Administrators WORK WITH PARENTS & THE COMMUNITY
K–8 Charter Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap
Innovations in Education
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Part I: Common Themes

All seven schools presented in this guide are making significant inroads toward closing the achievement gaps in their respective school communities. As a group, they have created learning environments where historically underserved children are thriving. As a group, these successful charter schools operate in different geographic locations, serve a range of student populations, and offer different approaches to curriculum and instruction. Yet, there are significant commonalities among the schools. How is it that when faced with many of the same challenges, these fledgling charter schools are succeeding in closing achievement gaps where many of their traditional public school counterparts have not? Among other strengths, each of these charter schools is driven, as one school leader puts it, to do "whatever it takes" to ensure student achievement. Each has committed itself to the hard work of teaching student by student.

Working with many children who enter school performing far below grade level and who are from neighborhoods and families with scant resources, these schools are not settling for anything less than the best for their students. School leaders at Amistad Academy in New Haven, Conn., seek to "change the life options of kids so they can succeed in college and life," says Doug McCurry, superintendent of the New Haven-based nonprofit Achievement First, which was formed to replicate the Amistad model in other schools. "It’s not about raising [scores] from the 20th percentile to the 35th. That’s still poor. We want dramatic gains in academics and character."

Table 1. Selected Variables of Profiled K-8 Charter School Sites

Across the board, these charter schools are managing to bring student test scores up to and beyond the numbers earned by more affluent students. A few examples include:

  • Alain Locke Charter Academy (Alain Locke), in Chicago, saw 72 percent of its students meet state standards in mathematics, reading, and science in 2005, compared with 31 percent of students in neighboring schools and 69 percent statewide. Due to its students’ 58-point gain from 2002 to 2005 in mathematics, reading comprehension, and science scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), Alain Locke earned the title of most-improved school in the Chicago Public School System. Students at Alain Locke outperform the state average in almost every measure: Ninety-four percent of third-graders met or exceeded state mathematics standards in school year 2004–05, compared with 56 percent of the same-age students in the local district and 79 percent of Illinois third-graders overall.
  • Amigos Por Vida—Friends for Life Public Charter School (APV), in Houston, serves a larger percentage of new immigrant students and English language learner (ELL) students than other Houston public and charter schools. Yet, 99 percent of its thirdgraders met state mathematics standards on Texas standardized tests in 2005, compared with a range of 52 percent to 65 percent of third-graders at other local elementary schools and 88 percent for students statewide. On state reading and language arts tests in 2004–05, the school’s third-graders outperformed their peers at all local elementary schools but one.
  • • Amistad Academy’s eighth-graders outperformed their neighborhood peers on tests administered in the 2005–06 school year, with 68 percent meeting reading standards compared to only 35 percent of eighth-graders in other New Haven public schools. On mathematics tests, 60 percent of Amistad eighth-graders met standards, compared with 28 percent of their public school peers districtwide.
  • Cesar Chavez Academy (CCA), in Pueblo, Colo., not only consistently outperforms other district and state schools that serve student populations with similar demographics, its students’ performance significantly exceed the state averages for all schools. On state tests in 2005–06, CCA third-graders scored proficiency levels of 94 percent in reading, 96 percent in writing, and 100 percent in mathematics. Also, that year, CCA fourth- graders scored 88 percent proficient on reading, 86 percent on writing, and 94 percent on mathematics tests, compared to fourth-grade scores statewide of 68 percent for reading, 50 percent for writing, and 69 percent for mathematics.
  • Carl C. Icahn Charter School (Icahn Charter School), in the Bronx, was recognized in 2006 by the New York Board of Regents and the New York State Education Department as a high-performing and gap-closing school. This recognition came after Icahn Charter School students met all state language arts and mathematics standards during the 2004–05 school year, and the school met AYP in language arts, mathematics, and science in both 2002–03 and 2003–04 school years. In 2005–06, Icahn Charter School’s third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders outperformed all other New York charter schools in English and language arts. Also that year, a full 100 percent of Icahn Charter School third- and fourth-graders scored proficient and above on state mathematics assessments, compared with 60.8 percent of third-grade students and 52.3 percent of fourth-graders in the district.
  • The Intergenerational School (TIS), in Cleveland, had 100 percent of its third-graders score proficient or higher on state reading and mathematics assessments in 2005–06, compared to 50.7 percent of Cleveland Municipal School District third-graders in reading and 43.4 percent in mathematics. The Ohio Department of Education gave TIS a rating of excellent, while Cleveland Municipal was on academic watch. Also in 2005–06, TIS met AYP, while the district as a whole did not.
  • Pan-American Elementary Charter School (PAES), in Phoenix, outperformed schools in its own district, both traditional public elementary and other charter schools, on Arizona’s state mathematics, reading, and writing tests in 2004–05, with higher percentages of students in grades 3 and 5 scoring proficient or above.

But scores do not tell the whole story. Behind these encouraging numbers are children whose lives change dramatically through the day-today work of learning in a positive and effective environment. Principals and teachers interviewed for this guide shared stories of students demonstrating major shifts in attitude and behavior, growing from low-achievers into strong students who consider it "cool" to earn good grades. Other school leaders described struggling students who want to learn and who, through determination and effort, become successful learners and high achievers.

One such student, at CCA, made remarkable strides after struggling in traditional schools. The year the school opened, this fourth-grader, Patricia (a pseudonym), walked into the unfinished building and asked the principal what he was doing. When he answered that he was building a school, she asked, "Can I come?" When he explained that she needed to apply, she froze. Patricia’s father had abandoned the family, her mother was in prison, and the girl herself had been diagnosed as having severely limited intellectual capacity, with an IQ of around 60. She was unable to read and lived with an uneducated grandmother, who subsequently signed Patricia’s application for CCA. Walking through the tough neighborhood in which CCA is located, Patricia came to school every day and received intensive academic, developmental, and behavioral interventions. "We taught her a lot of skills," recalls principal and cofounder, Lawrence Hernandez. Patricia is now an accomplished tenth-grader who maintains a 4.0 average.

Another child entered the third grade at Icahn Charter School unable to decode or read, in spite of high scores at his previous school. With hard work and support from the school, the boy showed major progress on state tests. "He worked his head off and he did great," says Icahn Charter School principal Jeffrey Litt. "I called his mother to tell her his results. She was screaming and crying into the phone, ‘Mr. Litt, I love you,’ and I told her, ‘No, love him. He worked hard.’ "

Common Factors Among All Schools

What is going on behind the scenes to explain such successes? One common strategy is that school leaders concern themselves with more than test scores. Teachers care that students are mastering concepts and skills, learning to think critically, solving problems, understanding what they read, and writing coherently. The seven themes highlighted below show some of the practices common to these schools that contribute to their strengths and successes.

