Assessment Opinion

In Albuquerque, A Charter School that Recruits Drop-Outs?

By Anthony Cody — December 08, 2012 7 min read
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Last month I visited ACE Leadership High School, a charter school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. What I saw there challenged some of my thinking about this sector.

As regular readers know, I have been critical of efforts to expand charter schools, which are often in competition with regular public schools for students and funding. I have cited reasons of fairness, because some charter schools are selective about who they admit, accepting fewer special education and English learners, and losing lower performers through attrition. But in Albuquerque, I found an exception to this pattern.

The Architecture, Construction and Engineering Leadership High School is in a light industrial building on the north edge of old town Albuquerque. When I visited recently, students were in the throes of preparing for an exhibition of their work, projects focused on various aspects of fractals. Students start their day with a meeting in a large open area in the center of the building. Teachers make announcements, reminding students about projects that are due. Since visitors are here, they are reminded of one of the school’s guiding statements: “Build your reputation.”

The students then did some calisthenics on the carpet, and visitors joined in, though I am afraid I was not quite up to speed on the pushups. Once this was over, students dispersed to their advisory period, small classes of around ten students each, where teachers go over assignments and make sure students are on track. Students at ACE Leadership don’t take “classes.” They have chosen from a variety of projects, all related to the construction trades, and all designed to allow a range of students to fulfill the Common Core standards one finds in a traditional math or English class. One group is working in teams to design a tattoo parlor. Another is designing a sports stadium for the Albuquerque area. Another is designing a home lighting system, trying to come up with the most efficient plan possible. One group will take field trips to Taos and Chaco Canyon to learn from traditional architecture, and apply that to modern design. And one group will be building structures like benches and tables for another school that is just getting started.

This school was inspired and is supported by local leaders of the construction industry. According to the founding principal, Tony Monfiletto, they saw a lack of trained young people entering the building trades back in 2008, and suggested that a school be created to bridge the world of work to young men and women coming up. Mr. Monfiletto took on the challenge, and the school began by recruiting students who were in danger of dropping out, or who had already dropped out. The school currently enrolls 290 students, but you won’t see that many when you visit, because a third of the students attend school in an afternoon/evening swing shift, because they have jobs during the day. The students are mostly Latino, and three fourths are boys.

This school is remarkable in a number of ways. Unlike some other charter schools, they have chosen to target at-risk students. They are not “creaming.” They are taking students who might otherwise drop out and building a school around their needs and interests. We also hear about schools that feature regimented discipline codes and highly structured classes. ACE feels very different from this. Students have a lot of autonomy - in that they choose their projects, and once under way they are responsible for completing them. There was a sense of freedom and responsibility at the school. The person who might be called a vice principal at other schools is instead called the Director of Student Support. The school’s mission statement calls for:

  1. “learning by doing,”

  2. high levels of social and emotional support to match the high expectations for learning, and
  3. community engagement to leverage more resources to support youth development.

The real world connections are everywhere. Some of the projects are designing and then building things for real-world clients. The students are getting hands-on practice closely tied to the academic skills embedded in the projects. Tim Kubik, a member of the Buck Institute for Education’s national faculty and an advisor to the school, explained:

We're looking at project-based learning with a much broader definition, beyond Career-Technical Education. We spend a lot of time on what we call "hammer time" here at ACE, which would fit in with more traditional career-technical education - it's learning by doing, grabbing the tools and getting it done. But we're also looking at bringing the traditional subject matter the students see in their standards alive with that same spirit.

This video gives a glimpse of what this school is about.

There is a close relationship with Albuquerque’s building industry. These students know they are learning things that will give them opportunities in their future. This connection with reality is refreshing. When I asked students what their goals are, some say they want to be architects, and others want to work in the trades.

There seemed to be some tension between this school and the regular Albuquerque public schools, mainly due to the limited dollars available for the schools. In this budget environment, students that shift out of the regular public schools and into charters like ACE take their state funding with them. In a sane world, we would provide adequate funding for all of our schools.

This experience certainly complicates my view of charter schools. We are seeing a drive to greatly expand the number of charter schools, and the public funding available to them. We are seeing a rush to capture public dollars by many new schools opening with weak oversight. In some states we have daily scandals about charter schools that are fleecing taxpayers and cheating students out of a quality education. And we are seeing our public schools starved, subjected to harsh accountability measures.

We ought to have room for innovative schools like ACE. Ideally they could be fostered and supported within a diverse public education system, without causing harm to neighboring schools. The way the building industry in Albuquerque has nurtured this school is wonderful - our schools ought to have close connections to businesses and universities in their communities.

I think it is fair to say that if ACE High is forced to meet AYP growth targets or other high stakes indicators based on test scores they may fall short, in ways that other public schools with similar student demographics do. Up until now, many of those pushing for high stakes tests have also been pushing forth charter schools as “market driven” alternatives to the supposedly failing public schools.

What makes ACE successful is its ability to meet students where they are, and give them the kind of curriculum that is highly relevant and engaging. But innovative schools like ACE will be wrecked if they are pressured to become “obsessed with data” in the same way many of our regular schools have been. Clearly we need to build bridges between educators in charter schools and those in regular public schools, and find common cause in opposing the use of tests for high stakes judgments about students, teachers or schools. They are not good for any of us.

The other concern I have is the way innovation is currently framed. There is no doubt that ACE Leadership High is an innovative school, which has as its highest mission the interests of its students. But in our current accountability paradigm, and with the constant budget cuts we face, it is very hard for public schools to make similar innovations. And in spite of the claims that “charter schools are public schools too,” there are some important differences. One of the commenters on this post in my dialogue with the Gates Foundation, Donald Earl Collins, wrote:

To argue that charter schools are public schools is technically correct, but in practice, hardly so. Charter schools have their own boards, often do not draw their teachers from the same pool as traditional public schools, and many have selection criteria for students. Charter schools -- particularly ones with higher levels of success -- often have board members with deep pockets or are able to raise funds through those kinds of connections. They may have by-laws that enable them to hire non-union teachers, non-traditional teachers, even college instructors, in ways that traditional public schools simply cannot. And though the selection criteria for students varies from one charter school to the next, traditional public schools don't not have that option.

As Donald Earl Collins suggests, it matters how our schools are governed. If they are getting public dollars, then they ought to be under democratic control. There is a difference between a school board elected by community members and the appointed boards that usually govern charter schools. So while I applaud the heart and vision at work at ACE, I am not supportive of the way in which our public and charter schools have been tossed into a competitive arena, where it seems the success of one comes at the expense of the other. And often the public schools have one or both hands tied behind their backs, as we discussed here.

The bottom line is that our schools are being forced to compete for ever more scarce resources, and with heavy pressure to do the wrong thing, which is focus on test preparation. Project-based learning with authentic products is a recipe for relevancy, and this school shows how well it works with students who have struggled in a more traditional setting. If ACE Leadership High School can show us better ways to assess and demonstrate student learning, they ought to be available to other schools as well.

What do you think? What can we learn from ACE Leadership High?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

Disclosure: Anthony Cody is a member of the national faculty of the Buck Institute for Education.

Photo from the ACE Leadership High photostream, used with permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.