Charter Schools Aspire to Excellence


SESP faculty, advisory board chair see promise in charter schools as educational laboratories

By Ed Finkel


As SESP professor Carol Lee enters classrooms at the Betty Shabazz International Charter School on Chicago's South Side, the pupils leap to their feet and loudly, in unison — and in Swahili — greet the woman they know as "Mama Safisha."

Professor Carol Lee, who researches the role of culture to support learning, is board president of Betty Shabazz International Charter School, which has an African-centered focus.
Professor Carol Lee, who researches the role of culture to support learning, is board president of Betty Shabazz International Charter School, which has an African-centered focus.
PHOTOS BY JOHN ZICH

Lee, board president of Shabazz and longtime director of its predecessor private school, New Concept, says the welcome underscores both the unity of purpose and the family-like atmosphere she and others have cultivated at the eight-year-old public charter school, qualities she says are common to many charter schools.

"Adults here love them as the parents love them," she says of Betty Shabazz, which has an African-centered focus. "It sets a different tone of who we are, how we are connected in this village, how we are responsible for one another."

Professor Carol Lee, who researches the role of culture to support learning, is board president of Betty Shabazz International Charter School, which has an African-centered focus.

SESP faculty and board members who have helped launch charter schools, which are public schools freed from many administrative rules of their districts in exchange for receiving less funding, acknowledge that state-level and national research provides an inconclusive picture of whether such schools produce superior educational results.

But Lee and others see strong anecdotal evidence from their own experiences that, because parents, teachers and other adults actively choose to participate in charter schools, they're infused with an entrepreneurial spirit that increases the chances of success — particularly in large, urban systems in which children too often languish.

A Sense of Community
Betty Shabazz began in 1998 as a charter school but dates to the 1970s as a private school called New Concept, which still exists as a pre-K program. Shabazz, which had been one K-8 school, opened two new campuses last September: the Barbara Ann Sizemore middle school and a small high school called DuSable Leadership Academy.

"Our goal is to continue to expand campuses," Lee says. That "speaks to one of the values that charter schools have for public school systems, because they have greater flexibility in the design of curriculum … more flexibility in terms of staffing, staff development and the like. We create multiple models of what good education looks like."

Betty Shabazz has produced success on state test scores: the school has increased its percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards from 24 percent to 55.6 percent, while its comparison school has hovered at about 30 percent, and the district overall has increased more modestly, from 36.9 percent to 47.5 percent.

"Those who decide to open charters have to be entrepreneurial in terms of subsidizing, in one way or another, the differences" in funding and other resources, Lee says. "These institutions have fundamentally been able to do more with less. Certainly that's been our case. The entrepreneurial spirit that you need to open and to sustain a charter school creates a greater sense of community."

Parents at Betty Shabazz, for example, have created and run an "extensive" after-school sports program that would not otherwise have existed, Lee says. "I think sometimes it's more difficult to create that kind of sense of community across all stakeholders in regular, public schools," she says. "There's something structurally about all of these stakeholders having pivotal, authentic roles in the sustenance of the school that I think is qualitatively different."

Teachers and administrators sometimes take risks to participate, particularly those further along in their careers, due to different rules about tenure and pension contributions, among other issues, Lee says. "These are places that all the adults involved have consciously come together to extend their time and energy to create a safe and loving and supportive environment for the development of kids," she says.

Improving Performance
Similar themes are sounded — and rising test scores noted — by SESP advisory board chair Pat Ryan Jr., a former West Side teacher who co-founded the Alain Locke Charter Academy, opened in 1999 on the West Side of Chicago. Ryan says he and his colleagues worked hard to recreate the dynamics of neighborhood Chicago Public Schools in a part of the city where public school students have historically underperformed the system dramatically.

Students at Alain Locke Charter Academy, launched by SESWP advisory board char Pat Ryan Jr., participate in engaging
Students at Alain Locke Charter Academy, launched by SESWP advisory board char Pat Ryan Jr., participate in engaging "clubs" on a variety of subjects, including movement, matches and mathematics.
PHOTOS BY ANDREW CAMPBELL
Students at Alain Locke Charter Academy, launched by SESWP advisory board char Pat Ryan Jr., participate in engaging


"We believed a big part of the reason for school failure was the schools themselves and the way they were created and run," Ryan says. "We didn't recruit from other parts of the city on the very simple theory that, if we did, we would become a different kind of school. We wanted to be an independent public school that served a community so that we could demonstrate how to do it right."

In a neighborhood where 75 percent of children in neighborhood public schools score below grade level, Alain Locke began ever lower: 6 percent meeting or exceeding standards in reading, and 9 percent in math. Ryan says, "We were underperforming even our peer group in the early years, and we're proud of our achievements." He added that Alain Locke made the largest gains out of all 498 Chicago public elementary schools from 2002 to 2005." Today, seven years on, the school's scores have improved to 62 percent in reading, 68 percent in math.

Locke's approach was first to emphasize an environment in which everyone respects rules and norms, and in which students receive the message that expectations matter — along with positive, nurturing feedback in working to meet them. Then the school moved on to improving the academic foundation and teacher development. Ryan says "the big 'Aha!'" was learning the importance of effective school-level leadership that focused on achieving the plan in phases rather than trying to achieve all of the objectives simultaneously.

He credits principal Lennie Jones, who arrived during the school's fourth year, as the driving force behind the rise in test scores. "You can't have success without strong leadership," Ryan says, adding, "It's great to see kids and families taking such pride."

Creating a Blueprint
Learning sciences professor Louis Gomez served on the design team of a new charter high school run by the University of Chicago that opens this fall. Charged with creating a blueprint for the school, the design team made suggestions on everything from curricula to school themes. He says the team set high standards for student achievement but gave administrators flexibility in setting the length of the school day and the school year.

"A big part of what the design team had to figure out how to do was to create flexible options for kids' learning in terms of time," he says. "We needed to create ways for kids to go to school during the summertime, ways to have extended days."

Learning sciences professor Louis Gomez, whose research centers on school transformation, served on the design team for anew charter high school on Chicago's South Side.
Music director Charles Heath coaches drummer Cedric Lawson at Alain Locke Charter Academy.
PHOTO BY ANDREW CAMPBELL

Learning sciences professor Louis Gomez, whose research centers on school transformation, served on the design team for anew charter high school on Chicago's South Side.
Learning sciences professor Louis Gomez, whose research centers on school transformation, served on the design team for anew charter high school on Chicago's South Side.
PHOTO BY KEVIN WEINSTEIN
The team also worked to create integrated "capstone" experiences through which students will contribute to ongoing projects such as building a history of the Bronzeville neighborhood. Gomez says that's the sort of experience charter schools have an easier time providing given their flexibility of program design and implementation.

"It's a way to think about more creative forms of schooling," he says. "Something like that would be relatively hard to implement in a large, comprehensive high school."

But Gomez, whose research at SESP focuses on school transformation in the broader context, cautions that charter schools "are not a magical, structural solution." According to research with which he's familiar, "they don't do any better" overall than regular public schools. "It's a wash," he says.

"Having charters as a vehicle … is a good thing because we get a chance to see multiple attempts at bringing rigor and high standards to instruction for all kids," Gomez adds. "And we can learn, then, how to implement better policy. A way to think about charters and other educational forms is as a laboratory."

Lee, whose research focuses on the role of culture as a lever to support learning, came to lead a charter school by way of her experience in African-centered curricula. She is skeptical of national studies on charter schools because state-by-state laws differ significantly. "If you don't take those divergences into consideration, then it's hard to generalize," she says. "It is very clear to me that there is a national movement across large, urban centers toward charter schools."
By Ed Finkel