Mission-driven

Each of these schools has a clear focus and mission. Most emerged because motivated parents and educators were dissatisfied with the quality and safety of existing public schools in underserved communities. Aiming to close gaps in achievement between urban and suburban students in Connecticut, graduates of Yale University Law School founded Amistad Academy in 1999. Similarly, TIS founder Catherine Whitehouse was appalled by the poor teaching she witnessed in Cleveland’s public school classrooms. She hoped to "create something different" by opening a charter school that fosters lifelong learning and where both older and younger generations can connect (e.g., seniors serve as reading buddies, tutors, or mentors for students). In one case, a charter school opened where there had been no local school; prior to the opening of APV, local students had been bused out of their neighborhood.

Everyone involved with a new charter school goes out on a limb at first to get the new school off the ground. Some are fortunate enough to have a benefactor. Icahn Charter School opened in 2001 with the financial backing of billionaire Carl C. Icahn, whose Foundation for a Greater Opportunity finances the improvement of education in New York City. As the school’s sponsor, the foundation provides it with ongoing support.

But most charter school founders face big challenges. Although Phoenix’s PAES now serves 270 students in kindergarten through seventh grade and will add eighth grade next year, the school got off to a bumpy start. Delayed building inspections pushed the opening day off by more than a month. With 200 students enrolled and ready to start school in early August, doors did not open until mid-September. "Many of our parents just waited and waited, but [others] got nervous that [we] weren’t opening the doors. … So they pulled out," recalls principal Marta Pasos, who had to lay off some teachers when enrollment dropped. Other teachers took a pay cut and administrators were not paid for three months. Pasos and her husband gambled their own personal security and took out loans to cover costs. To keep overhead low, they also wore, and continue wearing, many hats, doing their own busing, payroll, maintenance, and business management. Remarkably, by the middle of the school’s second year, Pan-American was debt-free, making it possible for the school to purchase its building.

Icahn Charter School’s Litt ran into great skepticism when he first considered using the Core Knowledge curriculum, developed by professor and author E. D. Hirsch to expose children to key concepts of western civilization in mathematics, language, history, science, music, art, and more. When Litt visited a suburban Florida school already using the curriculum and told its staff that he wanted to use it for inner-city South Bronx students, he was met by doubtful educators who argued that the curriculum would not be effective for the population he described. Undaunted, Litt moved forward, adapting the curriculum for his students, who have since proved that his confidence was well placed. They continue to demonstrate that lowincome, minority students can and do master this curriculum.

The leaders at these schools are nothing if not committed. (Four of the schools are run by their founders.) Collectively, they pride themselves on accepting responsibility for their students’ success. This commitment often is explicitly articulated, as in the mission statement from Pan- American (see fig. 1 on p. 13). As this statement makes clear, school leaders strive to build a strong connection between school and home, and between the school’s approaches and the cultural values and traditions of the community. The mission statement also is translated into Spanish, the home language for most Pan-American students. CCA leaders also fuse their school culture with their community’s values and work to foster them. CCA’s mission—"to prepare a diverse cross-section of Pueblo’s children for success as young scholars, citizens of the world, and community leaders"—embraces Latino culture through language, the arts, and history. Even the school’s board of directors has become an emissary of this dedication, with board members picking up students who have difficulty getting to school on time. Principal Hernandez says the school is committed to giving "poor people the power to change their community. We’re family," he says. "We’re all here for the kids."

In each school, the mission is almost tangible, evident in multiple ways, from displays of student work in hallways and classrooms to the positive way students and teachers interact. At TIS, a class of students readily recited the school mission by heart and in unison for a visiting researcher:

The Intergenerational School fosters an educational community of excellence that provides experiences and skills for lifelong learning and spirited citizenship for learners of all ages.

TIS students recognize that their school is a special community for learning. As evident in figure 2, the Intergenerational School’s Core Values, such elements as personal integrity, work ethic, interpersonal skills, shared and responsible use of resources, and celebration of diversity shape school values, goals, and objectives. The school’s mantra—"learning is a lifelong development process"—is the foundation of its mission.

Each of these schools sets high expectations for its students, makes expectations clear, and provides the necessary support and "scaffolding" for students to be successful. From school to school, the aim is the same: to improve the future prospects for children from low-income and minority backgrounds and, in effect, to level the playing field so that every child has access to an excellent public education.

Figure 1. Pan-American Elementary Charter School: Mission Statement

Pan-American Elementary Charter School Mission Statement

The Pan-American Elementary mission is to ignite in every child the wonder of learning and to provide meaningful educational experiences in a safe and caring environment.

Pan-American is committed to realizing its mission by providing

  • Strong standards-based academics
  • Accelerated instruction based on the students' own capacity and pace
  • An enriched curriculum through exposure to a foreign language (English/Spanish)

Mision de Pan American

La mision de Pan-American Elementary School es encender en cada nino el deseo de aprender y proporcionale experiencias educativas significativas en un ambiente agradable y seguro.

Pan-American esta comprometida a realizar su mision proporcionando:

  • Programas academicos basados en los planes estatales
  • Instruccion intensive basada en el progreso y el avanse del estudiante
  • Un plan de estudios enriquecido con la exposicion a un idioma extranjero (Ingles/Espanol)

Figure 2. The Intergenerational School’s Core Values (Excerpted from TIS’s 2004–05 Annual Report)

Accomplishment of School Goals and Objectives

Development of School Values
Personal Integrity
Is truthful and honest
Shows positive leadership
Willingly helps others

Work Ethic
Stays on task during independent work time
Puts forth best effort on work
Completes homework consistently

Choice and Accountability
Follows instruction promptly
Accepts responsibility and consequences for choices
Shows verbal self-control

Honoring Interconnected Web of Life and Time
Participates well in intergenerational activities
Interacts respectfully with adult visitors and volunteers
Interpersonal Skills
Shares and takes turns
Listens when others are talking
Interacts well with peers
Interacts well with adults
Solves conflicts effectively

Shared and Responsible Use of Resources
Takes care of school materials
Returns books and materials to school on time
Cleans up after using materials

Celebration of Diversity
Values opinions of others
Shows interest in learning about other cultures
Responds positively to culturally-diverse literature

Positive School Culture

For each of these charter schools, creating a positive, safe school culture, so that everyone can focus on learning, has been critical to success. A safe environment is taken seriously, in part because it is one of the main reasons parents have enrolled their children. Many of these campuses are located in dangerous urban neighborhoods marked by gang and drug activity. Icahn Charter School, which is located in the South Bronx, uses a security officer, video monitors, and metal fences to keep students safe. But safety also is stressed on a personal level. When a child falls down on the playground at recess, teachers are required to wash the scrape with soap and water, put on a band-aid, and call home. This way, parents are kept informed. These schools are intentional about creating a positive culture and about maintaining open communication with the families they serve.

