Chartered Well ... and Badly

The experience of charter schools is mixed, at best

Student Keila Castaneda and teacher Ken Loyd work after hours on a homework assignment at the KIPP Academy.
Student Keila Castaneda and teacher Ken Loyd work after hours on a homework assignment at the KIPP Academy. (Photo By Michael May)

KIPP Academy: "The rigor of the work is relentless."

It's 5 o'clock at KIPP's Austin College Prep, the close of a nine-hour school day, and students from the school's two fifth-grade classes are either preparing to leave or taking seats at a table in the brightly lit storefront to stay after and do their homework. Above them is a sign that reads, "Home of the hardest working students in Austin." Ken Loyd, an African-American teacher with long, tidy dreadlocks, is trying to explain how KIPP differs from traditional public schools when he is interrupted.

"Where is the homework for today?" asks Keila Castaneda, a keen-eyed fifth grader. The homework assignment is being copied by another student, Loyd explains, and excuses himself to check on its progress. I take the opportunity to ask Castaneda why she is at KIPP.

"At my other school," she says, "the teachers didn't seem to care whether or not I understood or did my homework. Here, not only do they expect you to do your homework, they give us their home phone numbers in case we don't understand. I know that my hard work is going to pay off. We are already talking about how I will be in college in eight years. And I'll be ready."

Loyd slides back into his seat with a smile. "Never before have I been in a situation where kids bug me about homework," says Loyd, who had come from Dallas to work at AISD's Alternative Learning Center, a school for kids with discipline problems. "I expected more from Austin, with its liberal reputation. But after seeing how degraded the schools are for black and brown people, the illusion quickly melted away. Frankly, I am surprised that half the city hasn't been burned down in a riot. I love teaching, but after a year of that I was ready to just cut my hair and get some kind of corporate job. Then I got hired by KIPP.

"We struggle a lot here as well," he continues. "The rigor of the work is relentless. We often work 12-hour days, and that means we have a real intimate relationship with the kids. I can end up taking it personally when they don't do their homework. But I always leave satiated, knowing I will see the results of my work in the morning."

At 5:30pm, the four-person staff sits at one of the lunchroom-style tables for a staff meeting. Principal Jill Kolasinski promises to make wake-up calls to several families at 5:30am, to make certain their children get on the bus. She also insists that parents who haven't been checking on their children's homework cannot pick up their children from school until the work is done. "I tell parents they can just wait in the car until they are done," she says. "Because the homework just isn't getting done at home. That shows parents how we do it here."

KIPP teachers put in long hours and are equally demanding of parents, requiring them to sign a contract agreeing to get their children to school on time and to provide a quiet space for homework. "Parents have a responsibility too," says Nicole Franklin, whose son Markel is at KIPP. "We didn't bring our kids into the world for other people to raise them. I appreciate that they hold you to it."

Kolasinski believes KIPP could set an example for public schools, adding that her experience at Pleasant Hill Elementary inspired her to form Austin's KIPP. "I really liked working with the same kids all day long, in a small school with a small classroom," she says. "This is something that AISD could learn from -- it is not impossible to break huge secondary schools into smaller campuses with more personal attention." KIPP currently has two fifth-grade classrooms, and will open a sixth grade next year. Kolasinski recruited the first classes by walking around the Eastside looking for interested fourth graders. "We started with a fifth grade," says Kolasinski. "Because that is when kids still believe in their dreams. They tend to lose that in middle school."

AISD has adopted its own form of KIPP's parental contract in the district's most troubled schools, but KIPP's demanding schedule and its requisite parental involvement seem unlikely to become the norm any time soon. Last year, AISD rejected a proposal from KIPP to assume management of a campus within the district.

"Normal public schools take anyone that lives in that area," says Louis Malfaro, co-president of Education Austin, the local teacher's union. "KIPP only wants students that are self-selected -- kids and parents who accept those hours and responsibilities. We need approaches that work for everybody."

Dolores Hillyer, superintendent of the Texas Academy of Excellence
Dolores Hillyer, superintendent of the Texas Academy of Excellence (Photo By Michael May)

Texas Academy of Excellence: Separate and Unequal

Superintendent Dolores Hillyer, who has run the Capital City Creative School, a preschool program, for 30 years, founded the Texas Academy of Excellence in 1996, making it the first elementary charter school in Austin. "I would see all this light and creativity in the young children in my preschool," says Hillyer. "And something would happen when they got into public school. I couldn't define it exactly, but I knew that there was a situation here that I could address. I have always had a vision for a school that would be able to maximize the potential for children, and the charter allowed me to finally realize it."

