Archive for May, 2011

May 25, 2011

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Baltimore City Charter Schools

Someone stumbled upon this blog the other day by Googling the words “i want to make my own charter school.” I’m sure the Googler didn’t find this site of much use. This post is my attempt to make that search worthwhile if it’s ever repeated. Here are two handfuls of info that this curious Baltimore City mom has come to learn over the course of the last 18 months.

1 Baltimore City’s charter schools are part of the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS). They are run by nonprofit boards with 501(c)(3) status. They are all not for profit and tuition free.

2 There is no legal cap on the number of charter schools that can open and operate in Baltimore City. As of this posting, 34 of Maryland’s 44 charter schools are in Baltimore City. There were 12 charter schools in Baltimore City in 2005-06. There are around 200 Baltimore City public schools. The percentage jump in the proportion of charter schools over the last five years reflects the exponential growth formula being pushed by the Progressive Policy Institute, with support from the Walton Family Foundation. See http://www.progressivefix.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/2.2011_Hassel_Going-Exponential_WEB1.pdf

3 Charter school students are required to take standardized tests. Charter schools administer the same high stakes tests that all other public schools in Baltimore City administer. Test results are used to keep schools accountable for students’ academic progress, particularly in math and reading.

4 Baltimore City charter school teachers are bound to union contracts. Maryland is one of the few states in which that is the case. Some people would like to see that change. The Baltimore Teacher’s Union recently came into conflict with KIPP’s demands for a 9.5 hour school day and summer classes. The union and KIPP negotiated an agreement in March 2011 that will keep KIPP in Baltimore for the next 10 years.

5 Enrollment is open to students citywide. This stands in contrast to what BCPSS and the charter movement call “traditional” schools, which give priority to students who live within a zoned neighborhood.

6 If the number of applications to a given charter school is greater than the number of available slots, the school holds a public lottery. The names that are not chosen are placed on a waiting list for that year. The list does not roll over to the following school year.

7 Many charter schools do not offer pre-kindergarten because of state mandates on PK enrollment. Charter schools that offer PK must give priority for PK enrollment to students with need (i.e., homeless students, students living in poverty, students who need Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), students from military families).

8 Charter schools set their own enrollment restrictions regarding priority for the children of founders and staff and the siblings of current students. Whether the sibling of an enrolled student can attend without being subject to the lottery is up to the governing board of the charter school. Up to ten percent of students in a charter school can be the children of founders. The definition of a founder is determined by the governing board of the charter school. These points are significant because the more enrollment exceptions and restrictions, the fewer slots there are for students from the “random” citywide pool of applicants.

9 If you want to send your child to a charter school, you must complete and submit an application by the stated deadline. Each charter school has a separate application process. There is no limit on the number of charter schools to which one student may apply. If the deadline is missed but there are still spaces in the next year’s class, the application will be accepted and the student permitted to enroll. It is up to the parent or guardian to obtain and complete applications.

10 Charter schools are supposed to receive the same per pupil funding as “traditional” public schools. For various reasons, it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison of cost per pupil at charter schools versus neighborhood schools. The FY12 BCPSS budget – released only a few days ago – allocates more than $4,000 more per pupil for students in charter schools than in neighborhood schools. (The Sun’s InsideEd blog attempted to make sense of that yesterday.) One major difference is that neighborhood schools receive in services what charter schools receive in cash. Unused services cannot be rolled into the following year’s budget, while unused cash can. But the question of fairness has yet to be answered.

I want this blog to be – among other things – a source of valid and useful information for parents who are trying to make informed choices and Baltimore residents who want to understand what’s at stake when it comes to education reform in Baltimore City. If you have questions or corrections please let me know by posting a comment. If you would rather that your comment not go public, let me know that, too.

