Thursday, February 9, 2012

LEAPing to Conclusions; Are Charters Our Only Hope, Or Only Hype?

I have been stewing about a bunch of stuff since last week's Assembly Education Committee hearing.  The local control bill was clearly the most controversial legislation being considered, and as I posted before the hearing, Carlos Perez put out a call to the charter school community to come out in force.  LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden heeded his call and came to the hearing to testify against the legislation.  Two seniors, two graduates, (one is now an employee) and one of the founders testified.  

First off, the students looked FANTASTIC!  They were in crisp, clean uniforms and not a hair was out of place.  They looked like they stepped right out of LEAP's glossy full-color brochure (you know, the kind traditional public schools aren't allowed to print but charters can.) 

As soon as they were done delivering their testimony, they were whisked out of the hearing room.  I was shocked that the students weren't encouraged to stay for the rest of the testimony, or to see the Education Committee vote on the issue.  Apparently they weren't pulled out of school to learn more about the legislation they were testifying against or the legislative process in general.  They were there solely to deliver Carlos' their message: Vote for this bill, and you will not only kill my charter school, you will kill ALL charter schools.  There was also a fair amount of testimony from these students about how horrible the rest of the Camden schools are, much to the dismay of Camden public school parents like MoNeke Ragsdale who testified beside me on behalf of Save Ours Schools NJ.  

Apparently, the kids weren't there just to deliver their message to the Assembly Education Committee members, but also to the press.  Check out this LEAP Academy Flicker photostream that shows the students posing for photos and being interviewed.  

Here's how their Trenton trip was described on the LEAP Facebook page:

Thanks to the LEAP students, alumni and staff who went to Trenton yesterday to speak out against a new bill that could limit the charter school movement.

So, this all got me thinking.  What's going on at LEAP, and how does it exemplify why we should all just step aside and let the "charter school movement" sweep across New Jersey whether or not districts want or need them? 

LEAP's biggest claim to fame is that 100% of their students graduate and go on to college.  This was highlighted several times at the hearing.  

So what I want to know is how do they do it, is it done anywhere else in Camden, and can it work for ALL kids?  

The Brimm Medical Arts High School, a "magnet school with a comprehensive high school curriculum" comes close to matching the same statistics.  They seem to have 1 or 2 kids that chose the military or a job over college though.

So how else are Brimm and LEAP similar?  Let's take a look at their IEP, LEP and Free/Reduced Lunch numbers.  Let's look at a couple of Camden's traditional public high schools too for comparison.

Notice the difference between LEAP and Brimm and the traditional public schools?  While free/reduced lunch numbers are pretty similar (interestingly Brimm has the most Free Lunch kids) there are LOTS more LEP kids and kids with IEPs in the traditional public schools.
Here's what I think is happening.  In a magnet high school like Brimm there is an admissions process for students, including an entrance exam, that obviously pulls out only the smartest, most motivated students.  Charters like LEAP with a lottery system, attract only the most motivated parents, who must fill out packets of information and sign Parent Partnership Agreements.  The children of these parents are therefore more motivated, successful students.  

Now let's look at a measure of "success" other than post graduation plans. (by the way, this measure is self reported by the school)  Let's look at the HSPA and see if this gives us any additional information.  

So it looks like if what you're after is skimming off the most successful students AND producing higher test scores, you'd be better off opening lots of magnets, not lots of charters.  I hear you, this is only one case study.  Gee, if only Acting Commissioner Cerf would release that charter report we could look at some more data...   

This still leaves us with the problem of how best to educate the rest of our kids.  Charters like LEAP have not demonstrated that they can serve ALL students, yet they are held up as examples of what is possible if only we would loosen up our laws and allow the unchecked growth of charters.  Until they do, why should we allow the proliferation that Carlos Perez, Acting Commissioner Cerf and Governor Christie seem so desperate for?

On the way to the hearing I heard a report on NPR about efforts to raise the dropout age to 18.  Michel Martin, host of Tell Me More, interviewed a 19 year old mother that had dropped out at 16 but is back in school.  Here is a segment from that report:

MARTIN: Well, let's dig into some of this. Rashida, why don't you tell us, if you wouldn't mind, why you dropped out of school? Was it a sudden decision? Was it kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing or was it something that had been building for a while?
HARRIS: Well, school wasn't really that much important to me. I used to live at with my aunt and my brothers and sisters, we had to take care of ourselves. So, we would go to school probably two or three times a week just to be in school and walk the halls and stuff or we would go up to the school if it was a problem for us getting in fights and stuff like that. But school wasn't really that much important to me. The streets was at the time.
MARTIN: And do you mind if I ask, where's your mom in all this?
HARRIS: My mother's been dead since '96.
MARTIN: So, you lost her really early, I'm sorry.
MARTIN: I'm sorry about that. And so, your aunt was taking care of you or you were living with her. She was the adult, but she didn't insist that you go?
HARRIS: Well, at the time back then I was with my aunt in the court systems and both my godmother. When I was with my aunt, she didn't really care if we went to school or not as long as we're out of her house by at least 8:30, she don't care where we was at.

This is one of my main problems with charters.  When you show me data from a charter like LEAP, and the demographics look like the rest of Camden, and the kids have the same kinds of issues as Rashida, then we can talk about the benefits of charters versus traditional public schools.  You can't compare a school with 0% LEP students to a school with 17%, and you can't compare a school where only 7% of students require an IEP to a school were 34% do. 

LEAP has some amazing support services that should be available to ALL students, but will never be funded in all traditional public schools, certainly not by Governor Christie, who is probably gearing up to slash school budgets again for 2013.  In addition to an extended learning day and a longer school year, they have an Early Learning Research Academy that begins at birth, a Parent Center, Health Center, Family Support Center and a Center for College Access.  If you follow the links you will see that many of these programs are run in conjunction with Rutgers Camden. 

