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Charter schools are struggling to meet standards, but keep growing

When Ron and Tina Gamble's twin daughters, Jessica and Lauren, considered leaving public school for cyber school after sophomore year, several factors influenced their decision. The family from Murrysville liked the flexible cyber school schedule and lack of "busy work."

Standardized test scores and state requirements did not factor into the decision.

"They don't seem that important to me," said Lauren Gamble, 17.

Since the charter school movement began in Pennsylvania nearly 15 years ago, most of the state's charter schools continue to struggle to meet state standards. Yet, charters in Western Pennsylvania keep growing.

More than 90,000 students are enrolled in 142 public charter schools, including 12 cyber charter schools, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. An estimated 30,000 students are on waiting lists.

Data show traditional charter schools fare better academically than their virtual counterparts.

In Pennsylvania, 94 percent of school districts met adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law in 2010-11. Sixty percent of charter schools and 17 percent of cyber charter schools met the standard.

A study of Pennsylvania charter school performance released in April by Stanford University shows that from 2007 to 2010, 60 percent of traditional charter schools performed similarly or better than traditional public schools in reading. Fifty-three percent did so in math.

Nearly all of the state's cyber charter schools performed significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts in reading and math.

"Cyber charter schools, like brick-and-mortar charter schools, as well as traditional public schools are subject to the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, in that they are measured annually for academic progress," said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, when asked for comment on the performance of the state's charter schools.

"When a school or district does not make adequate yearly progress, it is required to create a school improvement plan to address academic deficiencies and submit it to PDE for review and approval."

Charter educators say they're up against more challenges than the typical public school under No Child Left Behind. Unlike public districts, which count on multiple schools to boost the chances of meeting state standards, a single charter school not hitting one federal benchmark might not meet state standards.

"Districts can make AYP but still have a school within the district fail. We are judged like we're all in one big building. We live or die based on one subgroup not making it," said Fred Miller, spokesman for PA Cyber Charter School in Midland, Beaver County, which has 11,000 students.

Dr. James Hoover, CEO of PA Distance Learning CS in Franklin Park, which did not make AYP in 2011, said testing circumstances differ for cyber students and public school students, and that can affect outcomes. Cyber students travel to a remote test site -- often a hotel or community college -- to take the test over two days, in a "strange place with kids they're meeting for the first time."

"It's a little fatiguing, if not stressful," Hoover said.

The Gambles took the PSSAs at a Holiday Inn over two days, an experience they said they preferred to five days of testing in public school.

"It wasn't comfortable," Lauren Gamble said about her public school testing experience. "You were in a classroom for hours with a lot of sick kids around you, then you'd go back to classes."

She and her sister have been accepted for admission to Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla.

PA Cyber, which met AYP standards for the past three years, has 30 test sites across the state for administering PSSAs. It cost the school $875,000 last year to administer the test to 4,500 students.

"It's been a consorted effort," said Andrew Oberg, the school's executive director. "Everybody in the school, no matter what their job is, understands the importance of making AYP."

In addition to challenges with state tests, educators at cyber and traditional charters say they're often tasked with teaching reluctant learners.

"We face a lot of challenges every day when we come to work," said Teresa O'Neill, literary coach of Propel McKeesport.

Most of those challenges are socioeconomic. Across Propel's eight schools, more than 75 percent of the 2,400 students qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. The key, O'Neill said, is not letting challenges become excuses.

"Every staff member believes every student can and will learn," she said.

Last year, Propel Sunrise in Braddock Hills received a warning status, which means it did not make AYP. All other Propel schools made AYP last year. Stephen Sikon, assistant principal at Propel McKeesport, cautioned that students shouldn't be considered "just numbers or PSSA data."

Educators focus on individualized instruction to address students' specific needs by working with them one-on-one and tailoring assignments to each student's achievement level. That's attractive to prospective students, said Tina Chekan, assistant superintendent at Propel McKeesport. The school, which has a waiting list, accepts 40 new students each year.

Such attention was evident last week in Melanie Ward's first-grade class, where students studied "ou" and "ow" sounds at work stations throughout the room. In a room lit by colorful lamps resting on bright rugs, students moved in groups from one station to the next, reading, writing and sounding things out.

Their teacher worked at their eye level, sitting next to one student who needed extra attention finishing his sentence, then moving on to a group studying workbooks while seated on the floor. Propel students are encouraged as early as kindergarten to work with their peers to accomplish academic tasks.

"Everything is transparent," Chekan said. "No student can hide."

Although educators at traditional and cyber charter schools reiterate the idea that PSSAs can't measure every important aspect of a child's education, they continue to work to improve exam scores.

"It's something that's been used against us by people who don't like what we do," Oberg said. "We really want to use it as ammo to show why we exist, rather than people using it as darts to throw against the wall and say, 'This is why cyber charter schools are not getting the job done.'"

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