Charter Schools: CBOs’ Risky Pot o’ Gold

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LOWELL, Mass.—To understand the enormous benefits of becoming a charter school, consider the Lowell Middlesex Academy: Five years ago, as an alternative placement for kids in trouble at Lowell High School, the academy ran on $64,000 a year. Its teachers were all part-time. The high school issued the diplomas. Funding came from the public schools as part of a contract with a community college.

Today the Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School (affectionately known as "LMACS") has seven full-time teachers. It issues its own diplomas. And it gets $700,000 a year from the state.

That 1,100 percent boost in funding helps explain why the number of charter schools in the U.S. grew by 40 percent over the past two years, with more than 1,500 schools now serving 430,000 kids. Organizations as varied as Call-A-Teen in Phoenix, the Roger and Leona Fitzsimonds Boys & Girls Club in Milwaukee, and affiliates of YouthBuild and the National Urban League have established charter schools.

But stepping into charter school territory can be risky for a community-based organization (CBO). Several have closed, overcome by the demands of running a public school. Plenty of others are reluctant to even try. Take ABCD University High School in Boston: Run by Action for Boston Community Development, a community-based organization established in 1962, this alternative school is supported by federal and private grants. "We're always on pins and needles," says Mark Isenburg, director of Education, Training and Youth Services at ABCD, "always in search of the next grant, and it's difficult to institutionalize for the long-term."

But referring to the four teachers donated by the public school district, Isenburg says, "If I were to turn around and say I was going for a charter, they'd be out of here."

These are the two sides of the charter school sword. Ever since the launch of street academies in the 1960s, chronic underfunding has been the universal lot of alternative programs for troubled teens. Now, turning into a charter school can stabilize funding and transform these programs into more than a patchwork of services.

 "It really gives community-based organizations an opportunity to think comprehensively," says Eve Brooks, executive director of the Public Charter School Center for Student Support Services in Washington, D.C. "Up to now, a CBO just had a kid for a few hours after school, then needed to coordinate other services. With its own charter school, a CBO can come much closer to a full-service approach."

But there are plenty of hurdles. Traditional educators can be the harshest critics of charter schools, as they see state money diverted to the new interlopers. This can place CBOs in an awkward bind, since going for the big bucks of a charter risks alienating former district allies or losing staff. And starting a public school isn't easy. Inadequate resources are a problem, teacher turnover is a problem, teacher unions are a problem. And integrating charter schools with the rest of a public-educational system - forcing the kind of wide-scale changes reformers dream about - is the biggest challenge of all.

"CBOs that undertake this have to assess their organizational capacity," says Jean Thomases, a senior consultant for the D.C.-based Center for Youth Development and Policy Research. "For some of them, this means taking on much more operating responsibility than they're used to. But you can't deny or turn away from the opportunity."

It's an opportunity that is likely to expand. "We now have enough evidence that the charter school movement works, if it's done right," President Bill Clinton told students, teachers and community residents gathered last month at the City Academy charter school in St. Paul, Minn. Presidential candidates Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush both favor charter schools, although Bush has been much more enthusiastic.

 

When It Works

The charter-school movement is barely a decade old, yet charter schools now operate in 31 states and Washington, D.C. Arizona has the highest percentage of charter schools, launching 350 in five years.

Charter laws vary from state to state, and these schools have been started by everyone from disgruntled parents to CBOs; many only serve the elementary grades. Still, an increasing number of youth-service organizations are getting charters, drawing not only operating funds from the state but seed money from private foundations. For example, in March the Milwaukee Foundation made grants to the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee ($50,000) and the Fitzsimonds Boys & Girls Clubs in Milwaukee ($120,000) to help with their charter-school programs.

Here in Massachusetts, the 35-plus charter schools serve almost 13,000 students. The schools receive roughly $5,000 to $7,000 per pupil from the state - a solid income for the operators. Demand for charter school seats has more than tripled in the past five years. Particularly telling: 43 percent of charter school students are minorities; the state-wide average for public schools is 23 percent.

Many students at LMACS, for instance, are children of immigrants, particularly Southeast Asian; over half of the classes are made up of minorities. Its small size - about a 100 students - is also typical of charter schools that serve at-risk teens. Now part of Middlesex Community College, the school is located in a former mill town, in a downtown area of cobbled streets and a pleasant park. It fills most of the second floor of a renovated building and is about to add new classrooms, an art room and a student lounge.