SOURCES:

BCPSS Charter School Report 2005-06 to 2007-08 School Years, April 16, 2009 (doc)

Maryland Charter School Law 2003 (link)

Maryland State Board of Education Charter School Program Policy (PDF)

Maryland Charter Schools Founders’ Manual, Third Edition (PDF)

May 21, 2011

Obama Pushes to Replace ‘No Child Left Behind’ with ‘Race to the Top’ This Year

Obama’s weekly address, on education reform, comes on the heels of his commencement address to this year’s graduates of Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee.

Change from the bottom up sounds good. But critics of the reform movement point to a contradiction: Obama talks about giving principals, teachers, and parents control at the local level, but Race to the Top (RTTT) is a top-down strategy.

Need to get up to speed? Some links:

  • Obama’s Weekly Address, May 21, 2011 (link)
  • Race to the Top Program Guidance and Frequently Asked Questions (PDF)
May 19, 2011

Notes from a Charter School Lottery

“Charter School Lottery: Why Am I Here?” is a public Facebook post by an education policy reporter in New York City named Abigail Kramer. She is the mother of a four-year-old son who found herself waiting for his name to be pulled from a bucket.

If I weren’t a parent, my feelings on this would be clear: All the energy and angst that I’m spending in this room would be so much better spent on my neighborhood school, where any kid in a 12-block radius should have the right to the attention and quality that I’m trying to get from a charter. There’s nothing in my values or politics that makes it okay to prioritize one kid over another, except that I am a parent and I have no idea how to do right by my own child while also doing right. So here I am, staring at a projector screen and hoping that my kid will beat out somebody else’s.

I recommend reading the original post. But this paragraph sums up the ethical bind that the charter school movement creates for well meaning parents. We want to do right by our own children while also doing right. And it won’t let us.

May 18, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (Sort of) My Neighborhood Public School

I fear fear. Sitting in a room with scared people scares me. It was that feeling – mainly – that made me think twice about starting a charter school. I was spending precious hours away from my baby in the living and dining rooms of women (and a couple of guys) I hardly knew, ready to sacrifice every weekend and holiday for the next two or three years, because I was scared. I’d found people to run with. And they were good people. But we were all running.

We needed an out because we were afraid. Why?

1) We might never have enough money to consider private school.
2) Odds are slim to nil of getting into a great charter school (e.g., The Green School, City Neighbors, The Montessori School).
3) We didn’t want to a) get a second mortgage or b) move to the County.

Then more worries rose to surface:

4) Our founding group isn’t diverse enough to please the school board.
5) Only 10% of founders’ children can attend a charter school at any one time. What if we have too many founders?

And so began the struggle – for a spot in a school that didn’t even exist – among parents who claimed to value, among other things, non-competitive learning environments.

When I realized how panicked I was beginning to feel I had to stop. I stepped back. I counted on two hands the number of parents in those rooms who lived in my neighborhood and I thought, hey, you know what would be really cool? If we all calmed down for a minute and put some energy into a school we can all get into. You know, the one down the street?

A big assumption we’d all brought with us into those meetings was that the neighborhood school was not an option. We’d all heard things. Not bad things, necessarily. But we hadn’t heard anything good. And we had a lot to be concerned about. I’ll start from most benign and work my way up:

  • administrative resistance to change and innovation
  • opposition of teachers and principals to input from “privileged” parents
  • lack of individual attention for students (squeaky wheels getting the grease, class sizes too large for differentiated instruction)
  • teachers stifled by years of institutionalization
  • “teaching to the test”
  • negative social influences (children who curse and act out)
  • disinterested and potentially abusive parents (parents who curse and act out)
  • class bias (theirs, not ours)
  • racial discrimination
  • discrimination against children of gay and lesbian parents
  • the bullying and exclusion that come with minority status
  • violence

The fact that charter schools might offer a different style or philosophy of education may well be part of their appeal to middle and upper-middle class families – families who might otherwise move to the County or send their children to private schools. But no amount of arts integration, project-based learning or Suzuki violin is going to get parents who are afraid of any of the above to consider sending their children to neighborhood public schools.

