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The march of the charters 

PULLQUOTE: "We believe that learning should be fun, but that doesn't mean it's a laugh riot."

PULLQUOTE: "I absolutely believe in celebrations for achievement. And I tell [parents], 'When I celebrate your child's success, you need to be here and do it with me.'"

BOX:

This is the first in an occasional series on charter schools in Rochester. Preparations for this series included visits to every Rochester charter, classroom observations, and interviews with administrators, parents, and others.

The future of Josephine Horton's family depended on whether or not her son, Daunte, got into a charter school. Josephine applied to two on her son's behalf, and Daunte was accepted at Urban Choice Charter School. Horton says she was not only overjoyed, but relieved. Now her family could stay in the City of Rochester, instead of packing up for the suburbs.

"I felt like I won the lottery," she says.

And she did. Most charter schools, including Urban Choice, use lotteries to admit students.

Daunte finished fourth grade this year, and Horton says she couldn't be happier with his performance or the school.

And why wouldn't she be? The school's small parking lot off of Floverton Street hums with cars and buses by 8:30 in the morning. Children, many with their parents in tow, pass through a welcoming gauntlet of smiling adults and shaking hands. The school's main building, a 1960's style red brick structure wrapped in long, wide windows, sits neatly on a quiet tree-lined street. The hallways and walls inside are covered with children's art and photos.

Urban Choice evokes images of the little neighborhood school that many adults remember from their childhood. And parents like Josephine Horton yearn for that kind of experience for their own children.

Horton has family members with children in Rochester's schools, and she dismisses any thought of her son attending a city school.

"I have to think of the safety of my son," she says. "I feel the city school district has a problem with safety, and it's trickling down to the elementary schools."

But safety is not her only concern about Rochester's schools.

"They're cutting programs and I just don't feel that the education quality is there," she says.

But Horton's biting her nails anticipating the time her son grows out of Urban Choice. If the school doesn't expand beyond 8th grade, she says she'll reconsider moving to the suburbs.

Horton is one of millions of parents nationwide, mostly in urban communities, who say they don't want their children trapped in failing public schools. They turn to the high-stakes lotteries of charter schools, often because they cannot afford a private education for their children.

But charter schools are at the center of a hotly contested debate about the future of the country's public education system. And there is considerable confusion about charters, including the charter schools in Rochester: Are they really public schools? Have they discovered the secret to higher student achievement, or do charters "cream" the best students from the district?

And are charters draining resources from traditional public schools, or are they causing teachers and administrators to think more competitively?

There's also what critics describe as the "charter school mystique." The allure of charters is almost overpowering for some parents, critics say, causing those parents and their children unwarranted emotional duress.

Even though the verdict is still out on whether charter schools can deliver better results than traditional public schools, one thing is certain: parents in Rochester and in school districts across the country want more of them.

The history of the charter school movement can be traced to the 1970's when innovation became a theme for improving public school outcomes in some of the country's largest and most troubled school districts like New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago. As urban public schools produced fewer and fewer college-ready graduates, educators, parents, and community leaders began questioning whether a one size fits all approach to education still worked.

But it wasn't until 1991 that Minnesota approved the first charter school legislation in the US, with the first school opening a year later. New York passed its charter school legislation in 1998.

Though charter schools are the subject of considerable debate, they're definitely not a fad, as some critics say, that will burn out in a few years. Despite the country's bitterly partisan political environment, charter schools seem to draw support from both Democrats and Republicans. The cap on the number of charter schools is being raised in many states. And in some states, the cap is being eliminated all together.

The number of students attending charter schools has risen by 76 percent over the last five years, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Student enrollment in charter schools jumped from 1,165,200 in the 2006 to 2007 school year, to 2,035,261 in 2011 to 2012, says the NACPS. Over the same period, the number of charter schools in the US grew from 3,999 to 5,627, with more than 520 new schools opening this year.

Locally, more than 2,200 Rochester students were enrolled in seven charter schools at the beginning of the 2011 to 2012 school year, say Rochester school district officials. And at least two more charters are expected to open in the city in September.

The demand is high. Most of the Rochester schools have waiting lists for students who didn't win a lottery, but are called when vacancies occur.

Charter schools are public schools financed with public funding. The framework for approving and operating charter schools is usually determined at the state level. In New York, for example, applications for new charter schools can be approved by one of three entities: the Board of Trustees for the State University of New York, the New York State Board of Regents, or local school boards.

