Pa. charter students' skills fall far short, study reveals
By Kate Wilcox
Published: Sunday, July 7, 2013, 10:20 p.m.
From the start, Keisha Dumas knew she would never send her son to a public school in Pittsburgh.
“Even when my son was a baby, I was like, ‘He's not going to go,' ” said Dumas, a Pittsburgh Public Schools graduate.
Dumas, of the Hill District, believed the public system was struggling, so she enrolled her son, Keimon Dupree, 12, in Urban Pathways Charter School last year.
She researched other charter schools in Pittsburgh and liked Urban Pathways' academic programs.
She hasn't looked back. Her son continues to excel at Urban Pathways, consistently making the CEO List, the school's honor roll.
Nationally, charter school students surpass gains made on standardized tests by students at traditional public schools but, on average, Pennsylvania's charter students fall behind their public school peers, according to a recent study of charter schools by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. The study looked at traditional and cyber charter schools.
Nationally, the study found, charter school students posted reading gains equivalent to an additional eight days of school, compared with traditional public school students. In math, the two groups were even.
In Pennsylvania, the study indicated charter students lost the equivalent of 29 days of learning in Pennsylvania System of School Assessment standardized test reading scores and 50 days of learning in PSSA math scores, according to the study.
Charter schools are self-managed public schools funded by school districts, which pay a fee set by the state for each student. They are considered more flexible than traditional public schools and are overseen by the state Department of Education.
Dev Davis, research manager for the Stanford study, said it is important to note that researchers found wide differences in scores between each charter school. Some make adequate yearly progress, as determined by the Education Department; in others, most students do not reach proficient levels.
Urban Pathways, for example, did not meet AYP in 2012 and received a “warning” from the state.
Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania, a charter school in Baldwin-Whitehall School District that caters to students who do not speak English as a first language, also did not meet AYP.
Coordinator and math teacher Kamil Toprak said the school has an uphill battle in trying to assimilate students from six districts and different cultural backgrounds.
On the other hand, Propel Charter Schools, with the exception of Propel Northside, all made AYP, according to state records.
“I think, as you know, there's a lot of variation,” said Jeremy Resnick, executive director. “There's good schools and not good schools.”
This sizable difference in standardized test performance across charter schools is something the Department of Education should control through stricter regulations, said Robert P. Strauss, professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
“The root cause of poor academic performance is that there are no guidelines for governance of charter schools, so the absence of oversight of the public charter is a problem,” he said.
The lowest gains were found in cyber charter schools in a 2011 Stanford study of charter schools in Pennsylvania.
“The cybers are getting some of the lowest-performing students, and they don't have a lot of time to work with them,” said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
Fayfich said that often, students who struggle the most with a traditional school or charter school turn to cyber schools to complete their educations.
Baldwin-Whitehall Superintendent Randal Lutz takes issue with that statement, claiming that standardized scores dropped for some high-performing students who left to attend charter schools.
“Expectations are low, and demands are low,” he said. “There is not a teacher in front of them.”
The Stanford study measured learning gains in students, meaning how much a charter student's scores improved that year compared to a similar student in a public school.
Yet not everything is about scores, Davis said.
“Maybe they're providing other curricular enhancements that are not measured by reading and math scores,” she said of charter schools.
Principal David Gallup said Urban Pathways school officials watch whether students have enough to eat or somewhere to stay for the night.
“Until their needs are met, kids aren't capable of learning,” he said.
Keimon said he loves the way his teachers structure classes, and he finds the course work challenging.
His mother is pleased with his performance at the school.
“This is my favorite school yet,” Keimon said. “It's just the teachers are nicer to me and they all have a motto — ‘To keep all the students engaged to learn.' ”
Nationally, the most significant gains the study found were for minority students, economically disadvantaged students and English-language learners in charter schools.
Black students gained 14 days of learning in charter schools, and black students living in poverty gained 29 days in reading and 36 days in math.
Those findings don't surprise Dumas.
“In public schools, there are so many children to a classroom, the student might not get as much attention,” she said.
Gallup said Urban Pathways' kindergarten-through-fifth-grade classes are 99 percent minority students, and 80 percent of students are disadvantaged.
At Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania, where many students speak Russian as a first language, Toprak said the school is better suited to aid them than traditional public schools.
“We have a tutor for almost every student,” he said.
But Baldwin-Whitehall's Lutz said it's “absolutely incorrect” to say that public schools cannot provide for all students.
“Public schools have such a breadth and depth of intervention programs to meet kids' needs,” he said. “I've not seen a school yet that can provide for that wide range of students.”
Kate Wilcox is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 724-836-6155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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