Charter Schools vs. Traditional Public Schools

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Join Arizona Horizon for a conversation about charter schools & traditional public schools’ differences, similarities, advantages, disadvantages and shared challenges with Eileen Sigmund, Executive Director of the Arizona Charter Schools Association and Jeff Smith, Superintendent of the Balsz Elementary School District in Phoenix.

Ted Simons: Arizona has been a leader in school choice since 1994, when the state's charter school law was created. There are now about 524 charter schools in the state. And the Arizona charter schools association wants to increase that number by offering a six-month fellowship for aspiring charter school leaders. Application deadline for that is next week. Tonight we look at the purpose of charter schools and how charters compare to traditional schools. But first, producer David Majure and photographer Steve Snow take us to a charter school in Phoenix, it was started by a Teach for America alum who spent four years teaching in the same district where she opened her charter school.

David Majure: It's the day before the AIMS test and they're getting a pep talk. How they score will be used to measure their academic progress and the overall performance of their school.

>> We want you to be the best school in the state.

David Majure: It's a charter school. Phoenix Collegiate Academy on South Central Avenue. It serves students in grades 5-8 from the surrounding south Phoenix neighborhood. Kids who would normally go to a school in the Roosevelt Elementary District.

Rachel Yanof: Our school, we have 95% of our students living in poverty, 95 are minority and about 19% have IEPs, or are special needs. All those numbers are higher than the district as a whole.

David Majure: Rachel is PCA's executive director. She opened the school in 2009 with something to prove.

Rachel Yanof: We're proving it every day. We're proving that students no matter what background they come from, demographics do not serve a destiny. Every kid can achieve the highest levels given high expectation and a structured environment around them. Our goal and the reason we do this is to make sure every student who comes to our school is prepared to succeed in college and be leaders in our community. We don't think we're successful until every student walks across that stage in college with a diploma.

David Majure: We'll have to wait a while for that measure of success, but there are indicators that PCA is performing better than schools in the district around it.

Rachel Yanof: We -- our first year, we beat the district around us by over 10% in math, 8% in reading, and last year in 7th grade with two years with us, those students outperformed the area schools by 11% in ELA and over 30% in mathematics. Which in this area has 75% of our students meet or exceed on the test is unheard of.

David Majure: This year the state graded the 19 surrounding district schools with one B, nine Cs, and nine Ds.

Rachel Yanof: We're proud. This year the academy was named an A school. We're actually the only A school in this area. So if our school didn't exist, it would literally not be an option for students to find an excellent education in this area.

David Majure: So what's going on? This doesn't appear to be the case of PCA cherry picking only the very best students.

Rachel Yanof: We have families that are here because their students have behavioral problems, students who are gifted, students who are struggling in math or reading.

David Majure: Those two areas get a lot of attention here. Students attend three reading classes and two math classes each day.

Rachel Yanof: We emphasize the reading because our kids come in on average two to three grade levels behind on reading. On average about two grade levels behind math. We're not doing anything that's wild and exciting. There's no silver bullet. The things I think that are attributing to the success of our students is we have a lot more time. Our students are here from 7:30 until 4:30, so in 180 days we're getting basically 30 extra school days when you add in all the extra time. That's a huge piece. We also have really phenomenal dedicated teachers. Our teachers are here because they believe their job is not just to educate students, but to truly close the achievement gap. They see it as a civil rights movement for their education, for their time. So that's a huge piece. And I think lastly, we are a school of choice. Our parents are invested in what we're doing.

David Majure: That's the one advantage she says her school has over district schools. Every PCA parent is at least somewhat interested in their child's education.

Rachel Yanof: We don't have buses, so they have to figure out a way to get them here. Some parents are minimally involved. They get them here and they sign homework. But that is an investment in their child that sometimes the public schools we have a hard time seeing that.

David Majure: Still, she believes district schools can find success by following the lead of Phoenix Collegiate Academy.

Rachel Yanof: There are components that would absolutely work. Districts could extend their school day easily. So we want this model to exist. As the only A school in the area, that's a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility. And I believe every kid deserves an excellent education. And we have to get to a point where kids not only have one school to choose from that has an A, but multiple schools to choose from. That means we lower our standard and A needs to mean something. It needs to be hard to get, but we need to say every school can be an A school.

