10/02/2011 07:04 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2011

Celebrating Successful Charters

The slander that "hundreds" of charter schools have produced dramatic gains while keeping "the same students" has long played a destructive role. There seems to be evidence, however, that tens of charters have shown real improvements without weeding out the most difficult-to-educate students.

The Philadelphia Notebook reports that Philadelphia's new "Renaissance" turnaround schools produced big gains on the 2011 PSSA exams at seven long-struggling public schools they converted to charters last year. All saw improvements in both reading and math scores. Six of the seven saw double-digit gains in math. Stetson Middle School, for example, was up 22 points from 2010, and it also saw an 8-point jump in the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in reading. The big news, though, is the highly respected Notebook conducted a comprehensive investigation and concluded that these schools were not "dumping" significant numbers of unwanted students.

The new Stetson kept its old principal, Renato Lajara. Lajara said that the school's dramatic improvement wasn't the result of any single program. He attributed the change to better, more supportive management, "they ask you what your vision is, and then they apply the budget according to the vision. The result, he said, has been smaller class sizes, more support staff, an in-school disciplinary academy to handle disruptive students, and a quicker response to the problems that inevitably arise."

The Notebook profiled a student who had been chronically disruptive before being transferred to the in-school disciplinary program, Success Academy, but who now plays a leadership role. In 2010, the failing old Stetson had 567 students. But for only $500,000 they created a constructive alternative for 66 students.

"We don't do the cookie-cutter approach," said the CEO of ASPIRA which operates Stetson. "We say, 'OK, let's set up the ideal school environment, and let's figure out how to pay for it.'" Just as importantly, the CEO said, "We're giving them the tools, not teaching them for the test -- we refuse to do that. It's giving them the critical thinking so they can actually analyze a situation and make a decision. That's what we're teaching our kids; that's how we're training our teachers."

Some of the extra supports at the Renaissance charters are made possible by private funds raised by the managers on top of the per-pupil allotment paid them by the District.

The Notebook also described the accomplishments of Mastery Charter Schools. They invest an additional million dollars per school during the first year in order to lay a foundation for ongoing success. Since 2001, Mastery has followed a deliberate process that is usually unavailable to neighborhood schools. For nearly a decade, Mastery only did one turnaround per year. Mastery typically starts with a small middle school and adds one class per year. Early in the process, Mastery schools establish their credibility by doing something that few neighborhood schools attempt. Mastery schools enforce their rules, assigning detention, and parental conference suspensions to those who do not comply. When a Mastery school does not have a capacity for in-school disciplinary consequences, it is not afraid to resort to out-of-school suspensions.

Mastery Schools understands the importance of socio-emotional dynamics, and teaching students to be students. Above all, I would speculate, Mastery seems to have a capacity for the hard conversations that school systems are afraid of. As a result, Mastery has the ability to establish safe and orderly learning environments and to thus win families over. The Notebook explains that "sometimes, the efforts didn't work. Parents would tire of the new demands on them and their children. But, "Mastery made an honest - and effective - effort."

Mastery CEO Scott Gordon says, "We can turn around schools, and it can be done at scale." I am not so sure about that. For instance, at least half of my students (and often many more) were on IEPs and ELLs, I have never heard of a neighborhood high school like Mastery's Shoemaker where only 13% of the students were so categorized. Mastery gets twenty resumes per teaching position for candidates from across the nation. On the other hand, if urban districts allowed their secondary schools to establish safe and orderly environments, maybe they would not have to hire warm bodies with little or no chance of surviving the anarchy.

The key issue was articulated by a charter CEO explaining why a violent student was referred to an alternative school, " If a kid is willing to assault a staff member, how do you deal with that?"

The tendency in urban education is to not deal with such a student. So, perhaps we have misrepresented the issue. Perhaps the question is whether we can scale up a reality-based mentality for our central offices. Rather than complaining that successful charters had the unfair advantage of being liberated from suicidal administrative policies, perhaps all teachers, unionized as well as nonunionized in neighborhood schools as well as charters, should be given the right to teach a challenging curriculum in a respectful learning environment.