loves school,” Ms. Redick said. “Here she can go to anyone with a problem and they just enfold her.”

Sarah’s mom, too, has been embraced by WOW. In her daughter’s last school, parent morale was low and administrators seemed to have no use for parent help, she said. But at World of Wonder, she added, they “fall all over themselves” finding things for her to do.

Today, she’s in an apron, making soup for the teachers’ weekly lunchtime seminar. She says she “practically lives here.” With its emphasis on shared decisionmaking and professional enrichment, the World of Wonder school has many satisfied teachers.

Lesley Phibbs has taught for seven years in this building: four when it was a regular public school and three after it became a charter. The contrast, she says, is striking. Ms. Phibbs is certified to teach preschool through grade 3. She always wanted to “loop,” or move from grade to grade with her students, but was never allowed to do so at the former Residence Park Primary School.

In addition, Ms. Phibbs said, she often would return from in- service training excited about new ideas and eager to put them into practice. But more often than not, her colleagues dismissed her plans, she said, saying they were yet another “new thing that would pass.” After four years, she felt so demoralized that she considered a career in selling educational materials.

When she became one of the few Residence Park teachers to stay on after its conversion to a charter school in 1999, Ms. Phibbs was allowed to loop right away, giving her the chance to see which grades she likes to teach best. She’s teaching 3rd grade this year.

Teachers and administrators meet as a team and make decisions about the climate and direction of the school. Each week, with lunch provided on paid time, they gather with their resident instructional coach to explore new educational strategies.

“If you think of something new, and it’s in the best interest of kids, they will make it happen,” Ms. Phibbs said. “The opportunities have been unreal. And we have administrators who actually believe in the teachers.”

But imbuing regular public schools with such a positive environment is not impossible, even as the Dayton district struggles for quality and credibility, proponents of the district’s schools say.

At Franklin Montessori School, which is a non-charter Dayton public school that serves black and white children from low-income families on Dayton’s East Side, Principal Judith O’Ryan has a reputation as a straight talker willing to cut through whatever red tape it takes to get her staff and families what they need. As a result, says parent Donna LaChance, parents feel welcomed, children loved, and teachers excited about their jobs.

“It’s just like any successful business: You need strong leadership, clear vision of where you are going, who your customers are, and what their needs are,” said Ms. LaChance, who has four children at Franklin. “Public schools can do that. It just takes a shift in mind-set.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Dayton Feels the Heat From Charter Schools


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