Part of this approach involves offering students incentives, such as leadership roles in the student- led recycling program at TIS and "scholar dollar paychecks," a positive incentive program at Amistad Academy, where students earn and accumulate points toward special activities for positive efforts and progress in attendance, homework, and behavior. At APV, students join in a mathematics competition to win prizes, such as bicycles. Classes there are also named after universities, and students learn to sing college anthems and compete in such monthly events as designing the best college banner.

There is a pervasive sense in these schools that it is "cool to be smart." After-school programs extend student learning. For example, Alain Locke takes students on trips to college campuses. These charter schools promote respect and value culturally relevant practices so that students feel connected to their community and culture. These are schools where staff and students want to be, where the energy is positive, and where hard work is rewarded.

These schools recognize that acknowledging student achievements—either through individual rewards or whole-school meetings—fosters a positive attitude and a strong sense of community. The simple act of coming together as a community, learning how to respectfully listen, and being an appreciative audience is not taken for granted. It is a skill that teachers and school leaders teach intentionally, to provide students with step-by-step guidance to meet not only academic, but also social and behavioral standards. The first assembly of the year, explains TIS principal Whitehouse, was cancelled because students were unable to sit still and listen. Whitehouse sent students back to their classrooms, and for two weeks they practiced the skills of being a polite, attentive audience. "Now when we have community meetings, the kids walk in, sit down, and wait quietly for the meeting," Whitehouse says. "The children have learned to line up quietly to walk through the hallways and to pay attention when adults ask them to listen to the presentations."

Expectations are very clear. At Amistad Academy, they are presented transparently as "REACH" values: respect, enthusiasm, achievement, citizenship, and hard work. Respect includes respecting teachers, being nice to teammates, having patience in class, keeping desk, classroom, bathrooms, and school clean; enthusiasm means following directions the first time, focusing, and bringing a positive attitude; achievement includes doing one’s personal best on all assignments and showing improvement on grades and test scores; citizenship includes taking responsibility for one’s actions, being honest, and helping others; and hard work means coming to class prepared, in full uniform and with necessary materials. Students are evaluated against these standards by their teachers, who grant REACH awards each month, which consist of certificates presented weekly at an all-school ceremony.

There are fewer discipline problems in these charter schools than at nearby traditional public schools. When a student has a bad day and offtask behavior occurs, students are given clear warnings and incentives to help them understand what is expected. A baseball diamondshaped diagram in classrooms at TIS illustrates how the approach works at this school. Students earn strikes and fouls for infractions in class, with the final consequence being a referral to the principal. (Fig. 3 shows the referral form used for students who have acquired three strikes.) Conversely, students can earn runs around the bases, with a reward once they reach home base. The most coveted prize? Lunch with the teacher. CCA uses what staff refer to as a "see three before me" approach to discipline, in which, before being sent to the principal, a student receives counseling, guidance, and redirection by three staff members, including a prevention specialist and a psychologist. When a student does receive a referral, for either behavior or academic issues, the team works closely with the student and his or her family, integrating the student’s home and school life into the problem-solving process. (See fig. 4 for a flow chart illustrating the school’s discipline process.)

The working assumption across all these schools is that students can meet clear and high expectations. Rather than blaming underperforming students for gaps in their knowledge and skills, these teachers take seriously their responsibility for helping students catch up and meet high expectations. They know how to work with and motivate students who enter performing below grade level, and they are prepared to provide acceleration or remediation as needed. Tutoring is available both before and after school, as are after-school enrichment classes and field trips. Some of these schools also provide health services to students and their families, including eyeglasses, flu shots, and nutrition guidance.

Figure 3. The Intergenerational School’s Form for Referral to Principal for Student Misconduct
Name:______________ Today's Date: _____________

Dear Principal,
  In our classroom we have four rules:
  1. Keep your hands, feet and objects to yourself.
  2. One person speaks at a time. Raise your hand and wait to be called before speaking.
  3. Be where you are supposed to be unless you have permission from the teacher to move.
  4. Respect yourself and others.
    a. Use a pleasant voice with teachers and classmates. Only say nice things to others, or say nothing at all.
    b. We do not throw anything.
    c. We listen and follow instructions the first time.
    d. We do not make extra noise (drumming, whistling, banging, humming, Velcro shoes, etc.) when we are learning.
The first rule I broke was rule:
1   2   3   4a   4b   4c   4d

The second rule I broke was rule:
1   2   3   4a   4b   4c   4d

I know that I have only one more chance before I have to be sent home.

Discussion Notes:
______________________________________________
______________________________________________
______________________________________________
______________________________________________
______________________________________________

______________________________________________
Principal Signature

______________________________________________
Student Signature

______________________________________________
Parent Signature (please sign and return)

Figure 4. Cesar Chavez Academy Flow Chart for Identifying Appropriate Student Supports
Cesar Chavez Academy Flow Chart for Identifying Appropriate Student Supports

Teaching for Mastery

Responsiveness to student needs is reflected in teaching approaches as well. While teachers in traditional public schools might complain that their work is too prescribed and that there is too much emphasis on the end goal of raising test scores, teachers see themselves teaching for mastery, rather than teaching to the test. Teachers work long hours, spending extra time with students who need the help. "I’m here on a Saturday because I just want the kids to do well," a teacher at Icahn Charter School explains. "I’m teaching beyond the test and I’m also teaching toward it, so students know that they will be well prepared. You’ve got to teach them for the future."

Rather than aiming low or going easy on underserved students, these teachers strive to help students acquire deep understanding of the content. This often requires students to spend more time at school than is typical, and many of these profiled charter schools have a longer school day and year. Some also work with three- and four-year-olds to help prepare them for kindergarten. PAES offers an accelerated, full-day kindergarten program to ensure that all students are reading by first grade. Icahn Charter School has a mandatory Saturday school program for students who have scored below proficiency on state tests. Alain Locke recently implemented a year-round schedule, with 10 weeks of instruction followed by a three-week intersession break. In a community with few constructive summer opportunities available anyway, school leaders believed that this year-round schedule would help students maintain learning momentum.

These charter schools have greater freedom than traditional public schools in many ways. They can choose their own textbooks, rather than pick from a district-approved list, and they can make decisions about how much time teachers will spend on specific subjects, rather than follow state-mandated "instructional minutes." They also have autonomy to decide what curriculum and instructional strategies they will use. Instruction is still geared toward teaching to state standards, since charter students take standardized tests; but teachers in charter schools can approach material in innovative ways, for example, using an individualized, project-based curriculum.

