Those who think the District's rapidly growing, independently run charter schools will outperform its regular public schools should look at what happened this year in two second-grade classrooms in Southeast Washington.
At the Edison-Friendship Public Charter School on Potomac Avenue, Phillip Durr's 28 students took a huge leap in mathematics, rising from the 28th percentile on the Stanford 9 achievement test in September to the 44th percentile when they took the test again in April. They also improved in reading, from the 36th to the 38th percentile.
Charter school advocates had predicted such gains. A talented young teacher backed by a major for-profit education company showed how much could be done with mostly disadvantaged students whose parents chose the school because it was not bound by the red tape of a central school administration and could try more innovative programs.
But Rheutelia Sizer's 22 second-graders at C.W. Harris Elementary School, a regular public school three miles away, on 53rd Street, did just as well as the charter school class. Their reading scores jumped from the 23rd to the 44th percentile, and their mathematics scores from the 11th to the 30th percentile.
Educational researchers warn against making too much of just one year's test results for small samples of students. Harris appears to be better managed than most D.C. schools, and Sizer, 50, is an experienced teacher. Edison-Friendship is in its first year of operation, yet showed significant improvement at nearly all grade levels, including one second-grade class that reached the 61st percentile in reading scores.
"It is wonderful that both schools improved," said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a pro-charter group. "But in the charter school movement, we look at test scores as just one of many different forms of accountability." More important, he said, is how both regular and charter schools develop over the next three or four years.
The good news from both Edison-Friendship and Harris indicates that fears of charter schools gutting the regular public school system are overblown, local educators say. They say parents who check out their neighborhood school as carefully as they do the available charter schools may be pleasantly surprised.
Fairfax-based educational consultant Gerald Bracey said studies in California, Arizona and Michigan indicate that the quality of charter schools varies with the circumstances, just as the quality of public schools does.
Sizer's class benefited from her unusual energy. She has 10 years of experience teaching reading to children whose parents haven't been to college and don't have many books at home, and she is adept at creating songs, chants and games that move the lessons along. Harris students also had the advantage of Principal William Blount's emphasis on after-school and Saturday lessons for the lowest-scoring students, including five from Sizer's class.
Educators and parents see Edison-Friendship and the city's 19 other charter schools, plus 10 scheduled to open in the fall, as alternatives and potential replacements for Harris and some of Washington's 140-plus regular public schools. No other U.S. city has had such a rapid expansion of charter schools--or such widespread concern about their possible threat to the future of the public school system.
Charter schools are public schools that operate with tax dollars yet are independent of the central school administration. Supporters say they offer parents a choice and force traditional public schools to improve. And in a way, the rising scores at Harris show that they are right. The determination of Blount and Sizer to improve reading scores and the extra funds from the school district for Saturday morning classes came because of official and parental dissatisfaction with D.C. public schools, a feeling that has spurred the growth in charter schools.
The improvement at Harris, educators say, shows the value of D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's decision to test nearly all students at the beginning and end of the year in reading and mathematics. That allowed teachers to pinpoint each child's weaknesses--and work on improvements.
"We tried to look for areas where students were low on the Stanford 9 pretest," Blount said, "and then we focused on getting those kids from below basic [the bottom score on the Stanford 9] to basic. Our kids did particularly well on vocabulary and reading comprehension."
In Sizer's class, the scores on the vocabulary section of the reading test jumped from the 19th percentile to the 62nd percentile. Sizer had dozens of vocabulary words written on banners hanging from her classroom ceiling, and she organized "a lot of activities where reading skills can be reinforced," she said.
All 28 students were taught as a group in her class, but Sizer often would teach a main group of about 16 students while five or six who had trouble keeping up did written exercises or received individual help from classroom aide Ronnell Simon. Sizer and Blount said the slower students received extra attention after school and on Saturdays.
The after-school sessions, some taught by Sizer, divided about 100 students needing extra help into smaller groups of about 15 per teacher for an hour each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Most of the same children also came for the four-hour Saturday sessions, at which Sizer also taught.
At Edison-Friendship, all second-graders were put into smaller groups of usually fewer than 20 for the first 90 minutes of each day. That was when they received reading instruction under Success for All, a fast-paced program that Durr, 26, supplemented in his regular class with vocabulary, dictionary and writing exercises.
The New York-based operator of the school, the Edison Project, puts heavy emphasis on teaching reading in the first grade. In many schools, the reading concentration has, after five years, raised students a full grade level above those without the program, but it takes more than a year to see obvious results. Edison officials said they also were handicapped by the loss of two teachers at midyear because of maternity leave and some Durr absences when his wife gave birth to twins.
Still, Edison-Friendship Principal John Pannell said the overall test scores exceeded even his very high expectations. In reading, the school's fourth grade jumped 15 percentile points and the fifth grade 16 percentile points. As in Durr's class, the mathematics program was particularly successful. First-graders gained 15 percentile points, second-graders 21 percentile points, third-graders 19, fourth-graders 10 and fifth-graders 18.
Steve Pauling, whose daughter Ravon was in Durr's class, said he liked the emphasis on math, including drills with flashcards. Also, his daughter had at least an hour of homework each night.
By midyear, despite having a large class, Durr had pushed arithmetic skills to the point where only one or two children could be seen counting with their fingers. Sizer's students moved more slowly in math, and about half the class still was using their fingers at midyear. "That is one thing we are going to work on next year, the math," Blount said.
In reading, 16 percent of Durr's students and 5 percent of Sizer's scored at the two top levels, proficient or advanced. Durr's class had 28 percent below basic, the lowest level, and 56 percent at basic. Sizer had 5 percent below basic and 91 percent at basic.
Harris had 602 students this year, and like many D.C. schools, it was somewhat below capacity. Edison-Friendship was stuffed with 790 students. Interest in the charter school is expected to increase as more parents hear about next year's changes: a school year 25 days longer than regular schools and iMac desktop computers in the homes of all third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.
Lucy Smith, whose daughter Kayla Smith was one of Sizer's students, said she is pleased with the regular school and with the improvement in her daughter's reading scores. There was at least an hour of homework each night, and Kayla memorized such favorite Sizer biographical drills as, "Charles Drew was known for his work on blood plasma."
"Mrs. Sizer did great work with Kayla's speech and sentences and spelling," Smith said. "She grew very bright this year."
Tracking 2 D.C. Schools
In an effort to track and compare the two kinds of public schools operating in the District, The Washington Post this year observed classes at a regular school and a charter school with good reputations and students of similar backgrounds. William Blount, principal of C.W. Harris Elementary School, and John Pannell, principal of the Edison-Friendship Public Charter School, each selected a second-grade class and agreed to let a reporter follow the class throughout the school year as well as examine standardized test results.
CAPTION: Rheutelia Sizer keeps her second-grade class exciting at C.W. Harris Elementary, a regular public school. Sizer, who has 10 years of experience, creates songs, chants and games to advance lessons.
CAPTION: Students in Sizer's class study stars. Her students did particularly well on the vocabulary section of the reading test on the Stanford 9, with scores jumping from the 19th percentile to the 62nd.
CAPTION: Shanay Allen, 7, a student in Phillip Durr's class at Edison-Friendship, counts on her fingers in class.