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Charter schools among lowest-scoring in Pennsylvania, analysis finds

Emily Balser
| Monday, Sept. 14, 2015, 9:30 p.m.
Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
Robert Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

Editor's note: The Tribune-Review examined school districts and charter schools in seven Western Pennsylvania counties. This is the second of a two-day report. Today: Charter schools and how they seek to reverse falling student performance.

Charter schools, specifically cyber charter schools, are among the lowest-scoring schools in the state and have some of the highest numbers of economically disadvantaged students, a Tribune-Review analysis found.

“Yes, there is data that shows a correlation between poverty and underperforming,” said Bob Fayfich, director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

He said one reason cyber charters have low scores is the turnover of students who were behind in traditional schools.

“It usually takes two, three, four years to get students who are failing back to their level,” he said. “If a student doesn't stay there for two or three years, the school doesn't have the opportunity to turn them around.”

Fayfich said some charter schools might never post high scores because the students generally arrive behind, and it's hard to catch up.

“The biggest percentage are those who are failing in the district school for some reason,” he said. “It's a last resort for them before they drop out of the school entirely.”

He said some charter schools focus on students who are in legal trouble or about to drop out, such as the Academy Charter School in Pittsburgh.

“What they're dealing with are students who would otherwise be dropped out of the system, be in jail or on the street,” he said.

Representatives of Academy Charter School declined to comment, citing the need to protect students who have been in legal trouble.

Fayfich cautioned against judging such schools only by performance scores. He said people should look at the school's mission and what it's doing to help students.

However, Fayfich said the schools don't take low performance scores lightly.

“When the Department of Education looks at renewal of their charters, that's one of the things they look at,” he said.

Matthew Stem, deputy secretary of Education for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the success of any school hinges on the support within them.

“Any program can have a positive impact on student learning if the instructional supports are in place,” he said. “There are cyber programs that serve students very well.”

Stem said some factors of success are common to traditional and charter schools.

“When schools don't have those elements — motivated teachers, access to researchers, community support — their students will have a hard time being successful,” he said.

Fayfich said charter school students have a bigger need for family support.

“When you have choice in education, there's an added responsibility to the parents to truly understand their child,” he said.

Steve Robinson, senior director of communications for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said low-performing charter schools are a concern for its members.

“Any time a student leaves a traditional school and goes to either a cyber charter or regular charter, money goes with that student,” he said. “Some districts are seeing huge amounts of money depart from their budgets.”

Robinson said the association wants to make sure the money is being used efficiently and the schools provide an adequate education.

“We don't have any direct input into the cybers themselves,” he said. “We try to work for some legislative reform with charter schools with better transparency and accountability.”

Fayfich said while performance scores are important to charter schools, a better indicator of success is to look at improvement over time. He said the longer students are at these schools, the more they improve.

“Since they're getting a lot of the kids who are having the most difficulty, it may be taking longer.”

Emily Balser was a Trib Total Media summer intern.

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