To monitor how well their approaches are working, these schools use interim assessments to gauge student progress and discover which students need support, acceleration, or remediation, and which subjects must be retaught. Assessments used include Accelerated Reader comprehension tests, Success for All reading exams, teacher- and adminstrator-developed assessment tools to monitor student reading progress on a regular basis, and other methods. (See fig. 5 for a chart that shows how TIS staff map the use of specific assessments to monitor student progress in reading.) Several of the highlighted schools have developed sophisticated systems to analyze student progress on specific standards. The resulting data then are used by teachers and administrators to help them understand and adapt instruction to meet students’ learning needs. At Amistad Academy, Icahn Charter School, TIS, and CCA, teachers and administrators interpret interim assessments standard by standard to monitor student progress.

Figure 5. The Intergenerational School Reading Assessment Plan The Intergenerational School
Reading Curriculum: Rationale, Instruction and Resources
The following chart summarizes the reading assessments and standards:
Stage Assessments Used Stage Criterion Standards for "Satisfactory Progress
Emerging (K-1) Concepts of Print: Reading
Dolch Sign Words
Concept of Word
Kdg/First Grade
Ohio Reading Diagnostic Test
90% (17/19) on Concepts of Print: Reading Mastery on Concept of Word
"On Track" score in Kdg Diagnostic (53/66)
50% will complete by end of K equivalent year. Must complete no later than end of 1st grade equivalent year for "satisfactory progress."
Beginning (1-2) Running Record of Level Literature
Dolch Sight Words
First/Second Grade Diagnostic Test
Reads level 6 book with 90% accuracy and comprehension
"On Track" score on 2nd Grade Reading Diagnostic (49/65)
75% will complete by end of 2nd grade equivalent year. Must complete no later than 2nd grade equivalent year for "satisfactory progress."
Developing (2-3) Running record of Leveled Literature
Dolch Sight Words
3rd Grade Ohio Reading Achievement Test
95% Accuracy on Dolch List
Reads level 9 book with 90% accuracy and comprehension
Scores Basic or above on 3rd Grade Reading Achievement Test
75% will complete by end of 3rd grade equivalent year. % scoring Proficient or above on 3rd Grade Achievement test will meet or exceed Ohio AYP standard.
Refining (3-4) Running record of Leveled Literature
4th Grade Ohio Reading Achievement Test
Reads level 12 benchmark book with 90% comprehension
Scores Basic or above on 4th Grade Reading Achievement Test
75% will complete by end of 3rd grade equivalent year. % scoring Proficient or above on 3rd Grade Achievement test will meet or exceed Ohio AYP standard.
Applying (5-6) 6th Grade Ohio Achievement Test Achieves a score of Proficient or above on 6th Grade Reading Achievement Test 75% will complete by end of 6th grade equivalent year. % scoring Proficient or above on 6th Grade Achievement test will meet or exceed Ohio AYP standard.

* An advanced student may complete the objectives of the Refining Stage while still at a 3rd grade equivalent level and would not have had the opportunity to take the Ohio 4th Grade Achievement Test. This criterion may also be met by scoring at the Accelerated level on the 3rd Grade Achievement Test.

Some schools even have modified report cards to show parents precisely which standards are challenging their child. For example, at TIS, each developmental stage has a separate report card that includes a detailed list of the specific learning objectives for that stage. For reading, writing, and mathematics standards, students must pass 90 percent of the learning objectives or demonstrate proficiency on state assessments in those subjects before they can move on to the next developmental level.

Principals at some of these highlighted schools report that they have received complaints from parents who want to know why their children had received higher grades at their previous school. The answer, parents are told, is that more is expected of their children at their new schools. In fact, these schools have learned the importance of making sure that parents understand with some specificity what is expected of their children at school. A steady flow of information, in the families’ home languages, can help parents understand what their children are studying and why they may be receiving lower marks. At CCA, for example, parents receive a monthly syllabus detailing topics and themes to be taught each month, homework assignments and due dates, and a schedule of upcoming quizzes and tests (see fig. 6).

Collectively, these seven schools set high expectations for every student and follow through when it comes time for grade promotion. In order to prepare students for college, staff at Alain Locke assign reading and homework every night and require parents to sign off on completed assignments (see fig. 7 for an example of the assignment sheet for first grade). Icahn Charter School requires a 90 percent attendance rate, satisfactory growth, and a score of average or above on state tests in order for a student to move up to the next grade. To graduate from eighth grade, CCA students must demonstrate what the school refers to as their scholarly capacities through a series of presentations—including a portfolio and a thesis project.

Families as Partners

These schools emphasize a shared sense of responsibility and communication between families and school staff. Principals try to be as approachable as possible, and many schools hold mandatory parent-teacher conferences. TIS holds these conferences in the evenings and on weekends so working parents can attend, and it has a 100 percent parent participation rate. Seeking parent input, many of the schools send out surveys. Icahn Charter School sends out a survey that is written in both English and Spanish. In 2006, the school sent out 245 surveys. All were returned, with 96 percent of parents rating the school good or excellent. (See fig. 8 on page 23 for an excerpt from the survey.)

Parents also are encouraged to be involved in their children’s education. At all seven of the schools, parents are asked to sign reading and homework logs daily, listen to their children read every night, and help the school by organizing community potlucks, chaperoning field trips, and serving food at special events.

In some instances this high expectation for involvement is formalized. At Alain Locke, parents, students, and staff all sign a contract that within the school community is commonly referred to as "a commitment to excellence." Parents, for example, commit to holding high expectations for students and staff, helping their children with daily homework, ensuring their children’s regular attendance, and maintaining communication with staff as part of their role in promoting "absolute excellence." At Amistad Academy, parents, student, and teacher all sign the same contract, which notes that if the school is to achieve its "very ambitious goals, we must work together." It then lists specific responsibilities for the teacher, the parents, and the student (see fig. 9). The parents at these charter schools tend to follow through on such promises. One Icahn Charter School parent, for example, takes two buses to bring her child to the school. And the commitment goes both ways. At several of the schools, staff members enroll their own children. At CCA, 80 of the students (i.e., 7 percent of total enrollment) are children of school staff.

All of this effort of reaching out to families is paying off. According to the Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program: Final Report in 2004, charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to have high levels of parental involvement in the areas of budget decisions, governance, instructional issues, parent education workshops, and volunteering.14 At Alain Locke, a parent of two children enrolled in the school was hired as the parent-community liaison and also serves as the enrichment coordinator. She knows every family, ensures smooth end-of-day release of students to the persons authorized to pick them up, organizes parents to conduct fund-raisers for enrichment programs, and also coordinated efforts to build a playground. At APV, a school located in the middle of a mixed income housing complex, parents have helped paint, repair, remodel, and landscape the school, creating beautiful grounds for the students.