Charter schools are emerging as an option because they are perceived as flexible and safe. They are perceived as having malleable institutional cultures that leave lots of room for parent input and experimentation.

My question is, who says neighborhood public schools can’t be those things?

May 14, 2011

Weekend Reads

Baltimore City Public Schools Expanding Great Options 2010-11: Recommendations (PDF)
This document lays out the BCPSS current strategy to improve the “portfolio” of great city schools. It discusses closures and other interventions at the city’s worst performing schools. There is little in this document on efforts to improve “traditional” public schools, with a particular absence of discussion of promoting excellence in elementary education.

Maryland Charter Schools Founders’ Manual, Third Edition (PDF)
Everyone who starts a charter school will read some or all of this manual in the early stages of the process. I recommend reading it with an eye for the assumptions the authors make about the socioeconomic status and political values of those who want to start charter schools, the authors’ implicit definition of “community,” and fundraising recommendations that advise founders to use the dysfunction of impoverished urban neighborhoods to fiscal advantage.

“Charters emerge as threats to Catholic schools,” Erica Green, Baltimore Sun, March 16, 2011 (link)
This article reports on the announcement by the Archdiocese that it would not lease any of its 13 recently closed schools to charter schools. Erica Green is the education reporter at the Baltimore Sun and maintains the Sun’s education blog, Inside Ed, with Liz Bowie. She is a 2008 graduate of the School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

May 5, 2011

Why I Don’t Want a Charter School in My Backyard (Not just yet. Not so fast.)

On May 2, Roots & Branches Public Charter School announced the end of a short lived effort to open in Hampden’s Florence Crittendon Building for the 2011-12 school year. The school’s intention to open in Hampden was brought before the Hampden Community Council on April 25. Had the plan worked out, the new charter school would have sat five blocks south of Hampden Elementary/Middle #055.

That’s my neighborhood public school. I want to make it a place where every zoned family, including mine, would love to send their children. My son’s not even two. I’ve got time. And I’ve got friends. And I’m making more. And if there’s space, people from other parts of the city can vie for spots. It’s gonna knock your socks off.

It’s in a great location – a pretty 10-minute walk from the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus and the Baltimore Museum of Art. It’s just around the corner from The Avenue, a street of locally owned shops and restaurants that attracts people from in and around Baltimore. You can gorge here on freshly made soups and sweet potato fries and banh mi. You can get Indian food at a pizza parlor and chocolate from a store that sells shoes. You can buy an original painting and attend a free reading of new fiction in the same place. From east to west you can get your baby-jogger wheels inflated, pick out a longboard, and give cloth diapers a whirl. On your way back you can get an organic haircut and the deftest waxing north (or south) of the equator. (Tell Shannon I sent you.)

This neighborhood isn’t in need of a K-5 charter school. It’s in need of some love for its PK-8 public school. (Head Start included.)

Hampden #055 is already a good school. It has consistently met AYP. The new principal, Dr. Judith Thomas, is doing a lot with a lot less than she ought to have. Walk in and you see orderly classrooms, a decent gym, student artwork on the walls, a mural painted by a parent-artist. You see teachers engaging students in their work. You see an environment where students can learn. Around 75% of students at Hampden #055 qualify for free and reduced meals (FARMS). They were born into poverty. But with all due respect to David Simon and Ed Burns, not all Baltimore City middle schools look like Season 4 of The Wire.

Like every other traditional public school in Baltimore City, Hampden #055 is suffering from budget cuts. It’s also suffering from the insidious notion that traditional city public schools aren’t places where parents who can afford not to would send their kid. The issue isn’t race. It’s class. It’s just that Hampden is the only neighborhood where people are race-blind enough to see it. Because Hampden isn’t just poor. It’s white.

