Agony and accountability in school choice

Education reform, for some of us, is full of tough calls. And for some of us, there can be particular agony in the gray area where race, poverty and both types of accountability – parental choice and regulatory – intersect.

Last week, the school board in Pinellas County, Fla., voted 4-3 against their superintendent’s recommendation to begin the process of closing a charter school in the city of St. Petersburg. The Imagine elementary school, serving predominantly low-income, African-American kids, had just earned its third F grade in four years of operation because of painfully low standardized test scores. Only 29 percent of its students were reading at grade level, according to the state test; only 13 percent were reaching the bar in math. Only one school in the district had performed worse – another charter – and the board had already voted to shutter it.

In the case of Imagine, the board was knotted by a a number of entangling factors, including a vote two months ago – before the release of school grades – to renew the school’s contract. Before the second vote, nearly 20 parents, teachers, administrators and company officials pleaded with the board to keep the school open. They were passionate, thoughtful, respectful – and collectively powerful. We thought their comments were worth sharing, and we excerpted a number of them below. (You can see the speakers on this video here; their presentations begin just before the 41 minute mark. The board debate begins at 3:18:39).

As you weigh the pros and cons, a few points to keep to mind: Black students in Pinellas perform worse than black students in every other urban district in Florida. The number of charter schools has grown rapidly in Pinellas, but not in neighborhoods with large numbers of low-income families of color. The district still isn’t home to a known quantity like KIPP or YES Prep with a record of success with minority kids. And the school board, like many of its counterparts across Florida, recently passed a resolution critical of standardized testing.

Here are the excerpts, edited for length:

Qiana Scott, parent: “You can’t make a decision to close down an institution that is there for the kids based on a standardized test. Because all of our kids are not standard. Kids learn differently. They are taught differently. And at Imagine, that is something that is definitely recognized. So the teachers take that extra time and the extra care to say, “You learn this way, I will teach you the way that you learn best.” So therefore, our kids are learning. It definitely hurts a lot of the parents and a lot of the staff because everybody has worked so hard all year, and to hear that Imagine could possibly be closed down – that’s like splitting up a family. And that’s what we are at Imagine. We are family.“

Chris Watson, regional director, Imagine schools in west Florida: “Among one of my proudest accomplishments as an educator has been to be the founding principal of the Imagine school in south Lake County in 2005. In that first year, we earned a C. And then another C. And it hit me in the gut. But we improved that score to a B, and then an A, then another A. And over time, systematic, thoughtful reform and our best practices led to our designation as a high-performing charter school in the state of Florida. … Board members, I’m an old, old teacher. I’m an educator who has experience in school reform in three states for over three decades. Effective school improvement is not a Band-aid. It is systematic methodology that promotes change that sticks.”

Rod Sasse, executive vice president for Imagine schools in Florida: “Nationwide, there are hundreds of organizations and school boards, including this one, who have come out against high-stakes testing. This wall of FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) has shown its unreliability with the Florida Board of Education’s May changes to the passing FCAT writing standard and most recently … with the changes to the grades for 213 schools within our state. How can you possibly vote on an item to close this school, knowing the questionable reliability of the wall of FCAT? … I close by echoing the words of President Ronald Reagan as he said to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987: Tear down that wall. Board members, don’t let the wall of high stakes testing rule. Tear it down by voting against this item.”

Vatasha Maxwell, parent: “My boys started out in regular public school. They have an achievement gap, a big achievement gap. When they started to Imagine school, what I can say is their self esteem has risen.  I, as a parent (pauses, begins to cry), can’t even imagine my boys going to another school. Because, No. 1, the classrooms are small. The principal knows my children. The teachers know my children. The teachers know me. When my children was in public school, I can honestly tell you, they sat in the back of the classroom … When my boys got to Imagine school, I seen a different change. I seen their self esteem rise. And I don’t want to lose that.”

April Spikes, parent: “I was going to speak from my heart but my aunt wrote a letter and emailed it to you all, and the superintendent did respond.  I felt like everybody should hear this letter, because it really spoke to what we were all feeling. Dear school board members, I am disappointed in the recommendation to close down Imagine charter school St. Petersburg. I have two nieces that have attended the school in the past year and we have been very pleased. I also have several friends who have chosen to send their children to Imagine for the fall. We do not feel that it is fair to make the decision to close the school at this time. We have made plans for the fall and some of us have purchased uniforms already. Many of the children now attending Imagine school were not chosen in the lottery to attend a magnet or fundamental school. Which means that if you close Imagine, they will be sent to their zoned F school. How will this help the children?”

