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VOL. 38 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 17, 2014

Keeping school money at home: Georgia county finds charter success without outside operators

By Lisa Fingeroot

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Georgia’s Hall County, touted as having the fastest-growing charter school population in the nation last year, didn’t earn its title by approving new schools to be operated by private companies.

Instead, officials, teachers and parents converted their own schools into charters before outside groups had the chance, avoiding the heated political debate taking place in Metro Nashville and other school systems across the nation.

“One of the differences and benefits of public conversion charters is you don’t have that human nature thing of ‘us versus them,’” says Sally Krisel, director of innovative and advanced programs for Hall County, located 54 miles northeast of Atlanta.

“Because we have been very cognizant that we all want the same thing – we want the very best education – by keeping that in the forefront, it’s not seen as contentiousness.”

Sally Krisel is director of innovative and advanced programs for Hall County, Georgia.

-- Tom Reed | Submitted

The process began about seven years ago when newly hired Superintendent Will Schofield challenged educators to find “the best way to focus on rigor with engagement and joy” in learning, Krisel says.

He realized “we are going to change the model,” Krisel adds, “or some corporation will come and do it for us.”

The result is a system that has no corporate or privately-operated charter schools. It has 33 schools enrolling about 26,000 students in a traditional setting, nine schools of choice similar to Metro’s magnets and 12 charter schools that were developed by Hall County educators.

“The community went through the soul-searching process and developed the vision of how they could do things differently,” Krisel explains.

Fastest growing system

Between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, charter enrollment in Hall County grew 58 percent, which made it the system with the fastest-growing charter school population in the nation, according to a recently released report created by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. About a third, or 32 percent, of the system’s students are enrolled in charter schools.

By comparison, about five percent of Nashville’s 81,000 public school students attend 18 charter schools. Five more charter schools have been approved for the 2014-15 school year.

The national alliance report, released in December, is the eighth annual statistical report that shows the growth of charter schools in the United States. According to the group, charter enrollment grew 80 percent during the last five years and is the fastest-growing component of the national education system.

“For way too long, we’ve offered only two choices, take it or leave it,” Krisel says of public education. “That is really not good enough.”

Grassroots in Georgia

With Schofield at the helm, educators set out to create a plan that included student and parent engagement as a main component because keeping kids interested the lessons they are learning is the proven route to success, Krisel adds.

“It became a grassroots movement, and school-level leaders, teachers and principals began to dream. With support, they came up with good plans and, by doing so, they improved achievement.”

Differences in state testing and reporting methods prevent an accurate comparison between Hall County test scores and the scores reported by Metro students, but Krisel says her system is making progress.

When Schofield arrived in the 2005-06 school year, 13 of Hall County’s 32 schools did not meet the federal standards for adequate yearly progress, she says. But all Hall schools met the standard during the 2008-09 school year.

What makes a charter?

Converting a public Hall County school to a charter school requires more than an idea and a new sign.

School leaders must create an evidence-based plan for student achievement based on the needs of that school community. The plan must get approval of faculty and parents, which is determined by an anonymous vote, and approval of the state board of education.

Funding for the school does not change, but school leaders are given more autonomy to make spending decisions for their specific school.

The Hall plan for school-based decision making sounds similar to a Metro move that allows principals to make more site-based decisions on budgeting and hiring, says Amy Frogge, a member of the Metro Nashville Board of Education.

The Lead Principal plan was unveiled about a year ago and allows a group of proven school leaders to each work with five or six other principals sharing best practices and other information.

Similar to charter schools, the Metro principals are given more autonomy to make decisions for their own schools, but expected to show gains in student achievement in return for the freedom.

School-based decision making, along with parental choice and accountability for student achievement, are the main tenants driving the Tennessee Charter School Center, an organization in Nashville dedicated to helping quality charter schools get started, says Justin Testerman, its chief operating officer.

Testerman doesn’t see a reason for Nashville to adopt a charter school system like Hall County, where the charter conversion initiative comes from within the school and its parent community. Parents might start a conversion effort if their children are trapped in consistently failing schools, he adds.

But Testerman says that the situation would trigger a solution like Metro officials found when LEAD Public Schools agreed to convert Cameron Middle and Brick Church Middle schools to charter schools after they were added to a state hit list of low-performing schools.

The difference in Hall County and Metro Nashville is that Hall implemented its plan before charter operators began setting up shop there. Charter schools began opening in Nashville in 2003.

Hall County schools at a glance

26,000 students

RACIAL MAKEUP:

54 percent white

38 percent Hispanic

5 percent black

1 percent Asian

OTHER ASPECTS:

62 percent free or reduced price lunch

20 percent speak English as second language

77.5 percent 2013 graduation rate

Information from the Georgia Department of Education

Metro Nashville schools at a glance

81,000 students

RACIAL MAKEUP:

45.3 percent black

31.8 percent white

18.6 percent Hispanic

4 percent Asian

OTHER ASPECTS:

72.4 percent free or reduced price lunch

15 percent speak English as a second language

76.6 percent 2013 graduation rate

Information from the Tennessee Department of Education

“There is no magic in the title ‘charter school,’” Frogge explains, adding about 75 percent of charter schools perform the same or worse than traditional public schools on a national level.

The Cameron conversion

In Nashville, four charter schools were among the 12 Metro schools named to the state’s 2013 Reward School list, an honor awarded to those in the top 5 percent of all schools for performance, progress or both.

Nashville charter schools also earned accolades in January 2013 when the school board was given a report showing the six Nashville middle schools logging the best student achievement progress in 2012 were all charter schools.

The report, created by Alan Coverstone, director of the office of innovation that oversees the Metro’s charter schools, prompted a board discussion on how best to emulate charter school successes.

At the time, board members agreed that high student expectation was the elusive quality missing from traditional public schools.

Among the middle schools on Coverstone’s top six list was Cameron College Prep, the former Cameron Middle School that became the first public-to-charter conversion in the state.

After a year of planning, the conversion at Cameron began in the 2011-12 school year and started with only the fifth grade class. The schools have co-existed in the same public school building for several years as a grade was added to the charter school each year and one eliminated from the traditional public school.

Comparisons cannot be exact because the students are in different grades, but state test scores show the two groups to be very similar with the charter school students scoring a little better than the Metro-managed students.

For example, just more than 22 percent of the students at both schools were considered proficient in math, but the traditional public school students fell a little behind in reading.

About 22 percent of the charter school students scored proficient in reading and nearly 19 percent of the traditional public school students scored the same.

Brick Church Prep

The second public middle school to be converted to charter in Nashville began a year later with the same plan with LEAD Public Schools. Brick Church Middle School is becoming Brick Church Prep.

In the latest round of state testing, the two groups of Brick Church students were also similar, but the charter school students didn’t perform as well as their counterparts in reading. Nearly 12 percent of the charter school students were found to be proficient in reading while nearly 18 percent of their traditional public school partners scored in the proficient range.

Testerman doesn’t want charter schools to take too much credit for new efforts to improve Nashville public schools because he believes new programs are part of an ongoing and overall effort to boost student achievement.

However, part of the national charter school philosophy is that traditional public schools will improve when faced with competition from high performing charter schools.

“Absolutely, there are a number of great initiatives and pilot programs to give schools more autonomy for school based budgeting,” he says.

“I don’t know that you can contribute all those moves to charter schools. It’s part of a bigger movement. We think the most important elements are choice autonomy and accountability. If you have those elements (in traditional or charter school), it will lead to better outcomes for kids.”

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