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Ahead of charters' learning curve


As the state of Maryland belatedly moves into the charter school business - many will open across the state in the fall - the city of Baltimore has a head start.

For eight years now, Baltimore has been the home of the so-called New Schools Initiative, which has produced 10 institutions that are charter schools in everything but name.

Most came from community-based efforts. All try different approaches to teaching and learning, taking a course independent of that mandated by the central administration on North Avenue. Frederick County is the only other jurisdiction that authorized similar schools.

Although it will require a bit of bureaucratic hoop-jumping to turn the city's New Schools into state-approved charter schools - ensuring that they meet the requirements of the state legislation passed in 2003 - city education officials say they welcome the state measure.

That's partly because the charter designation makes each of the city schools eligible for up to $400,000 in federal money. But it's mainly because city schools CEO Bonnie Copeland says she wants to encourage the charter school movement.

This is not always the case. Heads of school systems have often viewed these independent entities as nasty gadflies in the smooth ointment of education that they are trying to apply.

Certainly, during the 15 years that charter schools have been on the nation's educational stage, they have generated plenty of controversy - sometimes meeting strong opposition from teachers' unions, other times opening with high hopes, but closing because of substandard results.

That controversy has not eluded Baltimore as Copeland is challenging the state-mandated formula for funding the schools, saying it would give them much more money per pupil than other schools receive. But, she says, the charter school movement fits into her plan for the city system.

"The idea of charter schools, going forward, is to provide more choice for students and their families," she says.

David Stone, the system's director of charter schools, says that seven of the city's 10 existing New Schools will make the conversion to charter this fall. And five new charter schools are expected to open in the fall.

Twelve charter schools sounds like a lot, but when all of these schools are fully populated, they will hold about 4,000 students, and that's less than 5 percent of the total city school population.

So charter schools are only a part of the city's move toward greater choice. An expansion of so-called "innovation" high schools and increasing the number of K-8 elementary schools - replacing separate middle schools - are other parts.

"Many, many studies have shown that if people make choices they are more apt to do better in the school of their choice," Copeland says. "Baltimore really has been ahead of the curve in providing choice with places like [Polytechnic Institute] and Western and School for the Arts, albeit with entrance requirements. But we are starting to see that at our innovation high schools that have no entrance requirements, other than interest."

To Copeland, this ability to choose is crucial to get students - and their parents - more engaged in the education process.

"If they have chosen, say, Baltimore Freedom Academy because social justice is a passion for them and they want to learn math and history and all through the lens of social justice, it is a much more likely scenario for success than for a student who goes to a neighborhood high school because he or she is assigned there and takes those subjects without a special focus that resonates with them," she says.

Charter schools usually arise from community groups, though they can be operated by anyone who applies and gets approval from the school board. Some are run by private educational companies; others by colleges and universities.

These schools have independent status, but their students still have to take the mandated standardized tests. And, they have to perform up to snuff, especially now that the federal No Child Left Behind Act means that there are specific consequences for substandard performance.

The charter school road has not been totally smooth, as some have clearly been substandard institutions. Many have been shut down. And, while it hasn't been all easy going in Baltimore with the New Schools, Stone says the record of academic achievement here is solid, that those that have had problems on the mandated tests along the way have been offered help by the system, mainly to ensure that their curriculum includes the subjects that will be on the tests.

"Nationwide, and to some extent in Baltimore, it has been shown that if you give schools like this autonomy, support and make them accountable, you can get good results," says Lisa Kane of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "But it is not easy. It takes a lot of hard work."

The rules on who gets into charter schools are simple. "If there are more applicants than slots, then there is a lottery," Stone says. So these schools may have the advantage of getting kids - and parents - who are interested, but they cannot cherry-pick the best students to boost test scores.

In fact, Stone says, "some of these schools have opted to take some of our most challenging students."

Stone says charter schools will be evaluated in a way that allows them to show the "value added" by their different approach. But ultimately, their students must meet standards.

"We want to be clear that in return for greater autonomy, charter schools will have greater accountability. If schools are not making the grade, then we would revoke their charter," he says.

For Kane, who is the Casey Foundation's representative on the city's charter schools advisory board, the crucial test of these schools' success will be the impact they have on the entire system.

"I think we all need to do more work to think about how to best use innovations found in charter and small, autonomous schools," she says. "Everyone has to keep their eyes on the prize. We all want kids in Baltimore to have access to high-quality schools."

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