Michelle Forbes-Bolden, parent: “Our children feel safe. They’re comfortable. They don’t want to leave. My son looks forward to going to school. And I as a child of public school, I didn’t look forward to going to school. And I’m encouraged in that, and I hope that he can have that opportunity to continue to have that, where he is welcome and embraced.”

Valoree Young, former parent volunteer, now teacher: “One of the experiences I’ve had at Imagine is I taught second grade. And I had a student that was in the second grade and he was 10 years old. He did not have an IEP. And he came from another Pinellas County school. He was not one of our students from the very beginning. So he had been failed, again and again, with no one saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on with this student?’ So we were able to help him. We were able to get him the services that he needed so that he could be successful. We didn’t fail him. This year, again I taught second grade, I had a little girl who had been retained twice. She had been to seven other Pinellas County schools. She again did not have an IEP. She could not read. She could not write a sentence. She would string random letters together and turn it in. As a result of the last meeting we had, she (has been put in a special education setting). But if she was in a different Pinellas County school, would they have caught it? We didn’t fail her either. We couldn’t meet her needs, but we did not fail her.”

Terrence Tomlin, marketing/enrollment coordinator at Imagine St. Petersburg: “Imagine School of St. Petersburg is a school of choice. There is not one student that attends our school that is there because they have to be. They are there because they want to be. In spite of the many negatives that have been publicized about Imagine School St. Petersburg in its history and in the last several weeks, our enrollment continues to grow. We’ve had over 100 new students enroll in our school since the close of this past school year, even since the news of an impending close was announced last week. We still have a steady stream of parents that are showing interest and enrolling their children with us. What I always say when parents come in to ask questions about our school … is that one of the biggest and most important differences with Imagine School St. Petersburg is parents have the ability to make their voices heard by moving their feet. And what that means is, if they’re dissatisfied with what they feel is going on at Imagine School St. Petersburg, they always have the option to take their children out, and at the very least, send them back to their community schools. So what I would ask of you as a board and in this decision that you have, is that do you feel that you honestly have the best interests of these children more at heart than their own parents?”

Dietrich Thompson, teacher: “I taught Ms. Maxwell’s son. He wrote this same sentence for two pages. All he ever wrote was, “I love football, I love football.” He wrote it for two pages. I taught him fourth grade writing. He got a 2 on the writing FCAT (on a scale of 1 to 6). He was so excited. He ran up to me, crying. He was like, “I got a 2! I got a 2!” A 2 may not be what we expect , but for him that was the hardest working 2 he had ever gotten. His educational gap is so significant. And for him to get a 2, it may not mean that much to you, but he thought he got a 6. That was his six. He worked his heart out.”

Allison Rhodes, parent who runs media center: “These children are here because of a lack of help at the schools they were at before. And from being shuffled in and out of schools in the Pinellas County schools system. The families want a change and improvement in their child’s education and not to be shuffled around in the system. When there’s a problem, either behavioral or educational related, at Imagine we hit it head on. We did not make these kids F kids. We did not make ourselves an F school. They came to us from other public schools in the county. And I believe Imagine is doing what it takes to fix these issues that come to us on a case by case basis. We are not a cookie cutter school. By closing it, you’d be shuffling those students right back into the system that failed them to begin with.”

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One Response to Agony and accountability in school choice

  1. Joe August 3, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    Ron:

    As a huge supporter of choice – I think that failing to shutter under-performing charter schools plays into the hands of those that want to demonize anything but “traditional public schools.”

    Any perception that choice options are a way of lowering the bar or funneling money to private entities, things that already happen every day, in “traditional public schools” will serve to undermine the legitimacy of choice and to me, more importantly, stifle competition which serves to force all the players in education to raise their game.

    I would strongly caution against protecting or rationalizing the performance of institutions that represent the worst of choice – my argument would be that any such efforts would add fuel to the already vitriolic and predictable rhetoric from the bloated bureaucracies that have historically dominated public education and the accompanying dollars.

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