There's a waiting list (about 70) and always has been. Yet the school isn't planning to grow. It is working at the comfortable edge of its funding and resources. More importantly, it's part of a national trend favoring smaller schools. "With a hundred students, we keep very close tabs," notes LMACS executive director Colleen Cox. "One of 100 is noticed a lot more easily than one of 3,500."

Take Daroth Yann, who dropped out of Lowell High several times. After tangling with the juvenile court system, Daroth didn't come to LMACS voluntarily. Nevertheless, she'll graduate soon and plans to be a math teacher. "I could have dropped out again," she says, "but I chose not to. Maybe because the school is so much smaller and you get more attention, maybe that's what I was searching for."

 

CBOs with Charters

Whether alternative education programs have been supported by a community college or CBO, they are well-positioned to become charter schools. They have the innovative curriculums, passionate teachers, the right community connections and an ingrained entrepreneurial spirit. CBO schools "are much more porous institutions," says Thomases of the Center for Youth Development, who in 1980 helped start the alternative South Brooklyn Community High School. "Traditional schools view other groups and educational organizations as outsiders, but CBO schools see outsiders as resources." In fact, many organizations work with the public schools before getting a charter, running alternative placement programs (like ABCD's) or taking referrals for kids needing substance-abuse counseling, housing or job training.

A case in point is Call-A-Teen in Arizona. This nonprofit organization opened in 1976 as a short-term employment program for youth. It received funding through CETA, the Job Partnership Training Act (JPTA), and other now-dead Department of Labor job-training programs. Although Call-A-Teen has survived for close to 30 years with a solid funding base, Chief Executive Officer Bernice Lever says, there have been "massive losses" for many other programs that depended heavily on JPTA.

Now Lever's organization has a charter school, too: The Arizona Call-A-Teen Center of Excellence Charter High School relies primarily on state funding for its $822,000 budget. Five years in, it has 150 students and a building next door to Call-A-Teen's main office in Phoenix. "We have a centrally accredited charter school," Lever says, "plus employment training and GED on the other side." About 30 percent of the kids who come to Call-A-Teen for other services end up at its charter school. The rest of the students come through referrals or word-of-mouth, drawing new people to the youth agency's programs - operating, in other words, exactly as proponents of have-the-money-follow-the-child said it would.

YouthBuild Philadelphia offers another viable alternative. This CBO already had a comprehensive educational program in place for youth who had dropped out of high school. Participants worked on construction sites as well as in classrooms, receiving on-the-job training as they rebuilt abandoned houses. But three years ago the entire organization became the YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School, allowing it to issue its own diplomas and to hire teachers. (There are now 10 on staff compared with the three on loan previously from a regular public high school.) With 210 students, it's the largest YouthBuild program in the country. Six other YouthBuild organizations have become charter schools; another eight are affiliated with charter schools.

Chartering stabilized YouthBuild Philadelphia's funding, says development director Simran Sidhu. It also receives a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant ($650,000 in 1999) and a chunk of money from the city's Housing and Community Development Department. The biggest change is "a lot more freedom with the curriculum," Sidhu says. "We can integrate all components, such as teachers going to the construction sites, and we now have more funding for special education."

 

'Bureaucracies Were Created for a Reason'

The flip side of such success stories is that resources are still in short supply at charter schools. Most don't have the clout of Call-A-Teen or YouthBuild, let alone the Lowell Middlesex Academy. LMACS, a non-CBO charter school, provides an instructive counterpoint. It won one of the state's first charters, in 1995. It has tapped very few grants from private foundations or corporations. Yet the school is operating in the black and is in good standing with state regulators because of its connection to Middlesex Community College. In addition, LMACS is part of the Middle College High School Consortium, a group of 19 schools that serve at-risk kids on college campuses.

"What we get from the community college we could never replicate," stresses executive director Cox. Students have access to the college library, science labs, even the cafeteria. Many administrative functions, like payroll, are also handled by the college.

CBOs can offer similar administrative support, especially if they're large and well-established. But once they receive a charter, they confront new challenges. This is especially true if a youth-service organization has never run a comprehensive alternative education program before. "Charter schools are not an easy thing to do, even if you've been operating a CBO," warns Brooks of D.C.'s Student Support Services. "It is different to operate a school. It's a different culture, and the administrative headaches of running a charter school are not to be underestimated."

