EDUCATION Charter schools evolving; critics want better results

Seven out of 10 Ohio charter schools receive academic emergency ratings.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Throughout the visual environment of Eagle Heights Academy, 1833 Market St., there are signs that say, "Why are you here?"
Superintendent Alex Murphy said he wants the pupils to see the signs and feel accountable for their learning. But the simple answer to the question might be that pupils are enrolled in a charter school because their parents made a choice.
Since 1998, Ohio has offered charter schools as an alternative choice to public schools. Although the schools are a recent development, some individuals and groups think charter schools should be showing more positive results to be considered a viable option.
"Traditional public schools have been around in Ohio for over 100 years. There have been many successes and there have been many setbacks," Murphy said. "If traditional schools haven't been effective across the board in over 100 years, what would cause anyone to think that charter schools could maximize their success in one, two, three, four or five years?"
Eagle Heights Academy opened in 1998 and has 950 pupils enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Funding issues
Alexander Russo, a Chicago-based education writer, editor and commentator, examined the Ohio charter school effort in "A Tough Nut to Crack in Ohio: Charter Schooling in the Buckeye State."
According to Russo, there were 15 charter schools in Ohio in 1998. This grew to about 210 charter schools with about 52,200 pupils across the state in the 2004-05 school year.
Russo said Ohio charter schools generally underperform on statewide tests because they serve higher percentages of poor and minority pupils than public schools and receive one-third less funding.
"My hope was that as things developed, the community would embrace community schools [or charter schools more. I know this is difficult because of funding and funding issues," said Lydia Brown, the school administrator of the Mollie Kessler School, 118 E. Wood St., a charter school that serves special needs pupils in kindergarten through eighth grades.
Public education coalition
The Coalition for Public Education, a statewide bipartisan coalition of education, parent and civic organizations interested in improving public education, estimated that Mahoning County school districts will divert about $19.4 million to charter schools this year, with most of it -- about $17 million -- coming from Youngstown city schools.
Reports from the organization said the state will take $421,500 from Austintown, $385,000 from Boardman and $305,000 from Campbell public schools to pay for Mahoning County charter schools.
The organization said the state continues to spend more than $425 million on charter schools even though seven in 10 charter schools statewide receive academic emergency ratings.
This is worse than the ratings for public schools in Ohio, the group said.
Carolyn Funk, Youngstown City Schools treasurer, said the city schools' contribution to charter schools amounts to $7,743 for each child who goes from a public school to a charter school.
It costs the city school district about $11,000 to educate each child in the district.
"Once the new schools are constructed, there won't be room for them [charter school students] to come back," Funk said. "[Charter schools] will be here for many years to come."
School features
Although charter schools face funding issues as well, schools in the area manage.
Murphy said Eagle Heights was awarded a $1 million 21st Century Community Learning Center grant for five years.
He added that the grant has helped put small libraries in every classroom of the school.
The school also has six computers for pupils and one computer for teachers in every classroom. Murphy estimated that there are more than 300 computers in the school. Each classroom also has an ACTIVboard, which is a computerized white board the size of a chalkboard.
While many people are either strongly opposed or strongly in favor of charter schools, Murphy said he considers himself an advocate for urban education in general. Murphy said the problem with funding for all urban education outlets, charter and public schools, should be resolved.
Measuring achievement
Measuring achievement for any school in Ohio is based on school report cards and proficiency test scores. Sometimes this standard measure becomes an issue for charter schools in Mahoning County.
"One of the things to keep in mind with proficiency tests and report cards is the ultimate goal is graduation," said Richard Denamen, superintendent of the Mahoning County Educational Service Center, comparing the issue to running a mile race and stopping someone after the first lap.
"A lot of teams don't start well. The ultimate goal is who will win or who will get to the end," he said.
Tom Mooney, chairman of the Coalition for Public Education, said it is hypocritical for charter schools to discredit proficiency scores when they made a case for publicity by expressing a dissatisfaction with public schools' test scores.
"Schools are all measured by the same standards," Mooney said. "If the standard isn't a valid indicator [of progress] then it should be changed for everybody."
He added that charter schools can't "go to soft and squishy criteria" like teachers' and pupils' attitudes to measure progress.
Mooney said part of the problem is that parents aren't kept informed about the academic progress of their children, adding that the test scores are almost impossible to retrieve from online sources, like the Ohio Department of Education's Web site.
"I thought about hiring some teenagers from the street who are video game experts [to find the scores]," Mooney said. "It's like going through a cave, and then a tunnel ..." he trailed off before laughing.
Murphy said he knows Eagle Heights Academy will be recognized as a top educational facility in the future because of teacher retention and the school's population.
"People have to feel good about what they do. Nine-hundred fifty [students] speaks for itself. Parents believe in what we're doing," he added.
Parents aren't the only ones who have to be satisfied with charter schools, Mooney said, explaining that taxpayers should also have a say since they help pay for charter schools.
"Parents are satisfied because the school tells them their child is doing great. He's getting A's and B's, but anyone can give good grades," Mooney said.
Murphy said legislative problems for charter and traditional urban schools need to be resolved.
He added, "Meanwhile, we should be doing all we can do for the children."

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