Ted Simons: The kind of success story we've just seen is not limited to charter schools there. Are similar examples in many of our traditional public schools. Tonight we take a look at how charter and traditional public schools are similar, how they're different, and some of the challenges they share. Joining me is Eileen Sigmund president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools association. And Dr. Jeff Smith, superintendent of the Balsz Elementary School District in east Phoenix. Good to have you both here.

Jeff Smith: Thank you.

Ted Simons: From where you sit, what are the similarities between charter schools and the more traditional public schools?

Eileen Sigmund: The similarities are that we need great leaders and we need great teachers. So we need that human capital. In the classroom. And that's what is going to make a great school, and a great experience for students. So that's pretty basic.

Ted Simons: Similarities between these two forms of education.

Jeff Smith: They're both public schools, charter schools and traditional schools both receive state funding. There's a difference in the amount of funding, charter schools receive a little bit more, about $1,000 per student. Otherwise traditional public schools have a defined boundary. We know exactly who the students are and the people that live in our area, where as a charter school has open boundaries. They can draw students in from anywhere in the state.

Ted Simons: Talk about the differences in academic outcome. What are we seeing?

Eileen Sigmund: Actually I can't let that go. Charter students receive less based on the fiscal year 2011 we received 1,765 per student on average less. And that your question was --

Ted Simons: My question is going to be on hold. She has a different number than you.

Jeff Smith: I think she's taking the average. It depends on whether a school system can pass overrides and bonds and many systems cannot. And in those systems they receive as much as a thousand dollars less per student.

Eileen Sigmund: I will tell you we have about 1.1 million students. Of those 135,000 are charters, so what we do, we take the superintendent's report, which was published in January, and we look at all sources of funding and we will go through pretty extensive analysis. And that's where we look at all sources of funding. So you were exactly right. There are some districts, but the bottom line is one child or one student should not be worth less or worthless in the state's funding scheme. That's something we're looking at.

Jeff Smith: I completely agree.

Ted Simons: Okay. Let's get to academic outcome. What kind of compare and contrast if you will.

Eileen Sigmund: I think what we're looking at is there's growth and there's proficiency of a student's growth over time, and then how well they do on the standardized testing. That's what we look at for our charter schools, because there's an accountability metric out there for our charter schools that if they don't reach a certain bar, they're put on a performance management plan and in some cases their charter is revoked. Because a charter is simply a contract to improve student achievement. If they're not doing it, they're not in business.

Ted Simons: What do you see as far as academic outcome?

Jeff Smith: With traditional schools, some schools are excelling and doing well, some systems are doing well and others that are having a lot of difficulty. Often times the difficulty is a correlated with disadvantaged populations. Where you're dealing with poverty, it's likely you're going have struggling students and families that are in need and you might not have the same level of outcome and student growth that you would in other kinds of areas.

Ted Simons: Is that a variable you see in charter schools as well?

Eileen Sigmund: That is exactly why we have the aspiring leaders program. That program has people who have been proving gains with low-income students for three years, and then we're trying to show them the best of the best of what's happening in the country. So, for example, we could go all over the country and see students that don't have the best of home circumstances knocking it out of the ballpark on academic gains, getting into college. We want that, and with Balsz we want their leaders in the aspiring leaders program too.

Ted Simons: Are we seeing it getting knocked out of the ballpark in Arizona with charter schools?

Eileen Sigmund: You are.

Ted Simons: In those areas.

Eileen Sigmund: Low-income students?

Ted Simons: I do.

Eileen Sigmund: Yes. I have a lot of A schools right in Phoenix that I can point to certainly Phoenix Collegial Academy, leaders going through our program right now, and Balsz School District has one of my principals that was in a charter for homeless students that now one of Balsz's principals.

Ted Simons: Does that make sense to you?

Jeff Smith: Yes. I know in our school district we've extended our year, very innovative model where we go one month longer, and as a result we've gone from schools under performing to all of our schools are performing plus. And we're seeing tremendous growth. We've closed the gap on the state average. So public schools are showing innovative plans and programs.

Ted Simons: The idea of basing traditional public schools on models that are successful elsewhere. We heard briefly I want to get back to you on that. How easy, how difficult it is to do that with traditional schools?