I founded a group to help out with our neighborhood school revival not two months ago – during what President Obama called “Education Month at the White House.” So I was not an objective party when I heard the news about Roots & Branches’ proposal to the Hampden Community Council. I immediately emailed my principal who called me 120 seconds later. I wrote emails to our city councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and the executive director of the Office of Partnerships, Communications and Community Engagement, Michael Sarbanes. By 4:00 pm I was sitting in a child-sized chair at a child-sized lunch table in the #055 cafeteria ready to say my piece at a meeting of the Hampden Education Collaborative – a consortium of leaders from the many schools that currently operate here and of representatives of the Hampden Village Merchants’ Association, Hampden Family Center, and other neighborhood stakeholder groups. From BCPS, Tammie Knights of the Office of New Initiatives was in attendance, as was Julia Baez, a representative of the Office of Partnerships, Communications and Community Engagement. Mary Pat was there. So was a new friend who will send her son to Hampden next year, and a woman from the Village Parents who raised enough money to buy uniforms for every student at Margaret Brent Elementary – a school on the other side of Homewood Campus that’s got the same parent movement going for it that we have here.

I took the lead voicing concerns.

Why should a neighborhood with a critical mass of parental support for revitalizing a neighborhood school support a charter school, when the charter school has the potential to “cream” off the most engaged parents? What would happen to enrollment at Hampden – which is low – if a new charter school opened five blocks away? Charter schools and “traditional” public schools are funded per pupil. Fewer students means less money. What would happen to the budget? Why should homeowners support a local charter school when working to enhance the appeal of the neighborhood school has a greater shot at boosting home prices?

It’s not paranoid to think that charter schools are no friend to traditional public schools. The Maryland Charter Network Founders’ Manual – a 191 page handbook masquerading as a deterrent to initiating a charter school effort – advises founders to write annual appeal fundraising letters thusly:

Open with a story about a child who didn’t thrive in traditional public schools but has been (or could be) helped by your school or a similar school. Then describe the school and its education vision. Close with a specific request and action, such as “Please donate $25. Use the form provided or donate on our website, http://www.nameofcharterschool.org.” (emphasis added)

Why would a parent who supports her neighborhood school want that kind of solicitation going on in her school’s backyard?

Then there’s this cautionary word:

Be careful to describe the need [for funding] as the community’s need, rather than the school’s need. For example, if requesting funding for an after-school program be sure to discuss the community’s lack of appropriate safe places for children to go after school, as well as describing unique local threats such as gangs, drugs, crime, etc. that unsupervised children might face.

Deny that you have any interest in helping the students in your own school. Profess that you are helping the community, which desperately needs the services only you can provide. What the MCSN manual leaves out is the question of whether or not the community in which you ultimately locate really needs you there in the first place. (If this sounds to readers who remember The Closing of the American Mind like the moral relativist argument against colonialism, it should.)

The truth is, Roots & Branches wouldn’t have opened here. The location is tucked into a residential area with one lane, two way side streets. The person who wanted to lease them the property didn’t officially own it yet. And they came to the community two weeks prior to their deadline for securing a building. That’s not nearly enough time to get buy-in from their immediate neighbors and other stakeholders. It’s no wonder their motion was withdrawn before the HCC ever had a chance to vote.

But the whole fiasco begs the question of who charter schools actually serve. Is it the parent-founders who spend years on these efforts so their children can be guaranteed a spot? Is it the directors who are banking on salaries? Is it real estate developers who want to pay off mortgages or a school system that wants to relieve some of its financial burden?

It didn’t take long for me to realize that we could have leveraged the charter school’s circumstances for mutual benefit. But making a deal with a charter school can’t be the only route to improving a neighborhood public school. There’s gotta be another way. We just need a couple of years to work it out.

In the meantime, thank you, but no, to the opportunity to open a charter school in our backyard. Not until we get a chance to fix up the one out front.

Related Posts:

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Baltimore City Charter Schools

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (Sort of) My Neighborhood Public School

A Little Change from the Bottom Up

 

 

 

 

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