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Charter Schools Make Gains On Tests
Headway by Poor Children Linked To Rigorous Methods, Ample Funds

By Dan Keating and Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 15, 2008

Students in the District's charter schools have opened a solid academic lead over those in its traditional public schools, adding momentum to a movement that is recasting public education in the city.

The gains show up on national standardized tests and the city's own tests in reading and math, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Charters have been particularly successful with low-income children, who make up two-thirds of D.C. public school students.

A dozen years after it was created by Congress, the city's charter system has taken shape as a fast-growing network of schools, whose ability to tap into private donors, bankers and developers has made it possible to fund impressive facilities, expand programs and reduce class sizes.

With freedom to experiment, the independent, nonprofit charters have emphasized strategies known to help poor children learn -- longer school days, summer and Saturday classes, parent involvement and a cohesive, disciplined culture among staff members and students.

The emergence of a thriving charter system has altered the dynamics of education in a city struggling to repair its reputation as one of the country's most troubled school districts. Since taking control of the traditional public schools 18 months ago, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee have pushed for major reforms. But enrollment has continued to shrink, falling 42 percent since 1996. The growth of charters has accounted for almost all of that decline.

The city's charter system is now one of the largest in the country, fueled largely by word of mouth among parents looking for better public schools. Charters have grown to 60 schools on 92 campuses with 26,000 students, more than a third of the city's public school enrollment. In a few years, charters could become the dominant form of public education in the District.

Not all charters are successful. Many struggle to raise money and attract students. A few have gone out of business or been absorbed by other schools. Some officials who oversee the charters have also been involved in making private loans to them, creating possible conflicts of interest.

District children in both systems still fall short of national averages on standardized tests. But students in charter schools have been more successful at closing the gap. According to a Washington Post analysis of recent national test results for economically disadvantaged students, D.C. middle-school charters scored 19 points higher than the regular public schools in reading and 20 points higher in math.

On the city's standardized tests, the passing rate for charter middle schools was 13 percent higher on average.

District school records show that charters also have better attendance and graduation rates than the regular public schools and that their teachers are more likely to fit the city's definition of "highly qualified," meaning that they have expertise in what they are teaching.

Charter schools were envisioned as a way to prompt public school reform and give low-income families better educational options. They are publicly funded, and any D.C. student can attend for free. But the schools operate independently of the regular school system under rules set down in their charters and with the oversight of the seven-member Public Charter School Board.

The two public systems are, in general, educating students from similar backgrounds. About two-thirds of the students in both systems live in poverty, and more than 90 percent are minorities, according to school records. The traditional schools enroll a slightly higher percentage of special education students and students with limited English.

Charter schools must accept any student who applies, using a lottery if they have more applicants than spaces. That prevents the schools from cherry-picking applicants. But each school is free to set its own rules on expelling students.

Susan Schaeffler, who heads the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter schools in the District, said expulsions have not been a major factor. Almost all of the students at KIPP's three D.C. middle schools come from poor backgrounds, but the schools are among the highest-performing in the city. Within a decade, KIPP, a national charter network, plans to have 10 schools in the District, with a total of 3,400 students.

"Our success is not from moving kids out," she said, but is attributable to a highly unified school culture that teachers and students embrace.

Four days into the start of school this July, a teacher gave a hand signal to 80 fifth-graders waiting for lunch in the white cinder block cafeteria at KIPP KEY Academy in Southeast Washington. The students were already well drilled in the mind-set of their school, and the room immediately fell silent. The teacher began the call-and-response: "What room is this?"

Shouting at the top of their lungs, students and teachers belted out one of KIPP's signature rhythmic chants:

This is the room

That has the kids

Who want to learn

To read more books

To build a better tomorrow,

To build a better tomorrow.

The teacher responded quietly: "What year do you go to college?"

The 11-year-olds bellowed: "2016."

Even the youngest students toe the line. From a room labeled "Class of 2021," a single file of kindergartners emerged in khaki pants and orange shirts and trailed silently down the hallway. A KIPP LEAP Academy teacher quietly reminded them of the rules -- to stay within the second row of tiles.

A Well-Funded System

When advocates teamed up with members of Congress to launch the city's charter schools, they designed a system with plenty of funding.

For each elementary student enrolled, a District charter school receives $11,879 in tax dollars, including $8,770 to match per-pupil academic spending in the regular public schools and a $3,109 facility allotment to help pay for buildings. Charter schools get more for older students.

Charter schools can use the facilities money for any purpose, and that funding stream can provide a crucial advantage over traditional public schools. For schools with 300 or more students, the funding often exceeds building costs, and the surplus has gone to hire additional staff and buy extra computers and books.