Figure 6. Cesar Chavez Academy Monthly Syllabus for Grades 3, 4, and 5 (Example)

Figure 7. Alain Locke Charter Academy Sample First-grade Homework Assignment Sheet
Date Assignment Parents' Signature and Comments/Observations
Monday
11/6/2006
1. Study for the spelling/sight word test.
2. Practice reading the sight words.
3. Complete the math practice sheet(s).
4. Complete the phonics/reading practice sheet(s).
5. Read to an adult.
 
Tuesday
11/7/2006
1. Study for the spelling/sight word test.
2. Practice reading the sight words.
3. Complete the math practice sheet(s).
4. Complete the phonics/reading practice sheet(s).
5. Read to an adult.
 
Wednesday
11/8/2006
1. Study for the spelling/sight word test.
2. Practice reading the sight words.
3. Complete the math practice sheet(s).
4. Complete the phonics/reading practice sheet(s).
5. Read to an adult.
 
Thursday
11/9/2006
1. Study for the spelling/sight word test.
2. Practice reading the sight words.
3. Complete the math practice sheet(s).
4. Complete the phonics/reading practice sheet(s).
5. Read to an adult.
 
Friday
11/10/2006
1. Read a book to an adult. (Students may borrow a book from school or can also use a book that they have at home. They will also do an Accelerated Reading Quiz on the book at school).
2. Complete a book report on the book read.
 

Reminder(s):
1. Sight words and Spelling test will be on Friday, November 10, 2006. See words below and please note that both tests are written tests.
Sight words:
  1. come
  2. your
  3. family
  4. children
  5. father
  6. mother
  7. people
  8. picture
  9. love
Spelling words:
  1. on
  2. not
  3. got
  4. box
  5. hot
  6. top
3. The memory piece, "I Am A Great Somebody" is due Friday, November 10, 2006. Please help your child practice.

Figure 8. Carl C. Icahn Charter School Parent Satisfaction Survey (Excerpt)

PARENT SURVEY JUNE 2006

Please mark each item next to the response that you feel is appropriate.
Por favor poner una sena al lado de cada repuesta que sea apropiada para usted.

1. I feel welcome when I visit this school
Me siento bien recibida(o) cuando visito la escuela.

  • Poor - nunca
  • Satisfactory - satisfactorio
  • Good - bien
  • Excellent - excelente

2. This school provides a safe environment for learning. La escuela mantiene un ambiente seguro para que los estudiantes puedan aprender.

  • Poor - nunca
  • Satisfactory - satisfactorio
  • Good - bien
  • Excellent - excelente

3. My child has up-to-date instructional tools (books, computers, videos, etc) that are used effectively.
Mi nina(o) tiene materiales instructivos de lo mas reciente (libros, computadoras, videos, etc) que son utilizados efectivamente.

  • Poor - nunca
  • Satisfactory - satisfactorio
  • Good - bien
  • Excellent - excelente

4. The school holds high academic expectations for my child.
La escuela tiene esperanzas academicas de el nivel mas alto para mi nina(o).

  • Poor - nunca
  • Satisfactory - satisfactorio
  • Good - bien
  • Excellent - excelente

5. The school holds high expectations of discipline for my child.
La escuela tiene esperanzas de comportamiento de el nivel mas alto para mi nina(o).

  • Poor - nunca
  • Satisfactory - satisfactorio
  • Good - bien
  • Excellent - excelente

Carl C. Icahn Charter School is chartered by the New York State Board of Regents and the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute and is a result of the collaborative efforts of the Foundation for A Greater Opportunity and the Center for Educational Innovation-Public Education Association. Carl C. Icahn Charter School is a public school open to all children on a space available basis, by lottery.

For many of these families, their children’s education already is opening up new possibilities. When 15 students at the PAES were selected to participate in a Saturday enrichment experience, Programs for Talented Youth at Arizona State University (ASU), parents needed to take them to the campus each Saturday. For many of the parents, it was their first time on a college campus. Several called home to their families in Mexico, proud and excited to report that their child was attending a program at ASU in Phoenix. For many of them, it was the first time they visualized college as part of their children’s future.

Beyond educating their students, these schools bring another important value to their communities: adult education opportunities. PAES offers a "parent university" in January each year. During these sessions, parents learn how to help their children with mathematics and letter sounds and how to research high school options. Throughout the year, PAES reinforces parent education through one-on-one conferences to provide guidance on ways to support their children’s academic progress. In partnership with the Family Resource and Learning Center, a complementary program that is located within the school but has its own staff, Alain Locke provides classes for parents. One parent who took a General Educational Development (GED) preparation class at Alain Locke, earned her GED diploma—sometimes called an equivalency certificate—and is now a clerk at the school.

Innovating Across the Program

Even armed with a clear mission and dedicated families, these schools still could go only so far toward achieving their goals were it not for their charters. As charter-governed institutions, these schools have the autonomy to make creative scheduling, curriculum, and instruction decisions. The flexibility to customize their programs to fit the needs of their particular communities is enabling these schools to deliver on their promises.

Figure 9. Amistad Academy School-Student-Parent Contract

AMISTAD ACADEMY
School-Student-Parent Contract

Amistad Academy commits to a partnership between parents, students, and school staff to provide the best possible education for our students. In order to achieve our very ambitious goals, we must work together.

Teacher's Commitment

  1. High Quality Education - We commit to providing a high-quality education and to going the extra mile for our students. We will work longer school hours, teach during the summer, and always offer our students the best we have.
  2. Support and Respect - We will appreciate, support, and respect every student.
  3. Communication - We will communicate regularly with parents about their child's progress and make ourselves available in person and by phone. We will return parent phone calls within 24 hours.
  4. Homework - We will assign productive, worthwhile homework every night to reinforce and support skills and concepts learned in class.
  5. Fairness - We will enforce Amistad's REACH values consistently and fairly. When students are disciplined or suspended, or when students deserve recognition for their accomplishments, we will inform their parents promptly.
  6. Safety - We will always protect the safety, interests, and rights of all individuals.

