When the state legislature voted to allow charter schools in 1996, a new era in North Carolina education was born.
The No. 1 goal, as stated in the charter school law, was improved student learning.
The schools, which receive public funding but operate independently of local districts, didn’t have to adhere to as many state regulations and were meant to unleash innovation.
For years, charters were on the periphery of public education. But since 2011, when the state lifted the 100-school limit for charters, the sector has boomed. Enrollment has more than doubled and in 2016-17, the state spent $513 million on 167 charter schools. There are now 173 charter schools, and 20 more are approved to open in 2018.
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But have charter schools improved education? The answer is not clear-cut:
▪ They are less likely to be average. According to the state’s grading system, a larger share of charter schools performed at the A or B level than the traditional schools run by school districts, which had a greater percentage in the average range. However, there was also a bigger share of F-graded charters than traditional schools.
▪ Their students show similar levels of improvement. A school’s letter grade has more to do with how well students score on tests than how much students are improving. The grade of an elementary or middle school is calculated 80 percent from student test scores and 20 percent from student growth, which measures how student test scores improve from year to year. (High schools are graded using a combination of test scores and other factors.)
When student growth is considered on its own, traditional schools and charters have shown mostly similar results in recent years. Traditional schools slightly outperformed charter schools in the 2016-17 school year, with three-quarters of traditional schools meeting or exceeding growth expectations compared to 7 in 10 charter schools.
▪ They show signs of benefitting low-income students. A News & Observer analysis of end-of-grade test scores for 3rd to 8th graders in 2016-17 in reading and math shows younger low-income charter students performed as well as students from low-income families in traditional schools. But among low-income students in middle-school grades, charter students showed higher proficiency rates.
▪ They have improved, as a whole. A study by Duke University researchers in 2015 examined student achievement in the state’s charter schools and reached several conclusions. In the early years (1999-2003), charter students had smaller gains in test scores than their counterparts in traditional public schools. That turned around over time, though, and by 2012, charter students had larger gains than their traditional peers on both reading and math tests.
Researchers cited a couple of possible reasons. For one thing, some of the weaker charter schools ceased to exist. Across two decades, 59 charter schools have closed or never opened, mostly due to financial issues. The gradual improvement was also likely influenced by a 2006 state policy that required a one-year delay in opening for new charters so that they would be better prepared to serve students.
▪ Their students tend to start out with advantages: After further analysis, the Duke researchers concluded that the greater test-score gains of charter students in recent years were misleading because they reflected higher-achieving students migrating to charters. The researchers examined middle-grade students who had switched from traditional schools to charters, looking at their performance before and after. They concluded that self-selection based on ability accounted for some of the recent gains of charter school students.
“Can we say that charter schools on average are more effective than traditional public schools? Our answer was no,” said Helen Ladd, an economist and the lead author on the Duke research. “They are on average no better or worse, even though they’ve gotten better over time. They’re still no better, so there’s no good reason to throw all this money to charter schools.”
A smaller environment
Families who want a choice say charters provide options that are badly needed.
Four years ago, Cary student Hayley Hillison took a chance on a new high school that opened in the heart of Research Triangle Park.
It had a science and technology focus and flipped classrooms – video lectures at home, hands-on work at school. It would be a very different experience than that of her friends at the Wake County behemoth, the then A-rated Apex High School, with more than 2,000 students.
Hillison’s parents wanted her in a smaller environment suited to her learning style. Adopted from foster care, Hayley was their only child, their miracle baby. At Research Triangle High, with 261 students at the time, Hayley played soccer and basketball, and she worked on the yearbook – activities that might not have been available to her at uber-competitive Apex.
“We’re big believers in hands-on learning and that you get as much from activities and sports and the other things that surround a school as much as you do in the classes,” said her mother, Michelle Hillison.
State schools Superintendent Mark Johnson said charter schools give parents ways of matching education to their children’s needs. He wants traditional public schools to move toward personalized education for each student. Until that happens, charters help fill that role, he said.
“I look forward to working urgently to bring those resources to our traditional public schools,” said Johnson, a Republican elected last fall. “While it’s not in every traditional public school, give the options to parents to send their children elsewhere.”
On average, North Carolina’s elementary-only charter schools are just a bit more than half the size of traditional public elementary schools. The contrast is even greater at high schools: charters that offer only high-school classes average fewer than half the students of traditional public high schools.
In Wake County, the average traditional public high school has about 1,900 students. Raleigh Charter High School has 562; another charter, Longleaf School of the Arts, has 332.
Hayley Hillison graduated from Research Triangle High in June, and her principal and three teachers showed up at a graduation party at the Hillisons’ home. After receiving a dozen college acceptances, she’s now a first-year student at William Peace University. She said she was prepared for college work.
“It’s been an easy transition in terms of how to handle discussions, group work and dealing with professors,” said Hillison, 19. “After knowing so many RTHS teachers so well, it wasn’t scary to me to talk to professors.”
Not far away, another charter high school was shut down by the state.
A scandal involving Kestrel Heights School’s high school program dealt a blow to the state’s charter movement. An internal investigation found that since 2008, 40 percent of Kestrel Heights graduates had not met state diploma requirements. In a rare move, the State Board of Education voted in March to close Kestrel Heights’ high school.