Jeff Smith: I think it depends on the leader, it depends on the population. People want to do what's best for their kids. Public schools are all about building communities. So it's about a community coming together and defining what it is they want for their students. We see schools all across public schools across the state that have very innovative programs, international baccalaureate programs, gifted programs, so innovation is present and thriving in public schools.

Ted Simons: How difficult to get that kind of innovation at a school? You've got some folks who think they know what they're doing, even if the results aren't what they expected, they still think they have a good model. Is it difficult to -- so many of these charters may be on probation. How do you get them to improve when they think they've got a better idea?

Eileen Sigmund: We have pretty extensive coaching for our schools. And the -- how do you get to the schools time prove is really schools and the teachers, the state charter board, the main authorizer or the hammer, that's what happens. There's a limited time now to improve, or to be closed. And the other thing is really to open your doors with success. Because if you don't open right by that first week, if it takes a month to get that school right it's a year to turn around. Frankly, who wants to open a school and victimize children for a year? You don't. You've got to open it right.

Ted Simons: I want to ask you about -- because in reading up on this story, charters when they first started were considered game changers. The cutting edge, the leading edge of a new way to educate kids. Some say now that those results have not been seen after all these years, and that because so many schools are on probation, because the increased accountability that's almost a signal that something needs to be done. Respond to the idea that something has happened, charter schools aren't fulfilling the promise they originally had.

Eileen Sigmund: Certainly. We now have a grading system, A-F. I think we can all agree, we want more A schools than F schools. So what's happening right now is we finally had the accountability and the system in which to measure, and it's measured, you're measuring a school based on one standardized test. So that is where we're looking at our results. And so what you can also say is, and certainly I know Superintendent Huppenthal will say this, other measurements are needed. But we can all agree that there's going to be some pockets of excellence and some pockets of failure. And we want to expand and replicate excellence.

Ted Simons: From the other direction, critics have said from the get-go that these will take money, resource, time, and attention away from traditional schools, yet they seem to be coexisting just fine. Are they coexisting just fine? What do you see?

Jeff Smith: I'd like to see better coordination and collaboration. Charter schools can come into an area without any planning along with school districts. So I'm afraid if it's not done carefully, we may have too many schools in an area, we're closing down some schools. We don't want schools and children, some winners and losers, we want everyone to win. I think the schools work together, planning and bringing troops their community to fit the needs of the community.

Ted Simons: Is that a concern, charter schools opening in school districts, in areas that have strong school districts as opposed to areas in need?

Eileen Sigmund: Absolutely. We had on our website an education of evaluator which has 1 now 990 schools all charters and districts. So we actually helped schools plan where they're going locate. But what will happen is, certainly the facility is a huge burden for our schools. So what we'll do is we may open in an area where because we're telling people open with get your culture right, one or two grades, so they may lease to open, and then have a permanent facility after they're established after three years. So there's a lot of variables right now that they're looking at, but we try not to open schools in low-income areas where students are already being well served.

Ted Simons: High income areas.

Eileen Sigmund: No, I mean in low-income F they're well served in low-income areas we'll find where they're not. Because there's plenty of areas that exist.

Ted Simons: My question dealt with the better school districts and higher income areas. Why schools? Are you seeing a problem with that?

Jeff Smith: I think it depends on who you talk to. When a charter school that is designed to sift the high end students off a school district, I think if you talk to that district they're not very pleased with that. I think they feel they provide an excellent program. They provide a comprehensive program. A comprehensive tool that has sports and arts. And sometimes a charter schools don't have that. And that's fine, but that can affect the real school too.

Ted Simons: Can we really, am I just -- can you really compare charters with traditional public schools?

Jeff Smith: Children are children. We're looking at growth. We want the best for students. We want our students to be college and career ready. So I think we can compare, but they're not all the same.

Ted Simons: Can we do this? Can we compare?

Eileen Sigmund: Absolutely. And charter schools are designed and statutorily mandated to improve student achievement and that's their purpose.

Ted Simons: Good discussion. Thank you for joining us.

Eileen Sigmund:Executive Director, Arizona Charter Schools Association; Jeff Smith:Superintendent, Balsz Elementary School District, Phoenix;

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