When Failure Means Success
April 1, 2002
Editorial, page 16
Nuestra America Charter School, which opened in 1997 on the West Side, was an undeniably failing school. Its students were reading far below national norms. Achievement test scores had been on a nosedive, as had attendance. Staff turnover resembled rush hour at Union Station, and school finances sank into chronic straits.
So on Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools administrators ordered it closed by June.
Most cities take a fuzzier approach toward the decision to close charters that don't work. They are astonished when Chicago's charter schools czar, Greg Richmond, tells them the decision is based quite simply on how well the school serves kids. Elsewhere, special committees spend weeks evaluating the troubled schools and agonizing over what do.
In Chicago, it's simple. You don't perform, you don't survive. "We don't have to step into a school to observe results, we look at outcomes," says Richmond. No lawsuits, no protracted haggling with unions, no delays, no compromise.
Regular public schools that fail ask for more time to get their acts together. They usually get it. Nuestra asked for more time-- but did not.
For good reason. Another year suits an administrator's timeline, not a child's.
In a rather graceful way Wednesday, Nuestra's principal, Robert Kausal, told the board that while he disagreed with the decision to close the predominantly Hispanic school, he would respect it. Kausal promised that his staff would work the rest of the year to make sure all 160 students find good placements in other schools.
That is how it should work.
By definition, charter schools are public schools. Anyone can get in. There are no entrance exams. One key difference is that they operate free of most district and union regulations that govern regular neighborhood schools. Teachers may be hired and fired at the discretion of the principal and don't need any special certification.
The other critical difference: Charters are far more accountable. Each one gets evaluated every five years for renewal--or revocation.
Like neighborhood schools, Illinois charters are accountable to their local school districts. They're more immediately accountable, though, to parents' feet. If mom and dad don't like the education their child is getting, they walk.
But a careful analysis of actual feet shows just the opposite: Many more families are trying to walk in than out. Enrollment in the city's 15 charter schools is 7,540; another 4,255 youngsters are on waiting lists, trying to get in.
A study just released by the Chicago Public Schools helps explain why. All but two of Chicago's charter schools are outperforming their neighborhood public schools on nearly every one of 70 different measures--from reading and math scores to attendance to dropout rates. The most glaring exception was Nuestra America.
In fact, by some measures, several Chicago charters are seriously outperforming neighborhood schools. At the three elementary campuses of Chicago International charter schools, for example, math scores are off the charts compared with the neighborhood schools the kids likely would attend if the charter didn't exist. Officials there suggest it may have to do with the Saxon Math program used at all its schools.
Scores also were higher at all three campuses in reading and attendance.
Some critics argue that charter schools easily can toss out difficult students who are giving them trouble, leaving their detritus for the neighborhood schools to deal with. But that isn't true, either, this report shows.
Neighborhood high schools surrounding Noble Street Charter School, for instance, long have complained that Noble simply expels its problems. It turns out that Noble Street's "mobility rate," the rate at which students left the school last year, was just below 4 percent. Compare that with the neighborhood high schools' mobility rates, which average 27 percent.
In fact, only about a dozen students left Noble this year. Of those, all pulled out because their families moved or else decided Noble was too strict. No one got kicked out.
Illinois hopped on the charter school train a few years late when, in 1996, it allowed 45 to be established (15 in Chicago, 15 in the surrounding suburbs and 15 Downstate). The purpose was to offer an alternative to public schools, and also to shake up local districts by providing competition and perhaps a few innovative new ideas.
Charters are moving beyond experiments. That the weak among them get closed down, the way poorly run businesses go bankrupt, only proves the charter system works. Now it's time for neighborhood schools to explore why 12 of Chicago's 14 charters are outperforming them.