I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Are Camden's Renaissance Schools Really Serving ALL the Children?

One of the big promises of the Camden "Renaissance Schools" was that they would be open to all of the children within a "catchment" area. This was a necessary precondition for the TEAM/KIPP charter chain to take over Lanning Square, which was supposed to be reserved for a district school. From the Philadelphia Inquirer of 2013:
Camden's first privately run and publicly financed Renaissance school project, the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, intends to build its first school at the site the state had reserved for the Lanning Square Elementary School and then expand from there.
KIPP plans to open in fall 2014 with prekindergarten and kindergarten, and add a grade each year, with about 100 students in each grade. A middle school is expected to open in the same building for fall 2017.
All students living within the catchment area would qualify for admission to the charterlike school.
Keep this in mind as we explore the latest controversy over the Renaissance Schools:

Last month, the Education Law Center released data -- obtained from the Camden City School District and well in advance of the regular release of enrollment data by the NJDOE -- that shows that the Renaissance Schools are not enrolling demographically similar populations of students compared to CCSD schools:
The main findings from ELC’s analysis include:
⦁ Mastery enrolled 368 students, 15% below projected enrollment.
⦁ Uncommon enrolled 71 students, 21% below projected enrollment.
⦁ KIPP enrolled 105 students, one above projected enrollment.
⦁ Mastery enrolled 37 English language learners (ELL), one above projected enrollment and comparable to the district’s ELL enrollment. 
⦁ Uncommon enrolled no ELLs, and KIPP enrolled five ELLs, well below the district’s 8% ELL enrollment.
⦁ Mastery enrolled 59 special education students, 20 below projection and 3% below the district’s 19% classification rate.
⦁ Uncommon enrolled six and KIPP enrolled seven special education students, below projections and far below the district’s enrollment of students with disabilities.
All of the charter schools’ enrollments exceed the district’s 92% rate of students who qualify for free and reduced priced lunch. However, data from the Camden district does not break out those students who qualify for free lunch, with household incomes below 130% of the federal poverty level, and those who qualify for reduced priced lunch, below 185% of the poverty level or a household income of $44,800 for a family of four. The data does not provide special education enrollment by disability classification, so it is not possible to determine the severity of the disability of those students enrolled in the new charters as compared to students enrolled in the district. [emphasis mine]
There's actually a fair response to this disparity in numbers. That response was released, as reformy talking points in New Jersey usually are these days, through the charters' reliable cheerleaders, Laura Waters and Janellen Duffy. Here's what Duffy, director of JerseyCAN, had to say:
Also, according to the latest data, the renaissance schools are serving rates of special education students that are comparable to the district. The overall district rate for students classified with special education needs is about 19 percent, and Mastery, which serves grades K-through-5, is nearly equal at 17.9 percent. KIPP and Uncommon currently only serve kindergarteners. The district's rate of special education classifications at the kindergarten level is about 9 percent, but KIPP and Uncommon have higher rates - both at 17 percent - and both schools say new classifications are likely before the end of this school year. [emphasis mine]
Now, as I said earlier this week, I don't much care for this recent trend of districts and charters releasing the data they like whenever they see fit to make the cases they want to make. We'd be much better off having one transparent, uniform source of data for stakeholders and policy analyists to go to when evaluating particular programs like the Renaissance Schools.

I know there are concerns about student privacy that come into play here; still, I wish we could get data that's more finely disaggregated so we can actually make relevant comparisons. But until that time comes, it's probably not a good idea to claim any of the Renaissance Schools are lagging (or surging) in their enrollments of special education students.

Still, I will be the first to say that this is a perfectly fair point: there's likely going to be a disparity between CCSD's and the Renaissance Schools' numbers of classified students based on the different grades levels served.

But if the charter school operators and their friends in the media want to make this case, they then have to acknowledge something else: those Renaissance Schools are not serving equivalent populations to the Camden City Public Schools, because they are only serving kindergarten students.

"Ramping up" to a full compliment of grade levels was always part of the Renaissance Schools plan:
The new "renaissance" schools are to be privately run by KIPP, which manages the TEAM Academy schools in Newark, and operate with public funds, much like charters.
Under the new Urban Hope Act enacted last year, however, the proposal needed to be approved by the local school board. The schools will draw students from specific neighborhoods, somewhat like local public schools.
The act called for up to four projects each in Camden, Trenton, and Newark. But only Camden has so far seen any formal proposals -- and backed just this one -- with the new law setting a deadline of January 2014 for proposals to be submitted to the state.
The Camden contract approval had been all but certain for months, following a debate on the local board over whether to proceed. One main point in question in the contract was whether the district might share some of the space in the first new school in its initial years until the charter school grew into the 1,100-desk building.
The school will open as a preschool and kindergarten for 300 students, adding a grade each year until it becomes a K-8 school. The other schools planned for Camden will include another elementary school, a middle school and high school.
Both Waters and Duffy confirm this: KIPP/TEAM and Uncommon aren't serving any students other than those who are below Grade 1. That's not every child in the catchment.

In its application, KIPP/TEAM laid out its plan to grow a grade level a year, the rationale being (p. 2-2):
"We recognize that through knowing our students, we will know the staff members that we must hire."
That's very nice for them, but it's a luxury that CCSD, which must educate every child in every grade, can't afford. In fact, if any child for any reason in any grade at any time moves into Camden, the district's schools must find a space in a school for that child. That's just not true right now for the Renaissance Schools.

It's also worth noting the application says TEAM's school caps its enrollment at 110 students per grade level (I'm not sure if this changed in the final approval). CCSD cannot impose those sorts of caps on its schools.

Does this really matter? Unlike the Success Academies in New York City, which shed kids in middle school but don't replace them with others on a waiting list, TEAM Academy has stated they do "backfill" their students, and that they will fill slots that come open. Fair enough -- although I haven't heard Uncommon and Mastery, the other Renaissance operators, make such clear assurances.

But even if TEAM's plan goes exactly as they say it will, and they eventually admit every student in their catchment, it will be a long time before they can claim that they are serving equivalent student populations to those of CCSD. When a charter school gets to pick and choose which grade levels it gets to serve, it is doing a fundamentally different job than its hosting school district.

Given this fact, the Renaissance supporters ought to stop using the "failures" of CCSD as a rationale for expanding these schools. Here, for example, is Paymon Rouhanifard, State Superintendent of CCSD and the captain of the Renaissance cheerleader squad:
In addition, Rouhanifard said public hearings were held last year when the first charter projects were approved and again this winter as the new plan was being considered. 
“The misrepresentations and factual errors of interest groups will not distract us from the urgent cause of improving our schools,” he said in a statement. “With two out of five students not graduating from high school, it’s critical that we stay focused on improving the education of our children. We have remarkable students, but for far too long the system has come up short in providing them with the educational opportunities they deserve.” [emphasis mine]
No one would argue with that, which is why I say all of Camden's schools should have access to the financing and funding that flows to the Renaissance schools -- especially because CCSD has to educate all of the students the charters are not prepared, at least at this point, to enroll.

Again: even if things go exactly as the Renaissance boosters say they will, it will be many years before TEAM or Uncommon can claim that they assisted in increasing the graduation rate in Camden. If it's so urgent for us to expand "choice" in Camden to help some students, why are we waiting so long to help those students the Renaissance Schools have decided not to serve?

Sorry, you're too old for a Renaissance School...

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