As public schools, they can't screen students as some CBOs do, so there are always waiting lists. Because charter schools are small, many spend disproportionate chunks of their budgets on building facilities. Depending on the state, charters range from three to 15 years, but typically these schools are evaluated annually on financial and student performance. It's much easier to shut them than other public schools: as of this year, approximately 60 charter schools around the country have closed for various reasons.

Also, hum-drum administration and adherence to state regulations - musts for any public school, including charters - may get short shrift. At the end of 1999, the Massachusetts Inspector General issued a "Management Review of Commonwealth Charter Schools," faulting a number of them for conflicts of interest and poor business practices. In Washington, D.C., teacher problems and administrative foul-ups have closed several charter schools. "The hard part is that it is a business," says Glenda Partee, who serves on the board of the Integrated Design and Electronics Academy Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. "Bureaucracies were created for a reason. You do need policies to fall back on."

Even a local CBO that's part of a national network can misstep. YouthBuild Boston's school gave up its charter in 1998, the first in Massachusetts to do so. (Two others turned in their charters this year, one because it couldn't find a financially feasible school building.) According to Dorothy Stoneman, president of YouthBuild USA, the Boston program "rushed into becoming a charter school"- at the time, it looked like its HUD funding was about to dry up - when it "needed another year of planning."

Chartering too soon can exacerbate internal tensions within a youth agency, leading to both administrative and staffing problems. Stoneman points out that "one prerequisite is continued, creative, entrepreneurial leadership." Getting qualified teachers is another issue. At LMACS, salaries are "competitive" for new teachers, says Cox, but not on the "higher end"- meaning the school can't pay top dollar for teachers with many years of classroom experience or a Master's degree. This mirrors the experience of other CBO and charter schools. For example, after five years with a relatively stable staff, Bernice Lever says, some of Call-A-Teen's teachers are "fleeing for more money."

Isenburg candidly points out that alternative education programs have acted as a safety valve within the Boston school system. ABCD takes the kids, but Boston public schools still get the per-pupil allotment for them. In return, ABCD gets donated teachers, but this is not a real quid pro quo. "In my community," he says, "alternative education is on life support. We have enough to sustain life, but the never-ending search for resources diverts attention away from what we really need to be doing."

Yet a community-based organization's mission still may not jibe with a charter school. For Isenburg, chartering can provide a good "maintenance" alternative for a CBO school, but it doesn't help with capital development or program modeling. In ABCD's case, "part of the plan is to get kids back into public schools, and there's a disconnect with the charter-school model." He notes that many ABCD kids want to return to a regular high school once they feel ready.

 

Forcing Larger Changes

The charter school debate overflows with political ironies. Often portrayed as public "prep schools" or arts havens for the privileged, these schools actually serve a high proportion of minority youth and are often struggling for resources such as classrooms, gyms and Internet connections. CBO leaders like Isenburg worry about losing experienced teachers and other district support - for good reason. But such caution on the part of progressive community activists has allowed conservatives to control the discussion.

Rather than treating charters as a tainted means to an end, alternative educators might embrace the concept, shifting the political terms of the debate. "When you change who controls the money," says John Fiegel, director of the Public Charter Schools Program at the U.S. Department of Education, "you've changed the system." CBO schools without charters will remain marginalized and unstable, according to Fiegel, whose office will award $145 million this fiscal year to support charter schools. "A competitive environment is created when public dollars follow students to charter schools," he argues. "This can be a win-win situation for families and students if school districts respond positively."

For example, Lowell High, following the script of charter-school advocates, is planning to open its own alternative school at another site downtown. This one will target at-risk kids with behavior problems. Although the original Lowell Middlesex Academy was never just a disciplinary dumping ground, its spin-off into a charter school meant the high school had to look for new options. Lowell High still refers plenty of kids to LMACS, as do other school districts in the area. "We're filling the need," says executive director Cox. "We're not in competition with the other local districts, because we are taking the students they weren't successful with."

Charter schools are not a panacea , but they can push the ideas that drive alternative education - small, community-centered schools; self-paced study; an emphasis on counseling and youth development - into the public arena. "They create new partnerships that bring new resources into a community's public school system," Fiegel notes. There's also the bottom line: it's a new stream of money.

That makes chartering "the most promising opportunity in the education landscape," says Thomases of the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research. "It's a work-in-progress, especially as politicians get involved. But the intersection of charters and youth-serving organizations presents an enormous opportunity to diversify education.

"The marketplace is opening up regarding who can run schools, and CBOs have a chance to establish themselves as educational leaders."