But when speaking to the media LEAP doesn't attribute their "success" to the fact that they are educating a different population than the traditional schools, or even to the incredible programs available to their students.  They claim their secret sauce is a combination of their Performance Based Compensation Program, i.e. merit pay (click the link, it's their actual teacher evaluation forms!) and giving very few teachers tenure.

Rutgers professor, Chair of the Board of Trustees, and LEAP founder Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago boasts that last year 10 teachers came up for tenure and only one of them got it, because the other 9 "were not good."  Is it just me, or does that sound more like LEAP doesn't want to give teachers tenure?  They were good enough to teach LEAP students for 3 years, but then when it came time to give them tenure they needed to be "exited out?"  

So let's look at how much teachers get paid at LEAP compared with the rest of Camden.  

Ouch.  That's more than $15,000 less per teacher.  

Jersey Jazzman was onto something when he questioned how much teachers get paid at charters.  Doesn't look like merit pay is working out for too many LEAP teachers, does it? Let's look at one last chart to see how much experience LEAP teachers have.

One third of the experience of the teachers in the rest of the district, and less than half of the experience of the rest of their colleagues in the State of New Jersey…

This makes me think of the speech Diane Ravitch gave at the NJEA conference.  No, I am not a teacher, but I have become enough of a freak about these issues that I trucked it to Atlantic City just to hear her, and boy was it worth it.  Look, here we are at her book signing!

She looks great, but I look ridiculous, I can't believe I'm posting this photo...

In that speech she said that the reform movement has two main goals.  One is the "deprofessionalization" of teachers.  I think Dr. Ravitch would agree that an inexperienced, low paid staff fits her definition. 

According to Dr. Ravitch the other goal is privatization.  

Soon LEAP will have a new $12.5M facility.  Wouldn't you just LOVE to know where that $12.5M is coming from?  If Brimm wanted to build a new facility the money would have to come from taxpayers, which would make it a lot harder to get the funding.  And get this, LEAP already has two new facilities!  

LEAP Academy students are educated in two contemporary-modeled learning centers: a Lower/Elementary school (grades K–6), and an Upper/High school (7–12).  A complete renovation was financed to create the Lower school in 1999, while the Upper school was built from the ground up in 2005. (emphasis mine) 

So let's review.  The only current school development project in Camden is for kids who, according to the school's hype, are already succeeding, and already have not one but "two contemporary-modeled learning centers."  But to get some much needed new schools built for the rest of the kids in Camden legislators had to pass the Urban Hope Act while the School Development Authority continues to do nothing.  Great.     

Again, let's listen to Dr. Ravitch:

I worry about the future of public education. I worry that entrepreneurs now see great opportunities to make money in the public sector and that they will exert their influence to privatize education and turn it over to the free market. I am a great admirer of the free market, but I also believe that our society needs a balance between the free market and the public sector. If public schools are privatized, it induces a consumer mentality among parents and it destroys any sense of community responsibility. It also erodes any sense of civic obligation. 

LEAP sure does look like a product for parents and students to consume.  They have glossy brochures and videos to sell their program to parents, and they have talking points that resonate with the press and reformers with deep pockets.  

But I'm not buying it, and neither should you, because what they don't have is proof that what they're doing will work for ALL of Camden's students.  Until they do, I have to respectfully disagree with Carlos Perez and the students, graduates and staff from LEAP Academy that testified last week.  We do need local control.  


  1. It would be interesting to explore, if you haven't already, the working conditions of teachers in charter schools, as well as their turnover rates. My anecdotal experience is that the hours are crazy-long, leading to high rates of turnover. I am a unionized teacher at an NJ public school - newly certified. There are flaws to any system, but the kind of professionalism I have experienced - learning/menotring from veteran teachers, folks with institutional memory - just doesn't seem to be in the work environment my colleagues at charter schools experience, where patronage and private political or religious agendas seem to flourish.

  2. As I said on FB - I taught at LEAP for 3 years (was recruited after I met them at a job fair) and left under my own volition when I was offered my present position at a public school in a neighboring town.

    I would share my story but I can't afford an attorney.

  3. A friend of mine taught at LEAP briefly. She too signed a confidentiality agreement. I have nothing to lose by saying that the school has a "silent partner" in the Lion of Judah, to whom teachers and students are expected to pray every morning.

  4. I wonder exactly how much those merit bonuses amount to? Darcey, this is an excellent piece. So many quotes to share. Keep up the good work!

  5. How can a teacher be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement to work in a charter school funded by public dollars? It's one thing to say that information regarding particular students is confidential - of course! But, how can information regarding a public school (weather it be regarding methodologies or procedures used in school) be covered by a confidentiality agreement? Isn't that a violation of OPRA or sunshine laws? What exactly is covered in those confidentiality agreement that a teacher can't reveal about a school, that couldn't just be OPRA'd and that a school would be required to reveal?

  6. Dear Madam,
    You are exceptionally well informed. As a one-time advocate of the theoretical framework behind a few charter schools in the mid-1990s, I have come to realize through my own research and practical work in K-12 and in higher education that they have become, particularly in New Jersey, unchecked cogs in political machines. Virtually no one of ethics or virtue oversees them in New Jersey, and this is a disgrace as they should operate with the same regulations, oversight, and transparency required of any publically funded school. I know first-hand certain charter schools hire, promote, and fire educators without any regard to the law. Students are sometimes selected based on "weeding out" practices and/or athletic prowess. Keep fighting the good fight for regular and magnet public schools. Thank you.