D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is applying that old maxim "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" to her brand of school reform.
Charter schools have long been among the best performers in the city, and, in a move guaranteed to anger teacher unions, the chancellor is turning to them to help her turn around some of the worst.
At the start of the 2009-10 school year, Friendship Public Charter Schools began managing Anacostia High School, and Friends of Bedford partnered with DCPS to run troubled Coolidge and Dunbar high schools.
Ms. Rhee credits charter schools for changing the trend for underachievers at Anacostia, Coolidge and Dunbar, and giving students a new beginning.
"All three schools," she said, "have significantly improved their school culture, including growth in important indicators such as attendance and school safety."
When students and teachers return to Stanton Elementary in August for the new school year, they will find Scholar Academies in charge of their Southeast Washington school. A charter organization, Scholars manages Young Scholars in Philadelphia and, like charter schools run by the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), has longer school days. A handful of other schools, such as Stanton, are being reconstituted with new personnel.
But teacher unions have long opposed reconstitution and have never wholeheartedly embraced charters, largely because they employ nonunionized teachers.
"In no case will 'reconstitution' — simply replacing the adults in the building — be accepted as a remedy," the late Al Shanker said in 1998, when he was president of the American Federation of Teachers.
The National Education Association says charter schools should be subjected to the same labor-relations statutes as traditional public schools. It also advocates collective bargaining rights for charter employees.
But Ms. Rhee, like D.C. parents, is exercising her school-choice prerogatives.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act gives superintendents several options to reform individual schools that fail to meet federal standards. Those options include hiring outside managers and reconstituting schools, which means most of the personnel must reapply for jobs.
In 2008, Ms. Rhee began reconstituting 17 schools. The faculties of seven of them were overhauled. In 2009, she reconstituted six schools, including Hart Middle School, where scores of students were suspended in the early months of the 2008-09 school year. Three high schools — Anacostia, Coolidge and Dunbar — were handed over to outside managers.
And starting next school year, six schools will be reconstituted. Four of the six — Stanton and Garfield elementary, Ballou High and Hamilton Special Education Center — have failed to achieve annual benchmarks for seven years.
The D.C. charter sector is the second-largest system in the nation with nearly 28,000 students, 57 schools and 99 campuses. And, although critics claim charters get the cream of the crop, the demographics of students in charter schools actually mirror their traditional counterparts.
The student bodies at the Friendship Tech, KIPP and Thurgood Marshall prep academies are predominantly black and Hispanic, and the overwhelming majority receive free or reduced-price meals. These "underserved" students also bring with them an academic challenge: They are three or four grade levels behind in reading and math. But with rigorous curriculum and committed parents, teachers and administrators, students rise to the challenge.
Students at Marshall, for instance, can boast that their school is the top-performing open-enrollment high school in the city, with more than 72 percent of students scoring proficient in reading and 66 percent in math on last year's standardized test. And for five years in a row, Marshall's graduation classes have had a 100 percent college acceptance rate, founding President Joshua Kern said recently.
Students at KIPP, a national network of more than 80 charters in 19 states and the District of Columbia, are also mostly black or Hispanic and from low-income backgrounds. And, after three years in a KIPP middle school, students showed significant academic gains when compared with their counterparts in other public schools.
For example, KIPP seventh-graders made math gains equal to an additional 1.2 years of schooling, according to a recent study of 22 D.C. KIPP schools that was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research. The study included three D.C. KIPP schools.
KIPP schools work "because we attract some of the most phenomenal teachers in America," KIPP Chairman and CEO Richard Barth said in an interview.
"They consistently innovate and push," he said. "The average teacher is about 30 and they have a belief system that is incredibly and tightly aligned with our mission and commitment to achieve."
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