Hillyer, her staff, and almost all of the children at TAE are African-American, but the demographic, she says, is mostly a product of the school's Eastside location. "Parents choose our school because they think it might be better than their local school," says Hillyer. "But we don't find that your ethnicity has anything to do with whether a particular program will work well for you. I do think it is interesting that many people initially thought charters would be elite schools for whites, and they have ended up being mostly programs for minorities. I think that is true nationally." TAE's program combines phonetics and storytelling and is adjusted to a student's individual development.

The Academy has experienced tough financial and structural problems. In its first year, the administration overestimated the expected number of students, so the TEA overpaid the school by almost $280,000, and it spent the next two years repaying the state. "Charters don't get any capital funds to pay for the building, furniture, or supplies," says Hillyer. "So if you aren't backed by a church, university, or corporation, then it is very difficult to get started. That money was spent on setting up the school. And we had a very difficult time repaying the state. I gave up my salary. Our teachers had to be very innovative to function without as many supplies." Hillyer says that the state should give charters the same support they give traditional public schools. In theory, that would include buildings, equipment, supplies, and so on from scratch -- hardly possible at the per-student state allotment contemplated by charter law.

The school's roof has also begun to leak heavily, and the school is planning a move to a better facility. Hillyer cites these problems as causing the TAE's rating to slip to low-performing for the first time since the school opened. "We had to move our kids around to three other facilities right before the TAAS last year," she says. "It hurt us."

Fifth-grader Bria Cole says the leaky roof didn't affect her education, just that there "was a whole bunch of water everywhere." Carolyn Boyle, the coordinator of the Coalition for Public Schools, says, "If AISD had a school on the Eastside in a sub-par building, that would be page-one news. But since it is a charter school, there wasn't much concern. I just worry about going back to the days of separate but unequal schools."

Student Geoff Metheny in class at American Youthworks
Student Geoff Metheny in class at American Youthworks (Photo By Michael May)

American Youthworks: "We are not in competition with AISD."

Senior Geoff Metheny wanders through the renovated warehouse that holds American Youthworks, an Austin charter school for students who have dropped out or are in danger of dropping out of AISD schools. The atmosphere is informal; it's almost lunchtime and Geoff pops in and out of classrooms, introducing teachers by their first name. "I dropped out of Austin High and Dallas Academy," says Metheny. "I didn't like school at all. It just didn't grab my attention. So, I would stay at home and just chill. You know, party and whatever ... had a job at the local grocery store. Finally, I came to terms with the fact that I couldn't sit on my ass the rest of my life. I was going to need a real job to eat and live. I came to American Youthworks.

"I like it here a lot," continues Metheny. "Teachers are a lot more creative, and there is more of a real relationship there. It has made me a lot more productive. I'm telling you, I used to be so lazy. ... Well, I'm still lazy, but now I am thinking about my future."

Through an American Youthworks program called Computer Corps (funded by AmeriCorps, the federal national service program), Metheny worked in housing projects teaching software to low-income Austinites. He was paid for his work and earned $2,300 in additional funds for college. Metheny plans to attend community college and then UC-Santa Cruz. "I will probably major in business," he says. "But that might change. I am interested in a lot of things, like philosophy."

The Youthworks partnership with AmeriCorps enables students to do schoolwork and earn money at the same time; some make as much as $800 a month providing community service. Assistant superintendent Rebecca Benz says the program also acts as a real-world approach to learning. "Many of our students respond better to a hands-on approach," she says. "So we have kids writing books in Spanish for the local daycare. We had a video production team create a video that explored the risks of dropping out, which is used in AISD schools. They are currently working on a video about a person's rights and responsibilities when dealing with law enforcement. That is something many of them learned the hard way."

The AYW program was in operation before the SBOE began granting charters, but since it wasn't technically a school, it was only allowed to help students earn a GED. Since AYW has been chartered, Benz says, almost 100% of the students are now in the degree program.

