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The secret behind those ‘highly performing’ charter schools

Let me start by making a confession. My oldest son attends a BASIS school. BASIS schools are some of those “highly performing charters” that reformers love to use an example of everything that’s right with charter schools, while traditional school advocates use as an example of everything that’s wrong. I suspect the majority of folks who pan or extol the virtues of BASIS schools have never had a child attend one, so let me give you an insider’s look.

I pulled my oldest son from a traditional public school and enrolled him in BASIS when he was in sixth grade. His former school wasn’t a bad school. I liked his teachers. I spent a lot of time getting to know the administration.

But my son wasn’t thriving at his school. He received A’s in his honors classes but C’s and D’s in his regular classes. He was distracted in class and became increasingly disruptive (which is how I came to know the school’s administration).

He needed a change. He needed to be challenged.

I went to Parent Night at BASIS and was blown away by what I heard. An Arizona school ranked as one of the top high schools in the nation? In Arizona?? Teachers with degrees from Harvard and Yale and Stanford, with PhD’s and real-world experience. A curriculum that entails AP coursework as early as 7th grade, and the ability to finish high school with every AP class completed by 11th grade. Wow. What’s not to love?

My oldest son wasn’t happy with my decision to move him. He promised me he’d never, ever, ever like the school. But within a couple months, he was back to his old self, thriving both academically and socially.

It was the right decision, and I don’t regret it. But, like all good stories, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Gov. Ducey wants to “fund the wait lists” at schools such as BASIS. He’s fond of using the school as the poster child for reform. But those wait lists are a mirage.

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It’s true that hundreds of students are turned away from BASIS and other top-rated charter schools in 5th and 6th grade. But it’s also true that the turnover rate at these charter schools is astronomical, with hundreds of students opting out of the schools after a short period of time, and schools graduating as few as 20-30 students.

Many of the critics will say it’s because BASIS filters out undesirable students, such as those with learning or attention differences, while keeping the “cream of the crop.” And they’re correct.

The curriculum at BASIS isn’t advanced. It’s highly advanced, as in 2 or 3 years ahead of most schools, similar to the curriculum for highly gifted students. Remember when I said AP classes start in 7th grade? That’s not normal. And it’s not something that just any student can handle.

Starting in 6th grade, students take midterms and finals, and the final is a significant portion of the student’s overall class grade. It’s high-stakes testing at its highest. If a student fails even one class (with a small exception for some math classes), that student must retake the entire grade.

The vast majority of students, when faced with retaking an entire grade or moving on to a different school, will move on. So will the vast majority of students who struggle with such an advanced load and who find themselves spending 4-5 hours on homework every night. And the same with many students who are involved in extracurricular activities such as club sports, which requires time for evening practices and weekend tournaments.

This is why BASIS schools start out with hundreds of students and long waiting lists in 5th and 6th grade but end up graduating only a handful of students. And when a school graduates 25 students who have made it through every advanced, AP course available, one would hope these students would have sky-high test scores.

It’s easy to understand why BASIS makes the list as one of the top high schools in the nation. But to compare a class of 25 students to one with hundreds of students from every background and with every learning challenge imaginable at a school in an economically challenged neighborhood doesn’t really seem like a fair comparison, does it?

Of course not. And yet that is what our politicians routinely do.

A better comparison would be comparing the students at BASIS with the top performers at a school such as Chaparral in Scottsdale. Students at Chaparral have a similar profile to students at BASIS – higher income families with highly educated parents. When you make this type of apples to apples comparison, you find little difference, and the “magic” of charters doesn’t seem so magical after all.

The teachers at BASIS, while highly educated, can’t really be described as the secret sauce, either. Some are phenomenal and can relate their knowledge back to their students, but others struggle when faced with a class that has an unruly student or two. Even Ivy League educated teachers need classroom management skills, and this skill is often overlooked.

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One other myth I’d like to debunk is the idea that charters such as BASIS and Great Hearts are somehow doing better with less money. We honestly have no idea if this is true.

Because Arizona requires little financial transparency from its charters, taxpayers do not have an accurate idea of how much money charters take in each year. For instance, at most charter schools (particularly the high performing charters in affluent neighborhoods) parents donate thousands of dollars per student each year. At BASIS, it’s an annual fundraising drive they advertise as a way to reward exceptional teachers, and it brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars that district schools do not have access to.

Charters will tell you they need this money because they cannot collect bond money like district schools, though lawmakers acknowledged that fact by giving charters more per pupil dollars than district schools. And in reality, my child’s charter school SHOULD be able to educate my child with less money than a child in say, the Roosevelt district. Why?

Stability. A student with economic stability doesn’t have to worry about when he is getting his next meal or if he will have to move, again. A student with emotional stability in the home doesn’t need to worry about whether mom will get back-handed by her new boyfriend or if CPS will be making another visit.

The first-generation college student is paving a new path and has to rely on the support – sometimes available, sometimes not – of guidance counselors or administrators to help her figure out the how to afford and apply for colleges that seem well beyond her grasp, while students with college educated parents are choosing not if they will attend, but where to attend.

The vast, vast majority of students at high performing charters have far fewer hurdles than most, especially here in Arizona where almost 1 in 4 children live below the poverty level. That’s an incredible hurdle not just for the kids but for their schools, as well.

These students need more than just a supportive and caring teacher. They need the type of wraparound services that support learning outside of the classroom, which is where a huge portion of learning happens. Services such as free and reduced lunches and breakfasts, after school programs and one-on-one tutoring are crucial to a student’s long-term success. Often, these services are the most important factor, and yet, are the first to be scaled back when a school suffers massive funding cuts or is mandated to move more dollars into the classroom.

BASIS schools and many of the other highly performing charters across the state are good choices, and I’m certainly not advocating we take these choices away. But let’s be real here. These are elite prep schools, and their model is successful because the students they serve have more advantages than the vast majority of Arizona students. Their secret to success isn’t much of a secret at all, and they are not the cure for what ails our schools.

If we really want to give EVERY child a chance to succeed, then we need to get serious about how we address the children most in need of our help. And yes, Arizona, that means money. Money that’s earmarked to help failing schools, not punish them for lack-luster test scores. Money that’s targeted for “extras” that are, in fact, necessities for many.

This piece originally appeared on Politics Uncuffed.


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Feb 5, 2015, 1:02 pm
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@EllieMae, Thanks. It works OK here.

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Feb 5, 2015, 12:24 pm
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The first link to Politics Uncuffed is broken. The second one in the shirttail works.

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