Remarks at the Thomas Jefferson Institute Annual Policy Luncheon
These are exciting times for Virginia education. With a newly-elected Governor who not only supports charter schools, but brought them up frequently and with enthusiasm throughout his campaign; a President and federal Secretary of Education who have already demonstrated their commitment to supporting high-performing public charter school options, and a Speaker of the House in Virginia, Bill Howell, who has been one of the Commonwealth’s most outspoken charter school supporters, there is strong reason for optimism that families in Virginia may finally benefit from a more robust, high-quality charter school movement.
I am looking forward to discussing some of the ways Virginia could improve its charter school law to not only improve what is already one of the nation’s strongest systems of public education, but to really see through the work that began with the Standards of Learning/Standards of Quality process by offering an answer to those schools where progress and full accreditation remain distant goals. When we get to our question and answer session I’d look forward to discussing some specific ways that could happen. That is an important conversation, but an involved one, and since my time talking with you today is limited, I’ve promised to save that discussion for the question and answer period.
But that brings me back to one of my favorite points – I am one who strongly believes that there is much that forward-thinking local school boards and state education officials can do right now, without having to make any changes to current law, to energize a robust, high-quality charter school movement here in the Old Dominion. In fact, there are also some real incentives, both educational and financial, for the one or two local school divisions that are the first ones out of the box to make that happen.
But I was invited here to talk about how Virginia might benefit from the examples of some of the truly exemplary charter schools that have energized public education in the District of Columbia.
The DC Public Charter School Board currently supervises 57 public charter schools on 99 campuses, serving more than 28,000 students. This year, public charter schools serve 38 percent of all public school students living in the District of Columbia.
An analysis by the Washington Post last year concluded that charter middle school students outperformed those in the traditional public school system by 19 points in reading and 20 points in math.
PCSB is nationally recognized for best practices as a high-quality charter authorizer. As an independent authorizing body PCSB serves as the authorizer for all charter schools in the city, and has oversight responsibilities for a detailed accountability system that tracks: Program development, compliance in areas like highly-qualified teacher requirements, special education quality, truancy and suspension rates, re-enrollment rates, financial management and high school transcripts. To do this the board has a truly remarkable staff of 23, including accomplished former principals, teachers, specialists in every aspect of school management who work hard to give charter schools every opportunity to succeed, and often to help them do it.
DC Public Charter Schools serve a population that is consistently well above the district average rates for both African-American students and children from economically disadvantaged households. These are critical populations for DC charter schools to serve effectively, and the results are often impressive.
Success can be measured in different ways, but some indicators I like to point to are: that children who are enrolled in DC middle and high schools where a majority of students are economically disadvantaged are nearly twice as likely to be proficient in reading and math in charter schools compared with DCPS schools. Put differently, the percentage of middle and high school students from financially disadvantaged households who scored proficient or higher in reading and math is 70 percent higher in charter schools than at district-run public schools.
This is not the case with younger children, and the numbers seem to show that charter school students begin to outperform DCPS students in about the fifth grade.
Charter schools tend to be smaller than traditional public schools. Nationally in states with charter schools the average enrollment is 137 for charter schools compared with 475 for traditional public schools. The average enrollment is higher for District charters, due to a variety of reasons, including a more mature charter movement, but still well below the average enrollment at traditional public schools.
Charter schools are a governance model as much as they are a movement. One defining characteristic of charter schools, in the nation’s capital and elsewhere, is that any child who lives in the school district has as good a chance of getting into the charter school of their choice as any other that applies, regardless of their academic record, family’ socioeconomic status, or any other factors. There are no entrance examinations or interviews to pass, or any other requirements for admittance.
DC-PCSB schools benefit from millions of dollars in public loans. PCSB works alongside the DC Public Charter School Credit Enhancement and Direct Loan Funds Committee which approves any transactions funded from DC –PCS school credit enhancement fund and direct loan funds and also guarantees private loans to schools. Many schools have also proven to be excellent fundraisers, bringing millions of new philanthropy community dollars into the community.
Generally speaking, funds are allocated to DC charter schools using the same per-pupil allocation formula for operating expenses used for other public schools. Charters, which in the District serve as their own Local Education Agencies, are also eligible for and receive more than a half-dozen federal funding streams.
Let me take a few minutes and give you some examples of the things Washington, DC’s top-performing public charter schools are doing to close achievement gaps and produce top results.
