A free alternative to failing public schools, where students truly learn, grow and achieve — that is what many claim we have found in charter schools. Do these schools sound too good to be true? It turns out that for some, they just might be.
Charter schools are popping up all over the country, especially in cities like New York and Washington D.C. — those infamous for their failing public school systems. Charter schools currently teach more than 1.5 million students in the United States, double the number six years ago.
While not all charter schools outperform their local public schools, many do turn out stellar test scores and impressive data. Most mandate students to wear uniforms and project an image of success, giving students pride in their school and in themselves. Nevertheless, because there are not enough charter schools to accommodate all of our nation’s children, thousands of students remain in failing public schools.
Are Charter School Admissions Fair?
Charter school admissions are done through a “blind” lottery. Parents submit an application for individual school’s lotteries.
While that sounds fair, it turns out that this lottery system is hardly random. Logically, this system automatically excludes children who might not find their way to apply. These children likely come from the least stable families. Perhaps they are homeless, have a parent with a severe medical condition or are children of addicts. Perhaps they are neglected or abused children whose parents are not concerned with their education. Or maybe, they are children whose parents simply are not aware of the opportunities around them. Like any other service, Charter schools choose where, how and to whom they spread awareness about their existence. In this way, their entrants are self-selected.
There is also some evidence that while charter schools have open admissions, they do not cater to all demographic groups equally. An article in the New York Times this week exposed that Hispanics are marginalized in New York’s Charter Schools. African Americans make up 30 percent of the enrollment in the New York City school system at large, but 60 percent of the enrollment of charter schools. On the other hand, Hispanics account for 40 percent of the enrollment of public schools and only about 30 percent of the enrollment in charter schools. For example, at Icahn Charter School 4 in the South Bronx, slightly more than a third of the students are Hispanic, while a traditional public elementary school — two blocks away — is three quarters Hispanic. St. Joseph School, the Catholic Elementary School that I work for, is in the same neighborhood and is 65 percent Hispanic.
Similarly, charter schools have proportionally fewer English language learners, regardless of their ethnicity, than nearby public schools. Only 5 percent of charter students are classified as English Language Learners, compared with 15 percent of public school students. This issue is just beginning to attract attention of state legislators and others who are asking why. Is it that Hispanic parents do not feel comfortable applying to the schools or with the services the charter schools offer? Or, is it that they are just unaware these schools even exist?
I think it is a mixture of both. There was never a translated directory of charter schools in New York City until this year. For the first time, this directory has been translated it into eight languages. According to the Times, of more than a dozen Hispanic parents interviewed at a public library in the South Bronx, only one had heard of the Icahn 4 Charter School, which is just two blocks away. Further, the New York Times interviewed parents and said that many were “skittish about sending their children to a school where they would be among only a few Latino students.”
Survival of the Fittest?
So what happens to the lucky students who get chosen from the lottery? Once you are in, that does not mean your spot is secure. A study of the KIPP Charter School chain shows “selective attrition” in which academic strugglers and disruptive students leave the schools in greater numbers than other students.
A teacher at Harlem Success Academy, a chain of four charter schools said, “I’m not a big believer in special ed.” He went on to claim that many children who arrive with individualized education programs, or IEPs, really only have maturity issues, which the teachers work to reverse. However when remediation falls short at Harlem Success, families are counseled out. The Harlem success teacher continued, “Eva (Moskowitz, the CEO of Harlem Success Academy) told us that the school is not a social-service agency.”
According to an article in NY Magazine, when students are deemed “a bad fit,” the administration of Harlem Success creates a nightmare for their families — repeatedly suspending children and making constant phone calls until parents take their children elsewhere. At one Harlem Success school alone, a teacher said at least six lower-grade children who were eligible for IEPs were withdrawn this school year.
As writer Jonathan Kozol asserted, a huge problem with school choice is that the “ultimate choices” tend to get made “by those who own or operate a school.”
Not “There” Yet
Some charter school advocates may claim the most important aspect of any school is that it educates the students inside its walls. However, it is much easier for these schools to educate their children and turn out impressive test scores when their populations are purposely skewed toward more motivated students. These issues need to be further addressed before we can claim charter schools represent a successful “come one come all” community. School administrations and political leaders need to devise policies so this system does not continue to marginalize already marginalized groups of children. What use are these ideal learning environments to our country — and to our children — if every student does not have the opportunity to attend them?
by elemenous via flickr-creative commons
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