Signed:_____________________________________

Date: __________________________

Parent's/Guardian's Commitment
  1. Timeliness/Attendance - I understand that every school day is important and that it is my responsibility to get my child to school every day on time (7:30 A.M.). If my child needs to miss school, I will contact the school. I will also make sure my child attends Summer Academy, and I will never schedule family vacation during school time.
  2. Support & Homework - I will always help my child in the best way I know how, and I will do whatever it takes for my child to learn. I will provide a quiet space for my child to study, and if necessary, I will check my child's homework every night. If my child struggles with homework and is required to attend after-school Homework Club, I will arrange for transportation home at 6:00 P.M.
  3. Independent Reading - I will insist that my child reads for at least 20 minutes a night (including all three days of the weekend), and I will never sign the reading log unless I have personally seen my child read.
  4. Communication - I will make myself available to my child and all of his/her teachers. I will return phone calls from school staff within 24 hours. If I am asked to attend a meeting regarding my child's education or behavior, I will be there.
  5. Uniform - I will send my child to school every day in the Amistad uniform.
  6. REACH and School Rules - I will make sure that my child learns to live up to Amistad's REACH values and high standards of behavior. I, not the school, am responsible for the behavior and actions of my child. I know that my child may lose privileges or have other disciplinary consequences if he/she violates the REACH values.
  7. Attendance at Parent Meetings - I will attend all required parent meetings, including Back-to-School Night, two Report Card Nights, and "Biggest Job" seminars during the year. I will also complete all the homework I am assigned.
Signed:_____________________________________

Date: __________________________

Student's Commitment
  1. My Best Effort - I understand that my education is important, and I will always work, think, and behave in the best way I know how and do whatever it takes for me and my fellow students to learn.
  2. Attendance and Timeliness - I will come to school every day on time (by 7:30 A.M.) and stay until 5:00 P.M. (or later if I have Homework Club or other responsibilities). If I need to miss class, I will ask for and make up all missed assignments.
  3. Uniform - I will wear my Amistad uniform properly every day and follow the school dress code.
  4. Homework - I will complete all of my homework and reading every night. I will not offer excuses; I will seek the help I need to complete all my homework in a top-quality manner.
  5. Communication - I will raise my hand to ask for help if I do not understand something. I will make myself available to my teachers and parents about any concerns they might have.
  6. Responsibility - If I make a mistake, I will tell the truth and accept responsibility for my actions.
  7. REACH - I understand the REACH values, and I will live up to them every day. I will follow all school rules so as to protect the safety, interests, and rights of all individuals. I understand that I may lose privileges and have other disciplinary consequences if I break rules or do not live up to the REACH values.
Signed:_____________________________________

Date: __________________________

Because student populations vary, no one of these schools is exactly like another.

  • APV has a dual-language model, by which all students—both native Spanish speakers and native English speakers—receive instruction from two teachers each day, one teaching in Spanish, the other in English. For example, students might read Charlotte’s Web in Spanish in the morning and then write essays about the novel in English in the afternoon. Therefore, all students are receiving instruction in two languages as opposed to a pullout model where only some students receive Spanish instruction.
  • Amistad Academy places the strongest teachers with the students who are struggling the most— an atypical arrangement in public schools.
  • At CCA, teachers form teams, creating a community of colleagues to support students struggling with academics, behavior, or both.
  • At TIS, teachers are eschewing direct instruction in which teachers drive the pacing and classroom activity. Instead, they facilitate an individualized, student-directed learning process, in which students have more to say about what projects they work on and how long they work on them.
  • Some of these schools offer unusual grade configurations to serve their communities’ needs. CCA, which started with 248 students in grades K–3, now has 786 children in grades K–7, and, in addition, an eighth grade in the 2007–08 school year. Amistad Academy had been providing grades 5–8, but added kindergarten and ninth grade for the 2006–07 school year with the intent of expanding to a full K–12 program. Alain Locke serves prekindergarten through eighth grade, a range not typically offered by traditional public school districts.
  • Each school is intentional about its teaching approaches, but CCA, APV, TIS, and PAES all cite the research-based instructional practices they are explicitly implementing to support reading skills.

Principals of these seven schools have discovered that innovation may lead to better achievement outcomes, but not by itself. The standards these schools have set require top-notch instruction by high-quality teachers. Because low-income communities typically struggle to retain top-grade teachers,15 many of these schools work diligently to recruit new as well as retain existing teachers. At PAES and TIS, a number of current teachers started out at their schools as student teachers and found the environment welcoming and supportive enough to want to teach there once licensed. At Icahn Charter School, a teacher who began teaching history and geography as electives was encouraged to go back to school to become certified as a core teacher. He now teaches fourth grade at the school. CCA actually has its own teacher development program that trains both mid-career professionals and young adults from the community. Through this alternative licensing program, accredited by the state of Colorado, the school has been able to add to its teaching staff a former physicist, a former chemist, and a former stockbroker. Through the program, says principal Hernandez, novices "learn to become great teachers."

Holding Themselves Accountable

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are authorized for a specific number of years—typically five to 10 years at a time—and authorizers can shut a school down or decide not to renew a charter if the school does not perform adequately. As a result, these schools take accountability very seriously. For starters, each has a governing board to support and guide the school.

The governing board holds staff accountable for results and has the ability to fire the director or teachers if they fail to advance the school mission. Boards can make decisions quickly, which, as TIS principal Whitehouse explains, "allows them to be nimble." When the school decided to expand from a school of 100 to a school of 200 over a five-year period, she recalls, the board wanted to be sure the school stayed true to its mission and could make the changes needed to handle more students. "There’s no big bureaucracy to work your way through," Whitehouse says, "so you can make decisions that are in the best interest of children pretty quickly."

Governing boards oversee policymaking and help develop school goals. Board members may represent business, education and community groups, and may be parents or, even, teachers, who cannot serve on traditional public school boards due to union constraints. Board members help to attract partnerships, raise money for their schools, and secure buildings and facilities. Further, the board oversees the fiscal health, management, and leadership of these schools, performing some functions of a streamlined school district administration. Boards at profiled schools average nine members, with one board having as few as five members and another as many as 19.

Because many charter schools receive less public funding than traditional public schools, one of the most important functions of a governing board is fund-raising. Charter schools operate under tremendous financial vulnerability. TIS, for example, does not receive any of the local tax funds that account for 47 percent of funding for other public schools in its district. In addition, unlike traditional public schools, charter-governed schools must cover their own facilities and transportation costs. District and state funding also are calculated in a manner that puts new charter schools at a disadvantage. Often a year’s allocation is based on the school’s attendance levels from the previous year. For a school that has recently added two or more grades to its program, using last year’s attendance numbers and budget will fall far short of providing what it needs.

To compensate for unpredictable cash flow, some charter schools form nonprofit 501c(3) organizations or operate under the umbrella of one, enabling them to receive grants from foundations, individuals, and other organizations. Charter school leaders sometimes find themselves in the position of having to sell the charter concept, either to political leaders or benefactors, to gain access to revenue streams. Board members at Amistad Academy had some success persuading the state legislature to increase funding for Connecticut charter schools, and the school was granted $25 million in facility bond money to renovate a building and expand its program to grades K–12.

Continuous Professional Learning and Improvement

Standards are high for students and teachers alike at these schools. Teachers are held accountable for meeting ambitious missions and goals, but at the same time they receive ongoing professional development and support.