E.L. Haynes PCS on Georgia Avenue in Ward 1 is the kind of place that, within minutes of walking in the front door, you know that you are inside a high-performing organization. Their students include 50 percent African-American students, more than 20 percent English Language Learners, and 60 percent eligibility for the Free or Reduced Lunch program. And their standardized test scores are among the best – 70 percent of 5th graders score proficient or advanced in both reading and math. In 2008 they moved into a striking new building that is a landmark in their inner-city neighborhood. And it’s a good thing, because they spend a lot of time there, with a year-round school calendar with 8 weeks of additional program and optional, high-quality before and after school programs.
DC Preparatory Academy opened its doors as an extended-day middle school in Northeast Washington’s Ward 5, and recently added an adjacent second campus for students in preschool through grade 3. They’ve produced improving test scores every year in reading and math for their population that is 98 percent African-American and 68 percent low-income. Its founder, Emily Lawson, started the school armed with a Harvard MBA and a vision for an empty warehouse in a housing project neighborhood just North of Union Station – a neighborhood I don’t mind being in now even at 10 at night thanks to the changes two charter schools and one turnaround traditional public school have brought about. This past summer they created a new position and hired a new learning specialist, a Teach for America alumni, to work with classroom teachers to use the school’s internal assessments to guide differentiated instruction.
Thurgood Marshall Academy is a college-preparatory, law-related high school in Southeast’s Ward 8. It’s one of the real success stories because as recently as 2006, less than half of its 10th graders tested proficient in reading and math. But this year it made Adequate Yearly Progress for the second straight year. Its population is 100 percent African-American and 70 percent from low-income households. The school has an extensive, internal benchmark examination system, and as a full-time Quality Assurance Manager who collects and analyzes the data to help teachers guide instruction on an ongoing basis where it is needed most. And it has had 5 straight years of 100 percent college acceptance.
In order for charter schools in Virginia to be able to take some of these same, proven steps would require changing Virginia’s charter school laws. On a related subject, if you’ve had the chance to see lately some the remarkable and incredibly innovative ways technology has allowed for the creation of online learning environments, I think it’s also time Virginia reconsidered the concept of the virtual school. But I promised I’d save that discussion for later.
I began my remarks by pointing out that even under the existing charter school law, a school board and district that really gets it can make a highly-effective charter school happen. But don’t take my word for it – I have proof. Bobbi Snow and Sandy Richardson, who are here this morning, are really the true pioneers of Virginia charter school education.
Their school, the Community Public Charter School in Albemarle County, is in its second year as what I refer to as Virginia’s first true charter school. Their school provides an alternative, innovative learning environment, using the arts, to help children in grades six through eight learn in ways that match their learning styles. Bobbi and Sandy and their colleagues seek out students who have not succeeded in school, and found a way to close the achievement gap. Differentiated instruction programs in reading and math, a behavior management system based on Glasser’s choice theory, T’ai Chi, piano lessons and an Equine Assisted Therapy program – these ladies in Charlottesville have it all. And for those of you in other school districts who have populations of students who are struggling educationally, emotionally, and just not moving forward, I encourage you to make your way to Charlottesville and see for yourself.
Also, this summer, our second success story will open its doors for business for the first time, the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts in Richmond’s south side. It will offer a science- and arts- infused curriculum that emphasizes environmental awareness and social responsibility. The school recently announced that it had received its first 6-figure grants, one from the federal Department of Education and another from a private donor. Those new dollars flowing into the school district to benefit children who live and go to school in the district will make a difference closing achievement gaps, and the real winners are the Virginia families lucky enough to attend those schools.
It is my hope and my belief that with the powerful track record that these schools are beginning to develop, other school districts around Virginia will come to understand the educational benefits they have to offer, and open their own charter schools. For those of you might have an interest, we’d love to hear from you. We have a website, www.virginiacharterschools.org with links to charter school requirements and all sorts of useful information, and hopefully, with help from our merry band of charter activists and leaders around the state, including Chris Braunlich, Bobbi Snow and Sandy Richardson, we are happy to offer the technical assistance and guidance to keep moving forward. We’ve run seminars around the state to work through the nuts and bolts of charter school applications, and we’ll be doing that again in the coming months.
And if you’d like to come visit any of the exemplary charter schools in Washington DC, like the ones I mentioned today and others, please let me know, and we’ll make it happen.
So I’ll complete my remarks on that upbeat note, and I look forward to your questions and comments here today, and over the coming months. Thank you.
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