Charter school representatives address V.I. education group


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ST. CROIX — The talk Saturday among many interested in education centered on charter schools and providing a degree of parent choice about which public school their child will attend.

Discussions remained vague on how applicable the movement would be in the territory, but there was no shortage of questions, concern and, most of all, excitement from the audience.

“This is the beginning of a conversation,” said Roger Dewey, the president of the St. Croix Foundation, which is partnering with the V.I. Parent Teacher Student Association in sponsoring a series of informational sessions.

The first session, held Saturday at the Luis Hospital Cardiac Center, featured presentations from representatives of two of the nation’s leading charter schools — Green Dot and the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP.

There was also a documentary presentation Friday night of “The Lottery,” featuring a stinging view into the lives of four parents from Harlem as they tried to get their children into one of the Harlem Success Academies — charter schools set up in the New York City borough. With a spot in the public charter schools, their children are almost guaranteed to go on to college; in the district’s traditional public schools the odds are not with them, and parents must enter a public lottery to earn a spot for their children.

As the documentary showed, there is a heated debate around the concept of charter schools. They challenge the status quo — not only in what is asked of students, but also what is asked of teachers and parents.

“What we currently do does not work. That’s the baseline,” said Byron Garrett, the CEO of the National PTA. “What we are doing is failing our children.”

Charter schools nationwide

Charter schools function independently from the public school requirements — each charter is in control of hiring and, more importantly, firing teachers, presenters said. Ineffective teachers are not tolerated.

“That means you can hire high-quality teachers,” said Allison Rouse, a KIPP affiliate. “That also means you can fire bad teachers.”

If a charter does not achieve measurable results, its charter is not renewed and it is shut down.

“Education is the only business I can think of, where the consumer, if they’re not happy, has no recourse,” Garrett said. “If a school is failing their children, the consumer cannot decide to leave and get better services somewhere else.”

It is that idea that has taken the nation by storm: holding schools, principals and teachers accountable for their students’ results — or lack thereof.

There is reason for excitement: charter schools have taken some of the nation’s worst-performing public schools and transformed them and the students into academic fairy tales.

According to Rouse, 80 percent of the 26,000 KIPP students nationwide are low income and qualify for the free or reduced lunch program; 95 percent are black or Latino. The KIPP Web site said that 85 percent of KIPP alumni have gone on to college.

At Green Dot, 99 percent of students are black or Latino, with 85 percent qualifying for the free or reduced lunch program, its Web site said. Of those, 80 percent graduate high school in four years — compared with a 47 percent average of L.A. Unified School District — and 76 percent go on to four-year colleges or universities, with the balance often attending two-year institutions.

“I’m not professing that charter schools are the way to go,” said Kelly Hurley, the Los Angeles district superintendent for Green Dot Public Schools. “I’m saying it’s the only way I know how, right now, that works.”

While each charter organization is organized differently and has its own peculiarities, a couple of tenets ring true with each charter school previewed Friday and Saturday.

Students need more time in the classroom. KIPP schools run close to 10-hour school days for 210 days a year — equaling close to 70 percent more time in the classroom than the average public school student, Rouse said.

“Our priority is not to be nice,” Rouse said. “It’s our priority to have academic rigor and to be nice.”

Another charter priority is parent involvement. With KIPP, parents, students and teachers all sign contracts stating they will participate in their fullest capacity to that child’s education, Rouse said. Parents and students have 24-hour phone access to teachers, too.

 With Green Dot, a group of close to 20 charter schools run mostly out of central Los Angeles, parents must commit to 35 hours community service to the school and community annually, Hurley said.

“All stakeholders have to be involved,” he said.

A high achievement goal is another key component. From the day students set foot in the schools, they are expected to achieve and work hard. All of the charter organizations post college and university banners throughout the classrooms and hallways, because that is what is expected of the students — to receive a college degree.

Some of those presented also highlight issues of creating an orderly, disciplined and safe environment — a stark contrast from the neighborhoods where the students live.

“The campus was a safe haven, but when you walked off campus, that’s when things happened,” Hurley said.

Areas of concern

Still, there are hurdles to clear before charter schools are even a tenable option in the territory. First and foremost, legislation must be passed.

Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly was in attendance Friday and Saturday and was asked to comment on the status of charter school legislation, which she said was “in its infancy stage.”

The territory has lost out on a chunk of the close to $4 billion in federal Race to the Top Funds — funding awarded to states that have passed education reform legislation to address failing schools — because there is no charter school legislation in place.

The V.I. Education Department has been working with senators to provide them with the information they need to pass a meaningful bill, said Deputy Education Commissioner Sarah Mahurt.

“Now there’s a better sense of what is good charter school legislation,” Mahurt said. “That’s the goal — that the Virgin Islands has the most effective legislation.”

Another concern is where the teachers will come from. When Green Dot took over Locke High School, it kept only 45 percent of the original staff, Hurley said.

The territory already is dealing with a teacher deficiency, “because we have difficulties of finding competent teachers in some areas already,” Mahurt said.

The department has lamented its difficulty in recruiting highly qualified teachers to the area in the past.

According to Hurley, the key is the principal.

“I honestly think it begins with hiring a really passionate principal,” Hurley said. “It’s about creating that atmosphere where everyone is there to support one another — create the excitement about what they’re doing.”

Then, there is the issue of resistance from teachers in the territory that could face being laid off. Traditionally, the teachers’ unions have been opposed to the changes — though, the soon-to-be president of the St. Croix Federation of Teachers, James Howell, said the union was open to discussing the initiative.

“I think that teachers are most concerned about academic outcome,” Howell said. “As a professional, it’s about academic outcome. Anything that could foster academic outcome is good for teachers because it’s good for students.”

While money is an issue, too, Green Dot functions on less funding than many of its public school counterparts by stripping the school of all excess funding — everything is put behind the classroom, with 94 cents of every $1 going into classrooms, Hurley said.

They also rely on some private benefactors, presenters said.

While the turnout was not as large as had been anticipated or hoped for, the organizers were not deterred.

“Some say we’re preaching to the choir,” said Alvin Bedneau, the president of the V.I. PTSA. “But the choir is not singing together. They’re not carrying the chorus.”

Bedneau encouraged parents to join the PTSA and learn as much as they can so the territory can engage in a well-informed discussion.

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