Study Finds Charter Schools Avoid At-Risk Students

Union leaders and allies wait to testify at New York State hearing on charter schools

By Alain Jehlen

Although the Obama Administration continues to press for more charter schools, a new study finds many of these schools avoid the students who most need help.

The study, from New York State United Teachers, the state affiliate of both NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, also uncovered rampant misuse of funds and conflicts of interest in New York charter schools.

The report, available online, is the latest, but not the first to find that many charter schools have fewer at-risk students than district public schools. A study by Kathy Skinner of the Massachusetts Teachers Association came to similar conclusions through an analysis of enrollment numbers in Boston charter schools.

NYSUT presented its findings at a New York Senate hearing proposals for improving the state’s charter school law. The law says charter schools should develop new approaches to teaching with “special emphasis on expanded learning experience for students who are at-risk of academic failure.” The study found that far from focusing on at-risk students, most charter schools fend them off.

Ed Bradley, president of the South Buffalo Charter School Union, told the senators that his own school “has gone from being a community school with a warm atmosphere of teaching all kids to a cold, corporate model that filters low-performing, tardy, and behavioral problem children from the school.”

The NYSUT report found that, on average, New York charter schools enroll fewer than half as many special education students as district schools, and also far fewer English language learners. The researchers showed that many students are pushed out of charter schools and back into district schools for misbehavior or because they are not expected to do well on tests.

But the report notes that these conclusions do not apply to all charter schools. Some do design their programs for at-risk students.

NYSUT is backing legislation that would require charter schools to enroll as many at-risk students as district schools.

The financial irregularities described in the study were discovered through extensive use of the state Freedom Of Information Law to pry financial documents from reluctant charter operators. Those documents revealed blatant irregularities and conflicts of interest in some schools. For example, one Brooklyn charter school is the financial parent of a bridal boutique operated by the charter school’s founder and board president, and appears from the documents to have taken on financial liability for the boutique. Several other schools gave lucrative contracts to board members.

NYSUT wants charter schools subject to the same level of financial auditing that applies to district schools.

NYSUT, which represents some charter school teachers, says it is not opposed to charter schools or to lifting the cap on the number of charter schools, but wants them held to the same standards as district schools before the cap is raised.

“This review of public records came in response to concerns voiced by teachers, in some cases with their jobs on the line, who raised important questions about charter management practices,” the report says.

“Quality charter schools have much to gain from reforming the law to ensure all charter operators are fair in admitting and serving students, and accurate and transparent in reporting.”

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  • I am a school counselor with a special education background. Currently I work at Rainshadow Community Charter School in Reno, Nevada and have been there for four years. We are a fully accredited school impacting the lives of 150-160 students. My job is amazing!

    The founding fathers of the school intended to create a community-based learning environment with a focus on interdisciplinary education. The founding fathers had no idea what students would come looking for our charter school, and since our doors first opened, six years ago, we have attracted, educated and graduated a population of predominately at-risk students.

    Our students come to us for a variety of reasons but they all seem to have one thing in common: the feeling that they are failing in their zoned school and the knowledge that they are required to be in school until they are eighteen. To many, school is a prison and they will not be released unless they get a diploma or turn eighteen. For whatever reason, they find Rainshadow.

    Many of our students lack resources for even basic living necessities. Some of our students have experienced tragedies that make it hard to believe they are still able to function, let alone come to school. Some of our students have all the resources they require but still have a hard time buying in to public education. I believe that most of Rainshadow’s students are grateful to have found a place where they are accepted. We have students who are affiliated with gangs, we have students who live alternative lifestyles (including GLBT, vegetarianism, veganism, and straight-edge, to name a few) we have students who are trying to find a way to express their individuality in some of the most obscure ways imaginable. They are all accepted by our staff and, most importantly, by each other.

    We have found that the best way to reach teenagers is to listen to what they have to say and why they feel they have to say it. We have learned that once students know we believe in them, they will believe in us and we can help them find their path in their community.

    And we do this with minimal monetary support from state and federal funds. In Nevada, charter schools receive funding based solely on per-pupil funding. We have a foundation that helps support some of our programs, we have opened a pizza shop and coffee shop run by our culinary arts program, and we have a group of folks who believed our students needed to be fed and helped us to do just that every day. Now that group has connected us with other community members and we are slowly finding funds to help our students learn and grow despite being at-risk for failure.

    I do not know about other charter schools, but no one has studied us and other charter schools in Northern Nevada. We are certainly working with the at-risk population. It is very important work, as these teenagers will eventually be the adults running the show and we at Rainshadow are showing our students that we want the very best for every one of them.

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