Saturday, January 27, 2018

New Jersey Orders Closure of Trenton Charter School

Here is the lede from a story in the Times of Trenton for January 26, 2018:

A Trenton charter school could close in June, one year after it moved into a building renovated at a cost of $17 million, because the state Department of Education decided not to renew the school's charter.

The charter school is the International Academy of Trenton. The Department of Education cited the school's failure to provide a strong educational program and organizational system. The school was among the lowest scoring schools in the state on the PARCC exam (A lousy way to assess schools, but the metric of choice for charters.). During visits to the school, state monitors noted lax discipline, high levels of absenteeism, frequent disturbances in classrooms, students on cell phones during class, and students leaving class for no apparent reason.

Parents reported that the school is plagued by high staff turnover. Indeed the average level of experience in the school is 2.8 years, compared to a statewide average of 11.8 years. A school performance report showed chronic absenteeism and low levels of achievement in math and English. The school has had three executive directors and two interim executive directors since 2014.

This is, of course, just another story of charter school failure, typical in many ways. Poor organization, high staff turnover, inexperienced teachers, low scores, revolving door leadership, but for the 529 students enrolled at the school it is a total disruption of their education. Next school year will bring them new challenges, new teachers, new classmates, a new building. This kind of disruption may be the most lasting legacy of the repeated failures of charter schools.

One parent's comment struck me as particularly telling. Sharita Wilson felt that a charter school was the best choice for her child because of "overcrowding in the public schools." The parent may not realize this, but this statement is loaded with irony. One of the chief causes of overcrowding in the public schools is that so much of the school budget goes to charter schools. I would like to see what kind of impact that $17 million in renovation costs, and the millions in other funding that went to International Academy might have had on class size in those traditional public schools.

To be fair, the traditional public schools of Trenton have, like urban schools in most cities, struggled for a long time. Finding adequate funding has always been a struggle and when money has been available it has not always been spent well. It is understandable that Trenton parents would see charter schools as a viable alternative and some charter schools in the city have been successful. At least if you define success by improved test scores and think it is worth the "no excuses" military style discipline and shaming that is a part of these so-called successes. Trenton Public Schools have long been in crisis.

Right now, however, I am thinking of those 529 students, who are facing more disruption in their lives. Learning happens best in consistent, predictable environments. The disruption that often accompanies the charter sector is antithetical to learning. Adults in charge need to stop looking for quick fixes like charter schools and vouchers and get down to the serious work of addressing income inequity, segregation, and the wise investment of funds and educational expertise in the public schools.

Some may argue that this story is a success story because the Department of Education has acted to close the school. It would have been better for all concerned, though, if it had never been permitted to open.