  • At Alain Locke, teacher collaboration time is built into the year-round schedule with a block of time reserved each week for professional development.
  • At APV, during a weekly two-hour professional development period, prekindergarten staff participate in a team project meeting to plan lessons and share instructional strategies. The school’s reading specialist and mathematics coordinator observe classes, provide feedback, model lessons for each teacher, and provide training. Teachers also are given time every day for planning and have opportunities to work on curriculum and instruction with both a reading specialist and a mathematics specialist.
  • Icahn Charter School has a staff developer and three curriculum specialists on staff who, in addition to their other work, serve as coaches. For example, one coach might team-teach a class with a staff teacher while another works with an individual student who is struggling with an assignment. Teachers are required to submit lesson plans each Monday to the staff developer. This year, with five teachers new to the school, the coaches demonstrate successful lessons, provide feedback, and share approaches for addressing students’ needs. All professional development efforts are carefully documented. (See fig. 10 on p. 29 for a teacher log that a writing coach from the New York City Writing Project, a community partnership to coach teachers on writing, uses as a tool to keep track of ongoing professional development work with teachers.)

These schools tend to offer teachers considerably more professional development and support than traditional public schools. Coaches and master teachers—high-quality, experienced teachers—help newer educators refine lessons, team-teach, and model instructional strategies. All seven charter schools support teachers by providing additional staffing, such as Title I mathematics and reading intervention specialists, who work with small groups of students having difficulty with academic skills.

The kind of support described above is one way these schools retain great teachers. Bonuses are another. Several of the schools—CCA, Icahn Charter School, and PAES—pay bonuses or merit pay for meeting student achievement goals, teacher attendance, and investing additional time in after-school tutoring, Saturday classes, and summer school. Administrators also select their staff carefully. Lennie Jones, principal of Alain Locke, explains that besides looking at an applicant’s education background and credentials, he looks for new hires who are willing to put in the time and effort required to meet the school’s goals. The school "may not be for everyone," Jones says. "We look for intelligent people with a heart for children who are looking to grow professionally." Once hired, teachers are observed, evaluated, and held to high standards. Unlike traditional public schools, charter school principals have the autonomy to fire or decide not to renew contracts if a teacher is not committed to the mission or meeting the standards for instruction. At CCA, principal Hernandez says he over-hires by four or five teachers each school year and keeps only the best, letting go by December "those that don’t make it or buy in." At APV, when a new principal and governing board took over leadership, they developed a new dual-language program for all students and decided to fire all noncertified teachers. This step meant that half the school’s teaching staff was fired and replaced. (See fig. 11 for APV’s teacher report card, an excerpt of a tool that is used to evaluate teachers. The principal and administrators use this tool to evaluate teacher performance in a way that promotes ongoing learning for staff to meet expectations for high-quality teaching.)

All of these schools aim to create an environment for teachers that is supportive and conducive to teaching. Teachers are not left alone to deal with challenging students. At APV, for example, a designated problem-solving team composed of teachers works, as needed, with individual teachers to strategize on how to address students’ behavioral and academic issues. At Cesar Chavez, innovative hiring has helped create a community of experts to support classroom teachers: School staff includes an instructional coach for elementary and middle school, a lead tutor, a director of assessment, a school psychologist, a speech therapist, a cross-grade special education team, and a prevention specialist to coordinate family support services.

Figure 10. Carl C. Icahn Charter School Teacher Consultant Log (Excerpt)

NYC WRITING PROJECT
Teacher Consultant Log

Teacher Consultant: _______________________
School: Carl Ichan Charter School
Days on-site: Wednesdays in September

Date Teacher Type of Activity Purpose of Focus Notes
9/6/05 All Staff Professional Development Sessions AM session for upper (4th - 6th grade) teachers and PM session for lower (K - 3rd) teachers on grammar instruction Shared articles with suggestions for teaching grammar (see pd packet)
9/14/05 Ms. ________* Class Visit/ Observation To see students adjusting to school situation  
  Ms. ________* Class Visit/ Observation Note class set up and reflected on teacher's plans to fill classroom wall with students' writing. Teacher began with students interviewing a classmate. Share checklist for evaluating a print rich literacy environment.
  Ms. ________* Class Visit/ Observation Observe classroom; get a sense of how teacher is starting with writing; Students working on a choice of activities while teacher assess individual students; two children collaborate on a picture  
  Ms. ________* Class Visit/ Observation Observed group writing in preparation for prewriting a First Day of School story Tchr. has high expectations for students. Will writing demands tire them out?
  Ms. ________* Conversation Issues around managing timing of activities for a class.  
  Ms. ________* Conversation Reviewed student writing samples of letter written to teacher; suggestion that we meet periodically to review writing progress of selected students (see notes under Ms. ________ )
  Ms. ________* Conversation Talked about scheduling writing time on Wednesdays for me to visit her class  

* Names deleted to protect privacy.

Figure 11. Amigos Por Vida Charter School: Teacher Report Card (Excerpt)

Amigos por Vida-Friends for Life Public Charter School

There are 7 subjects to be evaluated and each subject is graded on the following scale. They are listed with the methods of evaluation.

Excellent - 4 points
Above Average - 3 points
Average - 2 points
Needs Improvement - 0 points

1. Student Learning (weighted double)
  a. Classroom Observation
  b. Quality Student work
  c. Student results on standardized tests.
  d. Evidence of writing across the curriculum
  e. Variety of teacher created assessments used
  f. Evidence of effective questioning/higher order thinking
  g. Quarter Exam data
  h. Quarterly reflection *

2. Contribution to school discipline and school culture
  a. Observed and documented implementation of behavior plan in a consistent manner or other measures that contribute to positive behavior.
  b. Classroom observation.
  c. Uniform policy implemented
  d. Positive relations with students
  e. Motivates students to learn
  f. Posting grades on student folders/progress reports
  g. Hosting field lesson meetings with parents
  h. Organizing field lessons with team
  i. Attendance of students on team
  j. Quarterly reflection *

3. Homeroom achievement
  a. Documented communication with parents.
  b. Follow-up with requests or referrals regarding your homeroom students.
  c. Attendance of homeroom students
  d. Grades of homeroom students relative to their potential.
  e. Parental attendance at Open Houses, report card night/parent teacher conferences.
  f. Quarterly reflection *

4. Extra effort
  a. Student tutoring
  b. Extra-curricular activities
  c. Support Team Leaders by contributing
  d. Other extra work for the cause
  e. Saturday School attendance
  f. Quarterly reflection *

5. Professionalism
  a. Attendance
  b. Dress
  c. Working with other faculty
  d. Compliance: Turning in required paperwork/computer work on time. Examples include grades, attendance, special education paperwork and other information requested.