And nearly embossed on the schools' charter documents is the right to autonomy from local school district authorities, oversight, and regulations.

"There is a Perestroika happening in education, where you're not having only the top-down model," says Steve Mancini, a spokesperson for the Knowledge is Power Program.

KIPP has 109 charter schools in 20 states and Washington, D.C., serving 33,000 students.

But does this emphasis on autonomy explain why so many parents are attracted to charters? No, but autonomy lays the ground work, since the schools' founders are free to adopt an existing education model, or to innovate and create something new. And that provides parents with choices: the real engine driving the charter school movement.

"Parents are often the first to recognize the needs of their children, and usually know best when it comes to identifying a learning environment that would allow their children to thrive," says Michelle Rhee. The fiery former chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s schools is founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, an education advocacy group.

"Public charter schools help to empower parents with public school choice, so they can select the school environment that is best for their children," Rhee says.

People are just beginning to understand charter schools, says Marci Weber, a parent at Urban Choice. Weber says parents need more high-quality education options for their children and charter schools help fill that need. They're not the regimented, standardized testing hives that critics have portrayed, she says.

Weber's son, George, is in third grade at Urban Choice, where he's taking fourth-grade math and doing fine, she says.

"It should be your choice where you send your child to school based on what you think they need," she says. "Every kid doesn't fit neatly into every school. Every kid is different, and I think you as a parent need to find out what's out there."

But charter schools offer more than just an alternative to traditional public schools. One of their key advantages is their self-styled approach to education. Parents have a range of choices, even among charters in Rochester: from relaxed schools with fewer restrictions, to schools with highly structured environments.

For example, the Genesee Community Charter School, a K to 6 school, uses the Expeditionary Learning model, which is based on the work of German educator Kurt Hahn. Students engage in interdisciplinary research, often on issues relevant to the community. And they frequently venture into the community to conduct field work, which becomes the basis of their publications and presentations.

Tours of Genesee Community are often lead by the students, and the school's leader, Lisa Wing, probably wouldn't be able to hire a better promotional team. Their carefully thought out and earnestly delivered descriptions of the school's activities could close the deal with even the most skeptical parents.

Genesee Community has two teachers to a classroom with as many as 30 students, which allows teachers to break students into smaller learning groups.

"One teacher may have a small group of five who need some intervention, while the other teacher takes the other 25," Wing says. "That co-teaching model allows for flexibility in meeting kids' needs. And it allows us to really be where the child is."

It also allows teachers to deal with discipline issues without interrupting the entire class, Wing says.

But is Genesee Community a good fit for every child?

"I think kids who need a lot of structure, a lot of predictability from day to day, and less stimulation around them, it's probably not right for them," Wing says. "But that's not that many children."

University Preparatory Charter for Young Men, an all-boys middle school, offers something entirely different.

Long gone is the rustle of nuns' robes, and the alcoves that once dressed the hallways with statues of saints are bare. But University Prep's dress code is a reminder of the building's beginnings as a Catholic school.

"Boys wear uniforms," says Joseph Munno, the school's principal. "Shirt and ties, dress pants, and shoes are required every day. No sneakers, no head gear, and no jewelry are allowed."

Munno says he doesn't take anything for granted, including that the young boys know how to dress professionally.

"I want them to understand as early as 7th grade that your appearance is everything," Munno says. "Your cleanliness counts. When you enter the world of work, when you're applying for college, you need to impress the other person you're meeting before you even open your mouth to speak."

Munno, a former principal at Rochester's John Marshall High School, says he's often asked why University Prep is for boys only.

"When we decided to open a charter school, we said, 'What's the neediest population?'" Munno says. "It's the boys. Every strike is against urban boys. Their truancy is higher, their dropout rate is higher, and their getting into trouble is higher. And with all respect to the females, eliminating the girls from the school brings out the best in the boys. They participate. They speak and read out loud. And they don't make fun of each other."

The school focuses on three things: reading, writing, and math.

"The rigor here is not just to be able to get into college," Munno says. "This is the thing that hurts urban kids. We can find a college for them. We can even get them in. But so many of them don't have the skills needed to survive as a college student. That's our focus here."

Even more highly structured is Rochester Preparatory, which has two middle schools and an elementary school in Rochester. The schools are managed by Uncommon Schools, which has 28 charter schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Long strips of tape mark the hallway floors to show students where they should line up and stand after leaving their classrooms. Students quickly form a tight and straight line and wait for the next direction, their feet barely making a sound on the floor. Their teachers walk past them, almost like an inspector. A gentle reminder will draw students' heads up straight and eyes to the front.

