By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 9, 2008
Children's laughter can still be heard in the gold-painted halls of the Tri-Community Public Charter School, on the second floor of an Armed Forces Retirement Home building in Northwest Washington. But after June 30, the elementary school will be gone, a rare case of a D.C. school closing because its students weren't learning enough.
Like the city's other public charter schools, Tri-Community aimed to give parents an independent, innovative alternative to the regular school system and its long history of low achievement. In exchange for receiving the right to run schools their way, charter leaders, who educate 30 percent of all D.C. public school students, agreed that if they did not make significant academic progress, they could be required to go out of business.
But a list of the D.C. charter schools with the lowest reading and mathematics proficiency rates reveals that the closing of Tri-Community is the exception, not the rule, for struggling charters. Charter schools with achievement rates even lower than Tri-Community's are still open, in several cases because they serve a large number of students with learning disabilities or other special circumstances.
How to shut down academic lemons has become a lively part of the national debate over charter schools. Critics say that charters drain resources for regular schools and that poorly performing charters often remain open long after data show they are not succeeding. Charter supporters say they are giving their schools much closer scrutiny than most regular schools get. Still, some experts say the failure to close more schools is a problem.
"You can sense there is a battle for the heart and soul of the charter movement, with some players focused keenly on quality while others are still more concerned with market share and breaking the monopoly of public education," said Ross Wiener, vice president for programs and policy at the Washington-based Education Trust, which promotes better education for disadvantaged children. "I think the national organizations and some of the stronger state organizations are moving in the direction of making quality the top priority, but there's still a large faction that thinks charters are better than traditional schools and should be protected."
Since charters opened in the District in 1996, 15 have been closed by their authorizing agencies, either the D.C. Public Charter School Board or the D.C. Board of Education, but only five of those closings, including Tri-Community, were because of low achievement rates, according to the Washington-based, pro-charter organization Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS). Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) turned the Board of Education's chartering duties over to the charter school board last year, delaying somewhat plans for enhanced evaluation processes, according to charter school board spokeswoman Nona Mitchell Richardson.
According to a FOCUS list of 58 D.C. charter schools arranged by combined reading and math proficiency rates last year, Tri-Community was ranked 53rd, with a 15 percent proficiency rate. That tied the school with the Options Public Charter School. Below them were: Washington Academy, with 13 percent proficiency; Young America Works, 6 percent proficiency; and two charter schools, City Lights and Next Step, with no students scoring at least proficient on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (D.C.-CAS) tests.
Washington Academy closed in April for non-academic reasons. Educators at Options and City Lights, as well as the 52nd-ranked School for ARTS in Learning with 16 percent proficiency, say they should not be held to the same standards as other schools because most of their students have learning disabilities. According to the D.C. schools data analyzed by FOCUS, 72 percent of City Lights students qualify for special-education funds because of disabilities, as well as 55 percent of School for ARTS in Learning students and 53 percent of Options students.
Donna Montgomery, executive director of Options, said the school's work is particularly difficult because so many students have severe emotional problems. "The challenge here is to take a student and work with the issues involving their emotional state," she said. "At the same time we are trying to get the students to focus on their academics."
City Lights principal Brenda Richards said her teachers are nonetheless making progress. She said they are persuading talented artists to overcome their fears and present work in public, and they are helping a student who refused to speak to become willing to go out on job interviews.
Some low-achieving charters deal mostly with high school dropouts, including many adults, and focus on developing job skills rather than boosting reading and math scores to the highest levels. These include Booker T. Washington, at 18 percent proficient, and Young America Works and Next Step.
One of the few schools near the bottom of the proficiency list that does not specialize in dropouts or special education students is Nia Community Public Charter School, an elementary school in Southwest Washington finishing its second year. Its reading proficiency rate was 44 percent, higher than any school in the bottom half of the list, but its math proficiency rate was zero, giving it the largest gap between the two rates for any charter school in the city.
Ninety-nine percent of Nia students are black, and 89 percent from low-income families. The principal, Vernard Kam Howard, said he was proud of his students' improving literacy, the result of an Africa-centered curriculum that includes many stories and cultural lessons. He said the school was seeking to improve math scores, which last year were split among the two bottom rungs of the D.C.-CAS scale, 50 percent at basic and 50 percent below basic.
Andrew Rotherham, co-director of the Washington think tank Education Sector, said the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers has found a useful technique: improve the methods of the boards that decide when and how to close failing schools.
Tri-Community officials declined to comment on their decision to close. Richardson, the charter school board spokeswoman, noted that the school, chartered in 2000, agreed to give up its charter only after completing a five-year charter review "and learning that the board would propose revocation based on failure to meet academic targets."
Richardson said the board has many tools, not just test scores, for assessing academic quality and has closed some schools for financial problems whose academic failings would eventually have forced termination. She said the board would not disclose what other schools are near closure, out of fairness and the possibility that new data might show a turnaround. But, Richardson said, "it is certain that others that fail to raise student achievement significantly will close in the near future."