Several of these schools have principals who serve as instructional leaders. "It’s my job to help the teacher figure out how to make each child succeed," says principal Whitehouse of TIS. "When a teacher is having difficulty figuring out what to do for a child, we will sit down and brainstorm together." She observes teachers daily, spending time in classrooms and providing feedback to teachers. One teacher on staff had worked for 39 years in Catholic schools before moving to TIS. "My other school was seven-tenths of a mile from my house. I could walk to school," says the teacher. "Now I travel 55 miles a day round-trip to get here. But I just love this program, even though it is probably the most difficult teaching I’ve done in all those years." Another teacher, new to the profession, says Whitehouse helped her get off to a good start in her classroom: "[During] my first year of teaching she was there every single step of the way. She held my hand through the entire process."

Conclusion

The populations of students attending the schools profiled in this guide are distinctive in their levels of need. These students reside in urban communities, and many have limited English fluency. Many come from poor families, and many are African-American or Hispanic. Their neighborhood schools are unsafe and suffer a chronic lack of resources. Frustrated and unhappy that their children’s academic and developmental needs were not being met, families in these communities have joined educators and philanthropists to create innovative schools dedicated to ensuring student success.

Some readers of this guide, particularly teachers or administrators working in charter or traditional public schools, may wonder whether any of these strategies have "cross-over" potential for other schools. The descriptive research process on which this guide is based suggests ways to do things that leaders and staff at the featured schools have found to be helpful and practical how-to guidance. But it is not the kind of experimental research that can yield valid causal claims about what works. Thus, readers should judge for themselves the merits of these practices based on their understanding of why such practices should work, how they fit the local context, and what happens when they actually try them. Also, readers should understand that these descriptions do not constitute an endorsement of specific practices or products.

That said, the successes of these schools provide an impetus to look closely at how they go about the business of educating all children and closing achievement gaps.

These schools share a sense of urgency: To a one, they are on a mission to improve the future for students who have not had many opportunities, and they are of the mind-set that there is no time to waste. Each is staying true to an original, formal mission to help their students achieve and, uniformly, these schools provide the necessary support to help each student meet high standards. They do this work in a positive school culture that emphasizes student achievements and makes expectations clear. Schools profiled in this guide partner with their students’ families in multiple ways, from requiring parental signatures on homework to offering adult education classes. School leaders are innovative about their approaches across the board, taking care to notice what their students and staff need—from longer school days to year-round school schedules. Leaders hold themselves accountable and also are held accountable by governing boards that can fire principals and teachers who are not following through with the school’s mission. These schools provide ongoing professional development and other support for teachers, which help to retain high-quality staff in communities that often struggle to hold on to top-notch teachers.

While achievement levels for students in these schools do indeed outpace those of students in neighboring public schools, there are also more-nuanced indicators of success at these charters, each of which may have implications for other public schools:

  • These schools offer lessons about individualizing curriculum. The schools in this guide use approaches that specifically meet the needs of their student populations. They group students in innovative ways, sometimes offering unusual grade ranges, and even clustering students developmentally rather than by age. (TIS students learn in multiage classrooms rather than being separated out by grade-level groupings.) Traditional schools can learn new strategies for tailor-making their programs to teach student by student.
  • High teacher accountability raises student achievement. The seven schools profiled here have moderate to low percentages of students in special education programs, ranging from less than 5 percent to 12 percent. One reason for this may be that teachers work together to support students with special needs.16 Teachers are trained to think, "It is my responsibility to make sure this child learns."17 These schools proactively provide all students with individualized instructional support, using special education designation as a last resort. Additionally, both schools that are serving high numbers of English language learners use a highly collaborative dual-language approach, enabling teachers to hone in on academic problems and identify whether they are language- or learning-related. 18 School reform advocates will want to consider ways to nurture this shift in thinking, from asking teachers to impart material to holding them responsible for student success, particularly when students enter school performing below grade-level.
  • Teachers are supported to meet high standards. These schools each have master teachers on staff to model lessons for newer instructors. Teachers are encouraged to collaborate or team-teach, and, at some schools, they receive bonus pay when achievement goals are met. Their shared sense of pride and the knowledge that they are having a real impact serves as additional reward. If underserved urban districts want to attract and retain high-caliber teachers, they should consider offering high levels of professional development in addition to other rewards for a job well done.
  • These charter schools are places where theory and practice meet. Free from district and state mandates about instructional minutes and textbook choices, several of these schools are explicit in their use of research-based teaching and assessment practices. Although sometimes faced with skepticism from colleagues in the field, leaders at a few of these schools have implemented curricula that had never been used to teach low-income students in urban schools. Other schools in the profiled group also have raised the bar high but use more traditional teaching methods. Their successes in raising student achievement levels demonstrate that historically underserved students can and do master high-level material, whether a school uses traditional (e.g., direct instruction) or more innovative (e.g., project-based learning) pedagogy.
  • These schools share common constraints. These schools are united by a common determination to meet their students’ needs by doing whatever it takes. But they also share similar challenges. Responsible for financing their own school transportation and buildings, these schools face major financial struggles with each new school year. School reform advocates committed to expanding public school options will want to consider ways to support schools like these, which offer an important alternative for students and their families. Standards are high for teachers as well, and working at a fledgling charter school would not work for every teacher. Hours are long, but there are also rewards. Many school directors give staff bonuses for working extra hours and bringing student achievement levels up. Teachers are encouraged to collaborate across departments with master teachers working closely with these new educators. Further, in those schools there is a shared sense of pride among students and teachers when they accomplish benchmark goals because students know they have worked hard to earn their marks, and teachers can see the impact of their efforts.
  • These schools make learning a priority. Readers of this guide may conclude that it would be impossible for a traditional public school to develop a cohesive staff willing to work the long hours each day as well as work extra days to ensure student achievement. It is easier, without question, for charter schools to achieve this task. However, having a highly qualified and unified teaching staff is certainly possible at non-charter schools. Those committed to education equity must consider what is needed to ensure that all schools, especially those at the losing end of the achievement gap, have such dedicated teachers. School reform advocates must take note of policies and practices that either inhibit or support developing staffs like these and must make decisions accordingly.

One of the more insidious myths about education is that students who have traditionally been characterized as at risk cannot manage a rigorous curriculum and that, if pushed too hard, they will drop out of school. The achievement outcomes of these seven profiled schools refute that belief, demonstrating that when presented with a demanding academic curriculum, high expectations, and the support to excel, students rise to meet, and often exceed, the bar. With solid support and research-based teaching and assessment approaches, these traditionally underserved learners can meet the challenge. It may even be possible, based on the outcomes of these seven charters, that all public schools—in affluent or low-income communities alike—can learn from the individualized, innovative, and committed work that can happen when theory meets practice.


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Last Modified: 11/17/2009