The charter school turnaround that may not have been

Travis Pillow

A small, single-gender charter school in Bradenton, Fla. is celebrating a remarkable turnaround. In two years’ time, Visible Men Academy has improved its state letter grade from an F to an A.

The school’s improvement caught the attention of a local TV news station.

[T]wo years ago, the school switched to i-Ready: a widely-used learning program for Florida testing. Almost instantly, the growth parents were already seeing inside the classrooms was reflected outside on test scores, going from an F to a C last year, and another two-grade jump to an A in 2017-18.

“They are the most supportive people in this universe, that would help you out anywhere, anytime, any place,” says Breyon Peterson about faculty. Breyon has attended VMA since kindergarten, and will start 5th grade next year.

“My grandson went to local camp for the last two weeks, and halfway through the second week, he said when can I go back to school,” says Leesa Holmes, who chose VMA so her grandson would have male role models.

In addition to the work of its teachers, the school may have benefitted from a fortuitous bit of timing.

Visible Men Academy received its first letter grade, an F, from the state in 2015. That year, the state waived accountability consequences for schools as it transitioned to new education standards. The next year, the school received a second F. But thanks to the accountability pause, it did not have to close under the state’s “double F” law for low-performing charter schools. In ordinary years, if a school earned consecutive F’s, it would have had to shut down automatically — unless it could show the state Board of Education it was making outsize gains compared to nearby public schools.

For every Visible Men Academy, there are schools like Village of Excellence. The Hillsborough County charter school earned F’s in 2015 and 2016, and a C last year, just like Visible Men. But it slipped back to an F this year.

Groups like the National Association of Charter School Authorizers recommend states have some sort of default closure law to help weed out the lowest performers. But they also show other states with such policies aren’t as rigid as Florida’s.

Some charter schools, like East Tampa Academy, start out serving only the lowest grades, like kindergarten and first. That gives them a few years to develop a strong culture and build an academic foundation before students start taking state assessments in third grade, and their schools start receiving A-F ratings. Other upstart charters, especially those without deep-pocketed backers, need to enroll students from a wider range of grades in their first years because they need to draw a large-enough pool of students to make their budgets work.

Does Florida’s automatic closure law keep other Visible Men-like schools from opening in economically disadvantaged communities? Or does it simply ensure charter schools that serve those communities get results? Should schools that target high-needs areas get more flexibility to show results over time? Or should they be required to show results in two — or, in some exceptional cases, three — years before getting shut down? This is a nuanced accountability debate that may be worth having.

Clarification (7/11/18): The National Association of Charter School Authorizers doesn’t technically advocate “automatic” closure policies for low-performing charters. The organization favors default closure policies. Such policies set a standard for closing the lowest-performing schools, but gives authorizers, the organizations that oversee charter contracts, the final say on whether a school should actually close. These policies can help weed out the lowest-performing schools, while also allowing for extenuating circumstances, such as those at Visible Men Academy.

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