LOS ANGELES & SAN JOSE-Some school reformers hold up charter schools as a great educational hope. Yes, those schools are government-funded and operating within public-school constraints on religious expression, but they are free from many creativity-stifling restraints and from teachers unions' defense of the status quo-or so the story goes. Los Angeles, though, has a growing "affiliated charter" category that allows schools to maintain the status quo while adding "charter" to their school name. They have more flexible budgets and greater freedom of governance but still hold onto their buildings, keep their ties to the school district, and maintain the teachers union in the style to which it is accustomed.
Example: When Hale Middle School in Los Angeles became Hale Charter Academy last fall, all it did was put on a shiny new hat and coat. Underneath that garment, the Los Angeles school is still very much the same: Teachers stay under union contracts and students follow the same curriculum. "I thought I would see change," said Margaret Goldbaum, who works at the school's student store: "So far I don't see anything different."
Unlike typical charter school conversions, Hale and the 17 other affiliated charters in Los Angeles were not failing schools looking for change-before converting, Hale received a California Distinguished School award, honoring the top 5 percent of California schools. This fall, 23 more high-performing schools in the well-to-do San Fernando Valley plan to convert. It's a way to deal with budget cuts: Affiliated charters receive unrestricted block grants that allow for more flexibility in spending than traditional public schools. "That is the only reason they went charter," said Larry Sand, a retired teacher and president of California Teachers Empowerment Network. "I don't blame them, they are doing something legal to get some money. If I was a principal, I'd do it too."
Schools that had to lay off teachers can get the money to rehire them by becoming an affiliated charter. Charter status does allow some improvements besides financial ones. Affiliated charters also have some autonomy with their staff, governance, and curriculum. Community members can create advisory boards, schools can choose which texts to use, and teachers can skip some district-required standardized tests. But the big thing that remains the same is the teachers union label-and as Sand said, "If you are bound by a union contract, you are tethered to a rock."
Nationally, only 12 percent-or 184-of all charter schools are unionized, and affiliated charters are unique to Los Angeles. The California Charter Schools Association doesn't know exactly what to make of the growing number of affiliated charters. "As an association we are supportive of conventional charter schools that are autonomous, able and free to make their own governance and decisions," said CCSA media relations director Vicky Waters. "Affiliated charters are more tied to the district, they seem to not have as many freedoms as truly independent charters." The number of such "charter schools" may continue to grow as budget cuts in Los Angeles continue.
Real charters in California differ from those loved by unions more interested in preserving well-paid jobs than improving education.
When Daniella Rodriguez struggled to read in the third grade, teachers at her San Jose, Calif., public school thought she had autism and recommended special-needs classes. Her parents, Angel and Karen Rodriguez, began reading with Daniella more at home, while also hiring a tutor and looking at other schooling options.
Halfway through the school year, they enrolled Daniella in Mateo Sheedy Elementary School, one of five charter schools run by the Palo Alto-based nonprofit Rocketship Education. Situated in the Silicon Valley, these K-5 schools blend traditional classroom instruction with online learning. Students spend two extra hours a day working on math and reading programs in a room tightly packed with over 100 computer cubicles.
Daniella began working one-on-one with teachers who pinpointed her difficulties. In the lab, she enjoyed identifying letter sounds and reading short stories at a first-grade level, enabling her to "see her own progress and gain confidence," Karen says. Within five months she jumped to a fourth-grade reading level.
Rocketship is producing results with struggling students like Daniella. Their first two schools to open in 2007 outperformed other elementary schools in Silicon Valley, and now rank among California's 15 top-performing high-poverty schools. Rocketship will open its first out-of-state charter in Milwaukee, Wis., in the fall of 2013, with expansion plans underway in Louisiana, Indiana, and Tennessee. Rocketship schools are among those using a blended learning model in an effort to improve classroom efficiency amid the rapidly growing sector of online learning.
At Rocketship schools, a non-certified aide supervises students in the computer lab, while teachers instruct other classes. This system allows one fewer teacher per grade, saving each charter $500,000 annually. This money is reinvested into paying teachers 20 percent more and hiring an academic dean.
"Our approach gets attention because it is cost-saving, but we like to focus on how it allows the teacher a higher level of assessment on each student. Teachers are freed up to do what they do best, which is to develop students," says Kristoffer Haines, Rocketship's senior director of national development.
At Mateo Sheedy, fourth-grade math teacher Rodney Lynk introduces concepts of perimeter, area, and volume. Later, students will work in the lab on problems using formulas for these concepts. But in class, they are drawing architectural blueprints for a house they call "project dream house." Sketching from an eagle-eye view, students plan the space and depth of each room, while figuring out how much would fit in the rooms.
"I am able to look at their work from the lab to see if they are doing the problems correctly, but with this project, I wanted to press them to understand these principles conceptually," says Lynk, 25, a Teach for America member.
Still, Haines admits online learning tools could be better: "It's a young, fledgling industry. We're seeing results when it's functioning at 20 percent. As technology improves, the benefits to students will be even greater."
Just north of San Jose, a San Francisco investment group started a blended learning initiative to help revive Catholic education. Since 2000, over 1,800 Catholic schools in the United States have closed. "We want to reverse that trend by using technology to increase results and make our schools more economically viable," said Scott Hamilton, a managing partner at Seton Education Partners.
To start, Seton garnered over half a million dollars in funding from private donors to help merge two San Francisco Catholic schools on the brink of closure. Mission Dolores Academy (MDA) joined Megan Furth Academy last fall and reopened with a blended learning platform to 225 K-8 students.
MDA, a school originally established in the 19th century, has high ceilings, large windows, and floor heaters. Desks and chairs face whiteboards, but in the back of each classroom, over a dozen sleek, flat-screen computers line two rows of tables.
Teacher Michelle Escobar has 27 eighth-graders in her language arts class. She starts her first-period class instructing 14 students on how to write persuasive essays. The other 13 students read and identify similes, metaphors, and the main plots from poems and short stories online. The school tests students at the beginning of the year, so they each work at different grade levels based on their proficiency. After 30 minutes, Escobar has them switch. "I am able to always have small group instruction while teaching," she said, while admitting to occasional difficulties in keeping students quiet at the computers.
One of her students, Manuel Mora, appreciates Escobar's individualized instruction: "In the past years ... if we asked a question, [our teachers] would try to help, but if they couldn't, they would just move on."
After its first year, MDA saw overall math scores go up 16 percent. Reading scores went up 6 percent. With the split class, teachers say they can handle a few more students per grade-and MDA predicts operating costs will go down from $15,000 per student to $7,000 by the fall of 2013.
Now, Seton is helping St. Therese Catholic Academy in Seattle reopen this fall using the same model. The task for teachers is to communicate concepts, and the software programs then help students improve their proficiency and test them on what they know and whether they're ready to move to the next topic.