Last year the TEA rated the AYW "acceptable," impressive considering that most of the students had been in danger of dropping out. Principal Connie Gooding says that their approach is to convince students they are in charge of their own education. "If a kid isn't doing well," she says, "we ask, 'What can you do to change it?' We also give them a lot of individual attention. We have a counselor for every 50 kids or so, and much smaller classes. We also provide a lot of support when they are applying for college."

American Youthworks works closely with AISD to recruit district students having problems. "We are not in competition with AISD," says Benz. "My kids went to AISD schools, and many of them do a great job. We see ourselves as offering an alternative for kids that are just not doing well in the usual setting. You can't just keep doing the same thing with these kids and expect change."

Eagle Academy Principal Raymond Moore
Eagle Academy Principal Raymond Moore (Photo By Michael May)

Eagle Academy: "Personalized Diagnostically Prescribed Learning System"

Stroll around the Eagle Academy's converted, cubicle-filled South Austin storefront and ask students why they are there. Almost all give the same answer: "Because I can get credits faster here, and there aren't constant deadlines for homework."

The Eagle School targets at-risk AISD students by providing a self-paced, computer-based curriculum. Each student is provided his or her own computer and can gain high school credits at a self-defined pace, allowing a student to graduate in two to three years. "This is individualized learning," says Principal Raymond Moore. "A child can come in here with deficits in multiplication, and we can drill them in multiplication until they have it down. This allows us to really focus the curriculum on their particular needs."

The program clearly works for some students. José Gonzales was at Travis High, where, as he puts it bluntly, he was "fucking-up bad," and missing classes to deal with his 22 court cases. At the Eagle Academy, even if he misses a day, the computer is waiting for him right where he left off. Gonzales says he has gotten more credits in one year at the Eagle Academy than in three years of regular school. "I can concentrate a lot better here," says Gonzales. "At a regular school there is so much going on that I was always distracted and slacking off. There is no need for group discussions here, because it is all about your own work. You take care of yourself, and it is up to you to graduate."

The Eagle Schools were started by Donald Howard, a fundamentalist preacher who designed a Christian-based curriculum that became the basis for 7,000 religious private schools and home schools around the world, marketed under the brand name "Schools for Tomorrow." Howard's proposal for the Eagle Charters promised "21st Century Educational Reform" by offering a "Personalized Diagnostically Prescribed Learning System which is Computer-Integrated, Interactive, Multi-media, Multi-track and Multi-level, for the 21st century." That proposal earned Eagle 23 schools across the state, with the curriculum secularized for public schools.

"We took the Christian vernacular out," says Moore. "And put in character traits that reflect our values. Almost everyone in the management has been in the ministry, but that isn't a requirement. I think that faith does help the staff here have more patience with the kids. We are here to help change lives, but we don't preach to the students. It's more that we want to be an example of healthy living."

The Eagle organization is now run by Forest Watson, former superintendent of Hurst/Euless/Bedford ISD. He heads the management company that operates the Eagle Charters and is a partner in Pathways Publishers, the publicly owned company that designs the software. Clearly there is money to be made in this project, especially if the Legislature agrees to create "virtual charter schools." Under that proposal, the state would buy the software for students to use at home, presumably under the monitoring of a "chartered school" operating out of an administrative office. Moore claims there is a clear separation between the nonprofit Eagle Charters and its for-profit partners. "I can change curriculum today if I want," he says. "We are not responsible for them turning a profit. But if they do, well then, god bless them."

Of course, the whole operation could turn private if vouchers are enacted in Texas. "I think we would go private if we could," says Moore. "If parents feel like they are spending their own money on education, they feel a sense of ownership. We have had a really difficult time getting them involved, although we keep trying."

Austin's Eagle Academy is in its first year and has not yet been rated by the TEA. It took over a campus previously run by the Honors Academy, another computer-based charter chain. The transaction was approved by the commissioner of education despite the fact that nine of Eagle's 23 charters have been low-performing for the past two years. Most of the 142 students currently enrolled at Eagle seem quite pleased with the curriculum and staff -- but 220 students have enrolled and left in this year alone. A computer-based curriculum may work for some students, but is unlikely to lead the way to 21st-century educational reform. "Some students might respond very well to this," says Wendy Lym, professor of English at UT. "Especially if they are feeling lost in the classroom. But you have to wonder what they are losing as well. A subject like literature, for example, you really learn by talking about it. This kind of knowledge comes from people coming together to work on a concept together."

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