"We believe that learning should be fun, but that doesn't mean it's a laugh riot," says Anna Hall, Rochester Prep's chief operating officer.

Eugenio Maria de Hostos is another example of the diversity of Rochester's charter schools. The K to 7 school has taken what is sometimes a controversial approach to education by offering a dual language curriculum with instruction in Spanish and English. But its founders say the approach is critically important because a lack of communication skills can lead to isolation and low student achievement.

Having a school like Eugenio Maria de Hostos empowers parents in Rochester's Latino community, says Julio Vazquez Sr., president of the school's board of directors. It's hard enough to engage parents, but it further intimidates them when they come to a school and don't understand what's happening, he says.

"Bilingualism is not a disadvantage," Vazquez says. "It's an asset for our students."

Though there is a range of charter schools for Rochester parents to pursue, charters do tend to have some important characteristics in common.

For example, they tend to be small schools, having fewer than 1,000 students. Some of Rochester's charters are still growing into their full capacity, and currently have enrollments of several hundred students. Some will stay at fewer than 500 students by design.

But it's mostly a myth that charter schools have smaller classes. Genesee Community, for example, has as many as 30 students to a classroom. But charter schools frequently have more teachers and adults working with those students.

Charters tend to open in poor neighborhoods in large urban school districts. Though they typically give preference to city students from low-income households, suburban families can apply, too.

And most charters have longer school days and longer school years, with less vacation and seasonal breaks. Some charters have Saturday classes or tutoring.

"The average low-income student entering kindergarten has a significant word deficit," says Rochester Prep's Hall. "So what I would argue is that you cannot address that with the typical repertoire. Our elementary students go to school from 7:30 [a.m.] to 4:30[ p.m.]. And elementary students don't have naps and recess. We believe school is for learning."

University Preparatory has longer school days, too. And it doesn't stop there.

"I have after-school tutoring and Saturday morning tutoring," Munno says.

He also arranged for his students to go to St. John Fisher College for 20 days of intensive preparation for their Regents exams

"I think we're putting in the support needed to succeed, and the boys know that," Munno says.

The longer hours of instruction and intense academic workouts pay off in better student outcomes in some charter schools, but not all. Some charters are showing higher student achievement than others, and some are struggling to improve student performance, just like their colleagues in city schools. Rochester has also seen two of its charters close due to poor student performance.

"We have outperformed the district in every test, in every grade, in every year we've been open," says Rochester Prep's Hall.

Though Hall is correct, there's a caveat. The district's low graduation rate — less than 50 percent again this year — and its low student test scores are well known. But comparing the performance of a small charter school to the performance of a district of many schools is unfair, say advocates of traditional public schools.

There are excellent schools within the district, too. And a better comparison might be a charter school to a similar city school.

For example, School 58 offers an Expeditionary Learning model similar to some charter schools, and 58 is extremely popular with parents.

Perhaps the most controversial characteristic shared by charter schools is that, in most cases, teachers and administrators are not represented by a labor union. Charter school leaders tend to view this as a big advantage.

"Teachers in this school work extremely hard," says University Prep's Munno. "They work at the pleasure of the principal. It's more difficult to work with an at-will contract than a collective bargaining contract. It just is. You're held more accountable."

If a teacher isn't a good fit, he or she is out, Munno says.

Not only can charter school leaders identify an ineffective teacher quicker, it's also easier to identify a teacher who isn't right for the school's culture, or doesn't excel at the style of teaching the school promotes. That teacher can be terminated and replaced relatively quickly. Months and in some cases years of haggling over the nuances of an employee's performance — a major criticism of most traditional public schools — is not an issue for the typical charter school.

The lack of a union dynamic is also in keeping with the autonomy factor that is so important to charter schools. Charter school leaders say they have a nimbleness and flexibility that allows for quick decisions. Bargaining units add another huge layer of bureaucracy to central offices in large urban districts that are already anchored with too many rules and regulations, they say.

Simple decisions like purchasing a copier or taking students to a movie or on a field trip become mountainous in traditional public schools, says John Bliss, CEO and founder of Urban Choice. And that discourages teachers and principals, he says.

Charter schools also tend to have some criticisms in common. The most frequent is that they "skim" or "cream" students from their districts, which gives them an unfair advantage when it comes to student performance. And they do it in a variety of ways, critics say.

