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Rocketship Education

Name game

Back to School | Los Angeles public schools opt for rebranding, but little change, in a battle against budget cuts

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

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."

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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.

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