Charting a New Course

Charter schools provide parents an alternative to public school education.

Autonomy. It may be the most important ingredient for charter schools in the recipe of public education. And there are many variations on such a recipe, as we’ve seen in Memphis and Shelby County over the years. With the recent votes and rulings on consolidation of the two systems, the gumbo has become even more complex; tastier for some, while inedible for others.

Charter schools offer an alternative to the traditional schools of either system. There are currently 45 charter schools statewide with over half — 25 — in Memphis; Shelby County has one. More than 6,000 students were enrolled in Memphis charter schools last year. 

How charter schools function 

Charter schools reside somewhere just outside a public school system while still underneath the umbrella of oversight of their jurisdiction. The schools are tuition-free and control their own curriculum, budget, staffing, and organization. They operate on three basic principles: accountability, choice, and autonomy.

“They get to choose their own curriculum, set their own calendar and schedule, they get to do their own hiring and firing … in that context, they get to do whatever they feel will bring about academic achievement,” says Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

The flipside of such self-regulating operation is a higher level of accountability, undergoing an academic and financial audit at the end of each school year. Under the No Child Left Behind legislation, a public school is granted numerous attempts to raise failing scores. However, with charter schools, says Throckmorton, “if they fail two years or more in a row, they can be closed down. Really that’s the biggest defense: accountability for autonomy.”

What's expected

At the KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools (KMCS), all students, parents, and staff are required to sign a commitment to excellence outlining the five values of the school: scholarship, teamwork, integrity, perseverance, and fun. 

Learning at the Kipp charter schools (pictured here) focuses on a mix of teamwork, perserverance, and fun.“It outlines what their responsibilities are to hold those values,” says director Jamal McCall. These responsibilities include a school day that lasts until 5 p.m., three extra weeks of school in the summer and teacher availability. To that end, teachers keep their cell phones on until 9 p.m. each night to answer students’ questions.

KMCS is one of the largest and fastest growing charter schools in the city with 420 middle school students and 120 in the ninth grade (a year of high school will be added in each year going forward), and plans for an elementary school and second middle school to be added. To that end, the organization recently received a $3 million grant from the Charter School Growth Fund to create eight additional KIPP schools, which will be operational by 2016.

Because local charter schools fall under Memphis City Schools or Shelby County Schools, revenue from the respective system is used to operate the schools at approximately $7,800 per student per year.  

Education for all

The first charter schools opened in Tennessee in 2003 and, prior to 2011, were reserved for students who had failed the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test or were assigned to a traditional school that had failed the TCAP. Charter schools are now open to all students, regardless of their academic standings. Though students often come to the schools lagging behind, smaller class sizes and more individualized attention enable students to make great strides. Throckmorton says Tennessee charter schools report a 95 percent graduation rate, with a majority of students being accepted into four-year colleges. “That is our goal,” echoes Memphis College Prep Elementary Director Michael Whaley, a downtown charter school with 122 kindergarten and first-graders that launched in 2010. “We want every child to be college bound.” 

The February 2011 study, “Inside Charter Schools,” an initiative of the National Charter School Research Project by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington found that “charter and traditional public schools may want the same outcomes for low-income students — college attendance and success — but to get there, public schools have traditionally created add-on programs or left it to individual teachers to solve student remediation or behavioral needs. Charter schools have shifted the problem-solving burden from individual teachers to the core purpose of the organization.” 

Says Whaley, “We find the best resources available and when we don't find them, we create them ourselves. We decide what's working and what's not, based on results and what our kids need.”

Making the grade

With so much accountability falling on the shoulders of the school, expectations for both faculty and students are high. “We expect from our students 100 percent all the time,” says Roblin Webb, founder and executive director of the 260-student middle school, Freedom Preparatory Academy. “For our teachers our expectations are high, too, because they know that we put the responsibility on the adult in the classroom to really push the kids academically and help them grow.”

Meeting such expectations can make for a rigorous day, beginning with the 7:30 a.m. “brain breakfast,” a working breakfast for the largely low-income student population. “We don’t waste any time,” Webb says. Textbooks aren't used in the classroom, instead, teacher-created curriculum and worksheet packets, guided practice or lectures, independent practice, and a test at the end of every class to see that they mastered the objective of the day. A “show what you know” quiz is given every Friday on the week’s objective and a data coach meets with each teacher to go over the results from those quizzes. 

They are techniques that pay off as Freedom Preparatory’s TCAP scores in math beat those of the state and district in the 2010-2011 school year. “Our population is 100 percent African American, about 87 percent of kids are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and our seventh grade TCAP math scores were the same as Williamson County, the richest county in Tennessee, says Webb. "So our kids are doing really well.”

Charter growth

It would follow that more charter schools will be needed for any increase in enrollment, yet, because of the recent consolidation efforts of Memphis City and Shelby County Schools, there is discussion that the approval process for new schools may be put on hold until the intricacies of the merger are fully dealt with.

A charter school can only be closed for a failure in academics, finances, or if “there is a material departure from the charter school application,” notes Throckmorton. Last year brought a large influx of letters of intent to open charter schools in light of the policy change in 2009, almost 40 statewide, of which 25 made the October 1 deadline. Of that lot, seven or eight should be approved; two-thirds to three-quarters of applications are typically denied. Throckmorton foresees averaging 10 to 12 new charter schools per year, though, for the next few years.

There are an estimated 2 million students in charter schools nationwide and Ursula Wright, interim CEO and president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools wrote recently that “ … with hundreds of thousands more students across the country hoping for an additional seat in a charter school, we expect our share of the public school landscape to continue to rise in the coming years.” Memphis City Schools is cited by the organization in an annual report released in October as one of the Top 10 districts experiencing the highest annual growth in the percentage of public charter school students with a rise of 41 percent.

All public education should carry with it the weight of community and the gravity associated with teaching those who will become productive citizens in that community. Those in charge of the education have the future on their consciences. Within such a system, options and choices must be given so that the cracks are sealed and those at the bottom made to rise, succeed and excel. It is the place of the community to make this happen and, with charter schools, says KMCS’s McCall, “We’re focused on serving that underserved community.”

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