The fact that parents fill out an application to a charter indicates to some critics that the parents are more involved in their child's education. That child is therefore likely to come from a more stable surrounding, and the parent is more likely to cover the basics, like making sure the child is rested and that homework is done, critics say.

But advocates of charter schools say this is nonsense. Parents have to complete an application to enroll their child in any school, they say. And some of the leaders of Rochester's charters say that they struggle with parent involvement in their schools, too. And much of it is for the same reason teachers and principals cite in city schools: many city parents are poor, and they don't have jobs with flexible work schedules.

But teachers and principals in charters seem to place a huge emphasis on forging partnerships with parents.

University Preparatory's Munno says he is constantly networking with parents. And parents don't need appointments to meet their child's teachers. Between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., University Prep's door is always open to them, Munno says.

"I say, 'You can come any day in those hours and I will bring all of your kid's teachers to the table,'" he says.

And Munno says he asks parents to visit often, and not just when there are problems.

"I absolutely believe in celebrations for achievement," he says. "And I tell them, 'When I celebrate your child's success, you need to be here and do it with me.' And they come out."

Hall at Rochester Prep says that her teachers spend a lot of time changing parents' perceptions about education.

"A lot of families have had a pretty negative school experience," she says.

Critics who say that charter schools have an advantage because of more involved parents are only looking at one aspect of what that means, Hall says.

"The flipside to that argument is that people can leave," she says.

The more involved and borderline middle class parent can be more discerning and demanding, Hall says.

"They know they have options," she says. "Their only tool is advocacy and they will use it. If you're a hammer, everything is a nail."

But critics say charter schools also cream by not accepting every student. Children with severe behavioral problems, learning challenges, or physical handicaps can be turned away, more or less "cleansing" the pool of students.

The criticism stings some of Rochester's charter school leaders, and they all insist it isn't true, with a bit of qualification. Their lotteries typically don't reveal much about the child's capabilities. And each of the charters enrolls students with issues ranging from social-emotional to autism, they say.

But students with severe physical handicaps can receive more services at the city school district, say the charter leaders.

"I do disagree that we cream," says Rochester Prep's Anna Hall. "We do take every child. If a child has some behavior problems, then he's a child. All children make bad decisions. But we do not have the capacity to work with the most physically handicapped children, nor do I think we're the best place for them. Just the same way, if you want a bilingual program, we're not a bilingual program. And if you want an arts focused program, we're not an arts focused program."

But at least two of the charter schools' leaders say that parents are not always dissuaded. Sometimes the charter school environment is more important to them than the district's services, they say.

The most inflammatory criticism of charter schools is that they're sabotaging traditional public schools. The legislation that created charter schools was often sold as a way to provide school districts with "incubators" for experimentation; their autonomous nature would provide lessons to help improve traditional public schools.

But instead of helping public schools, charters are draining them of their resources, critics say. And charter schools are permitted to operate like private schools, while being underwritten by taxpayers.

"I think the charters' position is sufficiently well thought out," says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association. "It helps the few."

Charter critics say the schools have opened the door to privatization, and their backers' real interests are in making money on everything from textbook publishing to real estate. And they warn that the country is witnessing the slow death of the traditional public school system. Millions of dollars are being diverted away from ailing urban schools, which have become portals for money to pass through to other organizations, they say.

And it's more than just the money that public schools receive from the state. Funding for educational grants is being diluted, and there are rising hard costs to bear, too, such as energy. Another example: in Rochester, the city school district assists charters with transportation, which is one of the district's biggest budgetary expenses.

And the loss of city students to charter schools could make it difficult to plan for future infrastructure, manpower, and programs, some school officials say.

But education reformers say the "draining resources" claim is an over the top response to healthy and much needed competition. Traditional public schools have learned plenty from charter schools during the last 20 years, they say, such as the need for extended hours of instruction and having more educational choices. But it's up to school boards, administrators, and unions to apply these lessons, they say.

When Fed Ex began offering next-day delivery, nobody thought the postal service could compete, says KIPP's Steve Mancini.

"Not only did other groups come in and offer next-day mail, but you saw the US Postal Service offer next-day mail," he says. "And I think that's what we're seeing."

Thirty years from now, education historians will say that charter schools did for poor urban families what Ralph Nader did for US consumers: gave them better options, Mancini says.

"Demographics should not dictate destiny," he says.

When charter school critics say that public schools are losing money and students, the big question is why, Mancini says.

"You can figure it out or wage war with these schools," he says.

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