For decades, charter schools have been held out as one of the great hopes of public education — private institutions funded with taxpayer dollars, but free from some of the strictures that saddle traditional public schools.
And few school systems have embraced charters as much as the Los Angeles Unified School District has in recent years, with dozens of new charters routinely approved at board meetings.
But school performance measures released Thursday show that charters are not a silver bullet. Only about half of Los Angeles Unified’s 228 charters have met the state-set goal of an Academic Performance Index of 800 or better. Those scores are based mostly on standardized tests students receive from grades 3 to 12, as well as high school exit exams.
L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy said he agrees that charters have to perform well. If they don't?
“We close them,” he said.
Districts have the power to revoke a charter’s license to operate. But according to interviews with state and district officials, L.A. Unified has seldom done so on purely academic grounds.
What does omit mean?
Lou Dantzler Prepatory Middle School sits behind cheerfully-painted, high metal gates in South Central Los Angeles. Its buildings are new and tidy. Students wear uniforms. And the charter offers perks few public schools in the area do, such as dance and rugby classes.
Seventh grade teacher Vivian Valencia puts her students right to work when the bell rings - there is no time to waste.
“We are going over omitting needless words,” said Valencia. “Can anyone tell me what omitting means?”
The room is silent for a moment and she asks again.
“To take out!” a student finally offered.
Despite appearances, Dantzler is a struggling school. Data released by the California Department of Education Thursday show it has an Academic Performance Index of 625, far below the state’s goal of 800. The best possible score is 1,000.
Some charter advocates point out that it can take a charters a while to make up for what students haven’t been learning in traditional schools. But Dantzler has been in operation for six years.
And for the past two years, its scores have been dropping. It is now the second-worst performing middle school charter in L.A. Unified.
A critical question
District officials wouldn’t directly answer the question of how many charters have been revoked or denied a license renewal for poor performance.
“That’s a critical question for the sector and for charter schools and for charter school authorizers — the issue of quality and closures,” Jose Cole-Gutierrez, the Director of the Charter Schools Division at L.A. Unified, said in an interview.
He said 30 district charters have “closed” in three years - but that's a total number that includes many schools that have closed on their own for a variety of reasons.
According to the California Charter School Association, L.A. Unified has only closed three charters since 2010 for academic reasons.
Many times when the district steps in, it’s because a school’s finances are falling apart. L.A. Unified has declined to renew licenses and closed some charters on those grounds.
Money has been a problem for Lou Dantzler. In 2010, its operator, ICEF Public Schools, ran a $20 million deficit and couldn’t make payroll. But its finances have stabilized since then. It closed three schools and received an infusion of loans and donations – another benefit charters have that traditional public schools don’t.
Cole Gutierrez said he has given the school specific goals to improve academics.
But CEO Parker Hudnut, who oversees multiple charters including Dantzler, said that while the district has asked lots of questions about its finances, it hasn’t given the school an academic improvement plan.
He said the district did provide a one-page sheet with bullet points, which may have been a template for multiple charters. Dantzler Principal Didi Watts hadn’t heard of the document.
Sober about the challenges the school faces, Watts said she is aggressively attempting a turnaround and that the school's own goals are much more rigorous than any the district has put forth.
“The school has suffered in terms of academic achievement,” said Watts. “My mantra is provide quality first instruction. A lot of times we come up with intervention plans – providing after school tutoring and things like that – but we need to focus on the instructional program being provided in the classroom.”
Cole-Gutierrez said the district is serious about ensuring charter quality, in part by being very exclusive on the front-end and only recommending the most promising operators for initial approval.
In 1993, California became the second state in the nation to allow for charters. Their presence has grown since then, particularly in places where the leadership believes in school choice, like L.A. Unified. Charters now make up nearly a quarter of all public schools in the district.
And charters as a group are doing better than L.A. Unified traditional schools, taken as a whole. On the state’s one-thousand-point scale, L.A. Unified charters averaged an API of 806, according to figures released Thursday. That’s six points above the state’s target for all schools.
By comparison, the district’s hundreds of traditional public schools, where scores swing widely, averaged an API of 746. Only about a third of the district’s schools are meeting the state target.
But because charters are an alternative to chronically failing schools, parents expect that they are meeting – and exceeding – goals.
“I chose the school because it’s one of the best schools in Los Angeles, California,” said parent Jenny Bermudez, who emigrated from Belize two years ago. Bermudez walks four miles each way to drop off and pick up her son Shakeem Shamal Samuels, a seventh grader at Lou Dantzler.
When faced with the school’s actual API scores, Bermudez said she still would keep him there.
“I prefer him to stay in a charter school,” she said. “I believe it’s much better.”
There are several charter school success stories, and advocates often point to the same handful of top schools.
Three miles from Lou Dantzler sits another charter middle school with a very different story. Synergy Kinetic has a long waiting list and has received its share of accolades. The USC School Performance Dashboard recently listed Kinetic as the top elementary/middle charter in California.
Its students are predominately Latino and low-income.
“I think I see ourselves as a successful school with student achievement as our priority and we happen to be a charter,” said Principal Christine Mayhill.
The tools the school uses to improve learning aren’t “rocket science,” she said: set aside time for students to catch up on material they missed in earlier grades; use benchmark assessments throughout the year to pinpoint gaps and fill them in; have teachers do mini check in’s at the end of class to make sure students got the lessons.
In short, Kinetic tailors lessons to the students they have, not the students they wish they had.
“Raise your hand if you know Spanish,” said Stephen Negrete, 7th grade English teacher at Kinetic said during a class earlier this week. Every hand in the class went up.
“Can everyone say Protagonista?”
“Ok, so a protagonist is a good guy or the central character in the story,” he explained.
Then he pointed to an image on a PowerPoint presentation projected on to a screen - a hiker climbing up a mountain, symbolizing the arc of the story. The visual element is crucial for explaining abstract concepts, especially to those who are still learning English.
Mayhill said some of Kinetic’s success does come from being a charter. It’s a smaller school – 474 students – and on-site staff has more control over how they spend state money. The school also gets donations other schools do not and it is looking to hire a full-time fundraiser.
“We have been able to do some of the things we have done because we have a great team of dedicated, talented and passionate folks,” she said.
But even Kinetic, held out as a charter success, saw its API dip this year. It went from 804 to 784, falling below the state’s target.