New report reveals charter school success

D. Kevin McNeir

Miami Times Online

Apr 30, 2012

Gibson Charter Principal Fahreed Khan is joined by some of his star performers.

Are Black students really better off?

Since their inception here in Florida in 1996, there have been numerous studies and heated debates over whether charters are a better option for students than traditional public schools. Both receive tax dollars but charter schools are governed by independent boards. And while their numbers have continued to increase each year, most reports have shown only negligible differences in student performance.

But a study recently-released by the Florida Department of Education shows that charter students are outperforming their peers at traditional public schools across the board.

Michael Koii

“If you go back five or six years, the numbers weren’t as good for charter schools; the fact that more are around and have been established for awhile has something to do with the improvement,” said Michael Koii, executive director of Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, Florida Department of Education. “Charter schools must be chosen by parents — that decision indicates that parents want to be more involved in their child’s education. This is a solid report – a good report. It says that charter schools should be applauded for doing a good job.”

A closer look at the report’s findings

The report used data from the 2010-2011 school year, comparing how students performed in three areas: the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test [FCAT]; achievement gaps between white and minority students; and learning gains made by students. Charter school students generally outperformed

Rebecca Dinda those in traditional public schools on FCAT reading, mathematics and science exams. In addition the report indicates that Miami-Dade enrolls more than 70 percent of low income students in charter schools. Statewide, 45 percent of students in charter schools are poor, compared to 55 percent of students in traditional schools.

“Charter schools only represent six percent of student populations statewide but they’re growing,” Koii added. “And they come certain benefits: more flexibility in curriculum; no union contracts which means teachers can be hired or fired easier; and there’s more flexibility in terms of facilities and additional personnel. Most important they provide unique programs and services because they understand that children learn in different ways. It’s another option and that’s key for low income families who often would not have an option for their children. In the past only those with financial means had a real choice — they could send their children to private schools. Charters put choice into the equation and while they aren’t the answer for all kids for some they are the best way to facilitate learning.”

School board member refutes findings

Dr. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, M-DCPS school board member, says she has read the report but does not believe that charter schools are preparing students any better than traditional public schools.

“Charter schools serve less than six percent of the state’s public school students,” she said. “But the report offers no mechanism to translate that difference except in percentages. It just cannot be taken without scrutiny. Parents need the opportunity to find an educational program for their child and I believe that these choices are offered by our traditional public schools, regardless of zip code or adjusted gross income. Still, we know that poverty severely impedes a student’s ability to excel in school.”

She added that the thinks the culture that once fostered low student expectations is changing.

Inner city principals sound off

Rebecca Dinda

Fahreed Khan and Rebecca Dinda are the principals at two county charter schools: Theodore R. and Thelma A Gibson in Overtown and Downtown Miami Charter. Gibson has 286 Pre-K – 8 students; Downtown Miami has 656 Pre-K – 6 students. Both schools provide instruction to mostly-minority students and they say that charter schools are “absolutely necessary.”

“When I came to Gibson 1 ½ years ago, we had four months to prepare for the FCAT and a lot of our students had never taken such an examination before — they weren’t prepared,” said Khan, 42, whose most school grade is a “D.” “I was told that if we didn’t improve, the state would shut us down. The next year we gained 120 points which was among the highest improvements in the state, especially in math. We created after school and Saturday tutorials and attacked our students’ weakest areas. Now we have kindergarteners that can read and their parents are amazed. We are 95 percent Black and based in Overtown where there are much higher levels of poverty. The key is raising the expectations – those of our parents and of our children. Too many public schools have continued to receive tax dollars and shown nothing for it.”

Downtown Miami is a “B” school that is 60 percent Black and 30 percent Hispanic.

“Our goal is for 90 percent of our students to reach grade level in math, reading, writing and science and while there has been improvement we won’t be satisfied until that goal is reached,” Dinda said. “Students who performing or predicted to perform below grade level are required to remain for an extended school day, 120 students attend our Saturday school and we require our students to read outside of school. When you provide choice, students, parents and teachers have made a conscious decision to become a member of the school community and are therefore more invested in the process. And we are held strictly accountable for results – both financially and academically – despite receiving only 68 to 71 percent of the funding received by district schools.”

By D. Kevin McNeir kmcneir@miamitimesonline.com