The Center City charters, converted this year from seven Catholic schools, have a surplus of $1.4 million from facility funding, according to their budget.

Friendship Public Charter Schools -- the city's largest charter network, with five schools and more than 4,000 students -- has a surplus of $3.4 million that has funded cutting-edge equipment, including computerized interactive whiteboards that are found even in preschool classrooms.

The extra funding, it turns out, coincides with improved academic performance: The schools with the largest surpluses have ranked at the top on test scores.

Charters also receive bank loans and other funding through the capital markets, although the national financial crisis is tightening access to credit. The schools benefit from a panel created by Congress known as the D.C. Public Charter School Credit Enhancement and Direct Loan Funds Committee, which has lent millions in public money to the city's charters. The committee also guarantees private loans to the schools and to developers who build their facilities.

The financing system has created something of a golden circle for charters: They can invest in facilities and programs that attract students and increase enrollment, which translates into additional public and private funding.

Schools that draw too few students and too little money often lag academically.

Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy in Northeast has 217 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, fewer than it budgeted for, and it is trying to attract more and keep those it has, according to Executive Director Linda McKay. It also lacks big donors or investors. When it opened four years ago, the school pledged to offer special programs and have one teacher for every 10 students.

"We are struggling financially to maintain this 10-to-1 ratio, and Latin and arts and music and physical education," McKay said. "We are competing with schools that have larger pots of money and can pay more."

Test scores have improved, but last year, the school's passing rate was less than half the rate of the city's top charter middle schools.

At charters that have been able to draw students and funding, teachers marvel at the resources.

"I have a copier," said Alexandra Pardo, who previously taught at Roosevelt High and is now principal at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a high-performing charter high school that has gone through a $15 million renovation. "I used to go out to make copies because there was no working copier in the building."

At Roosevelt, she said, "there were mice and rats walking around in my classroom. I had ceiling tiles falling on my students' heads. We had winter days without heat, wearing coats and hats in the classroom."

Some charter schools have been especially successful at supplementing taxpayer funding with charitable grants from donors as large as the Bill and Melinda Gates and Walton foundations and as small as their friends and neighbors.

Thurgood Marshall charter school, founded by Georgetown University's Street Law Program, expects $1.7 million in contributions this year, accounting for 25 percent of overall spending, according to its budget.

Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science pays no rent to the university, saving the charter $1 million a year and allowing it to spend $700,000 in facilities money on school improvements. Each Howard student has a laptop computer to use in class and a notebook computer to take home. The school arranges for Internet access at home for students without it.

Michelle Pierre-Farid, who took over as principal at the Friendship Southeast elementary school last year when she moved from Tyler Elementary, said the additional resources have allowed her to hire people to maintain the building and manage school finances. As a regular public school principal, she said, "I knew every nickel and dime." Now, "I don't even know my budget. . . . That allows me to get back into the classroom and do what I need to do."

Rewriting the Rules

Freed from centralized rules, charter directors have been able to rethink age-old structures, including the Monday-through-Friday, 8-to-3 schedule.

At many charters, students stay until 5 p.m., with the extra hours devoted to more class time and extra tutoring. Many require students to attend Saturday classes and summer school. Schaeffler said KIPP students spend 47 percent more time in class than students do in traditional schools.

It is not uncommon for charters to buy cellphones for the teachers and then tell students and parents to call anytime they need help.

At Friendship's Blow Pierce middle school in Northeast, parents are asked to sign a statement promising that they will get their children to school on time each day, make sure they wear the uniform, complete homework on time, and attend classes on Saturdays and in the summer if their grades fall below a C average. The parents also agree to attend conferences and school events.

The extra staffing and resources help charters achieve one of their prime goals: interceding in the chaotic home lives of poor children to keep problems from derailing learning.

At Thurgood Marshall, junior Mark Greene said the teachers helped him get into counseling and catch up on his studies this year after his family split up and he became homeless.

Demetrius Suggs, also a Thurgood Marshall junior, said the teachers and administrators "call my home all the time. 'He missed school,' or 'He missed detention.' They send alert notices. They devise a plan. There are no excuses not to get your work done."

Many charter directors said success, especially with poor children, depends on creating a cohesive and uniform environment. Without unions and seniority rules, they can decide who to hire and fire. They try to ensure that all of their teachers are committed to the same approach, and they provide several weeks of teacher training over the summer.

"The school culture is essential," said Schaeffler of KIPP. "It's the same language, the same terminology, the same tactics, room to room. The cool teacher who lets them chew gum and put their feet up on a chair: You're not being a team player. You think you're connecting with the kids, but you're undermining all the other adults in the building."

Discipline and Structure

At many charters, teachers use a meticulous system of punishments and rewards to shape behavior.