“It’s a true embarrassment to everything that we try to be about here and what charter schools are,” said Eric Sanchez, a former member of the state’s Charter Schools Advisory Board.
While charter school advocates insist the problem existed only at Kestrel, school-district leaders say more local oversight is needed for charters, which are governed by their own volunteer boards and report to the state annually.
Ladd, the Duke economist, said the state has done a better job vetting new schools than in the beginning, but the watchful eye should not stop there.
“If you’re going to expand them,” she said, “you’ve got to make sure that they’re meeting the public interest.”
‘Outdated and broken’
As with traditional schools, charter schools with large concentrations of low-income students have lower scores on standardized tests.
At the edge of Durham’s downtown, Global Scholars Academy has 200 students in kindergarten through eighth grade – roughly half black and half Latino. Ninety percent are low-income students who receive free or reduced lunch at the school, which launched in 2009.
There, the new head of school, Jason Jowers, has settled in to a place where he never thought he’d be. With 10 years in Durham public schools, he was the district’s teacher of the year in 2011 and the statewide assistant principal of the year in 2015. He was lured to the charter from Fayetteville Street Elementary, where he was principal.
Jowers was about as anti-charter as anyone could be: “‘They’re getting all the money’ — I was that guy.”
Now he’s come to a realization. “The large school model for these populations that I serve, I think, is outdated and broken,” Jowers said.
It’s not unusual for Jowers to work with a student one-on-one in his office when there’s a problem or behavior issue. On the wall, a poster shows the school uniform of yellow and blue shirts, pants and skirts, with the heading, “How to Be a Well-Dressed Scholar.”
“We have to do something different. Having this small community, I literally can touch everyone every day,” Jowers said. “I can look at the data more in-depth to see where the needs are, where the gaps are, create interventions that are more purposeful and meaningful.”
Global Scholars has an extended day until 6 p.m. It participates in the federal lunch program, contracting with the Durham district to provide food. The students get breakfast, lunch and a snack – at one point, Jowers explored the idea of providing dinner, too. The extended day includes an hour of homework plus enrichment in chess, choir, culinary arts, entrepreneurship, archery and Lego engineering. All children have tablets with free internet access, and they take them home for online math practice at night.
Jowers started a mentoring program for black male students and brought in African American graduate students from UNC-Chapel Hill’s business school. This year, students from N.C. Central University have joined as mentors. Eighth grade students went on a field trip to the Nasher Museum at Duke, but because the school has no transportation, the students had to take city buses.
Global Scholars is seeing results. Two years after it was graded an F on the state report card, it climbed to a C in 2016-17, rising 16 percentage points in one year to a 52.8 percent proficiency rate on state tests. Jowers is shooting for 70 percent proficiency next year, in hopes of a B rating.
He attributed the improvement to his staff’s focus, professional development for teachers and high expectations for students – and their parents.
“As the year progressed, parents could see the changes; they could see the improved academic performance of their children,” Jowers said. “Once they see that, they’re much more on board.”
He advises his graduating middle-school students to stay away from the big public high schools, because he’s afraid they’d get swallowed up. He recommends they go to early-college high schools, small magnet programs or charter high schools, like Research Triangle High School.
Research Triangle High was envisioned as an everyman version of Raleigh Charter, consistently rated among the best in the country. Founders wanted to bring that tradition to a broader population with more racial and socio-economic diversity.
The experiment proved more difficult than expected, said managing director and founder Pamela Blizzard, who referred to the first year in 2012 as “a hot mess.”
That year, 20 percent of its students were low-income, but the flipped classroom learning wasn’t for everyone. Just 2 of 25 low-income students who took Math 1 in ninth grade were proficient in the subject.
The school switched gears, first doubling up on reading and math instruction for struggling students and then adopting a curriculum from Summit Public Schools, a charter network in California’s Bay Area, where Facebook engineers worked with teachers to design an online personalized learning system. It provides self-paced learning, with repetition until students reach competency. Students have mentors now.
The new approach began to turn things around. Among low-income students, 7 of 10 were proficient in Math 1 in 2015-16.
But the proficiency rate dropped to 36 percent in 2016-17. Blizzard said new students who came in had greater gaps to overcome, but they were showing substantial improvement.
Research Triangle High, now with 500 students, has the only A rating from the state among 13 charter schools located in Durham.
But the high school’s RTP office building, with the staircase that resembles a DNA model, hasn’t proven to be a big draw for low-income students. They made up just 8 percent of the school’s population last year.
The school doesn’t have its own transportation but provides passes on Triangle Transit Authority regional buses.
Blizzard said she recruits students from “achievement gap” schools, advertising on radio stations aimed at minority audiences, to go beyond word-of-mouth applicants. She said she’d like to recruit in public schools, but hasn’t found school leaders willing. “On the one hand, they complain and say charter schools are exclusive,” she said, “but then they exclude their kids from the opportunity to come to a school that’s trying to get them access.”
At Research Triangle High on a fall day, students in advanced functions and modeling worked at their own pace on laptops, some with headphones watching a demonstration online. A teacher made the rounds.
Blizzard says the new personalized learning platform is transforming their experience.
“They learn that they can learn,” she said, “and that’s how students learn how to learn. That’s the golden nugget.”