Students at KIPP middle schools get a paycheck of "KIPP dollars" every week for getting work done, being prompt, wearing their uniforms, helping out and participating in class. The paycheck also shows deductions for being rude or noisy or missing homework.

The concept is not exclusive to charters. Some of the District's regular public schools have introduced monetary rewards, as well as Saturday classes and programs to involve parents. But charter directors said their ability to design their own programs and then focus staff and students on those efforts has made them more effective.

Tasheanna Johnston, an eighth-grader from Anacostia, earned extra KIPP dollars by helping a teacher clean up after class and more when a teacher saw her carry books for a "teammate" whose hands were full. With her earnings, she bought colored pencils at the school store and won the right to wear jeans to school on a Friday and to go on camping trips and on trips to Disney World and New York.

When she was tardy, she lost a dollar, which was noted in the contract her parents have to sign each week.

Eighth-grader Kem Harris said he lost a dollar once because his shirt was untucked. It was a Monday, and the violations piled up. He looked down when he was supposed to be listening to a teacher -- another dollar. He did not speak up loudly when asked a question -- $1.

"I lose all my money on Mondays," he said. "I'm grumpy, and I don't want to do any work."

Kem said he fought regularly at his traditional public school. "They would just separate us for the rest of the day." But if he fights at KIPP KEY, he said, "I would either get the bench or suspended." Each classroom has a "bench" for teenage-style timeouts. Students who are benched can hear the lesson but not participate, a punishment that is lifted only when their parents go to the school for a meeting with staff members.

Kem earned extra dollars for trying to improve his handwriting. But he feels the sting of missing the big trips. "I've been two people away or three people away," he said, but he didn't make the cut.

D.C. Prep's middle school has similar rules and rewards.

"In the discipline policy, we enforce little things: If you roll your eyes at me, you lose a dollar. If you talk back, $2. Then we call your parents. Then you get suspended," said Executive Director Emily Lawson. "First you lose money. If a behavior escalates, the discipline escalates."

She said the strict rules are needed because most of her students do not have the advantage of middle-class backgrounds.

"This is what our kids need to learn to be successful in life," she said. "Kids in the suburbs might slouch, but they know not to do that in a job interview. Some of our kids have a hard life. They have to do this to succeed."

Some of the city's charters are less rigid. Two Rivers Charter elementary in Northeast encourages students to work out their problems in pairs. The school sets up quiet zones in classrooms with a "peace rug" and a "calm-down chair."

The Howard middle school charter emphasizes building relationships between teachers and students. Still, said teacher Kimberly Worthy, "we have to reprogram them, stop them from disrespecting each other, telling each other to shut up. . . .When that is done on a consistent basis, students feel safe here."

For many charters, the rigorous structure also applies to the teaching.

At the E.L. Haynes charter school in Northwest, fifth-grade teacher Brigham Kiplinger uses a stopwatch to keep his lessons on track.

He began a reading lesson one day this fall by clicking his watch: the 1 1/2 -hour class was planned down to the minute. Kiplinger spoke for exactly 10 minutes. Every student was quiet. When one boy answered a question correctly, Kiplinger said, "Two snaps for Derrick on 1-2-3," and all the students snapped their fingers in unison.

"Now, do a turn and talk for two minutes," Kiplinger said, prompting the students to face a partner and talk about the books they were reading. Two minutes later, he wrote "10:58" on the board. It was time for the students to read independently. At the end of the lesson, Kiplinger told the students exactly what to do. "Put your book down. Pencils up. Take out your agenda books, and write down this evening's homework."

This year, 53 percent of the students classified as economically disadvantaged at Haynes passed the reading test, and 63 percent passed the math test. That was nearly double the rate in reading of two years earlier and triple the rate in math.

One of the goals at E.L. Haynes and many other charters is to break the cycle of poverty, which has kept many students from succeeding.

Deserhie Henson stepped into the charter community in 2001 when she enrolled her daughter at KIPP's first D.C. charter school in the basement of Garden Memorial Presbyterian Church in Southeast.

"I said, 'I'll just try it,'" she remembered.

Henson had bounced between Eastern and Ballou high schools, got pregnant and didn't graduate. Years later, as a charter parent, she struggled to keep up with KIPP's demands: Students have to be in uniforms every day. Homework must be completed every night. Papers must be signed promptly every week.

But she adjusted and watched her daughter make the honor roll and win admission to Banneker, the city's elite public high school. She has another daughter at a different charter, and her son is at KIPP KEY middle school.

Henson decided to return to school herself and received a diploma last year from Ballou High's program for adults.

"I was showing them that they can do it," she said. "Don't make the same mistakes I did."

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