Charter schools as partners?

Is St. Louis moving to a “portfolio” approach to public education, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls New Orleans where charter schools make up over half of the public schools? Duncan said the model works as long as accountability requires the quick closing of poor performing schools.

Kelvin Adams, the new SLPS superintendent, brings a willingness to work with charter schools. In a recent interview on St. Louis on the Air on KWMU, he explained his rationale.

It’s not about charters schools or not charter schools but about what’s best for our kids.

He talked about sharing ideas about what works between charter schools and regular public schools and how they influence each other.

State Sen. Jeff Smith has been twittering about attending committee and board meetings for Confluence Academy.

At achievement subcommittee mtg for Confluence Academy, charter skl susan uchitelle and I co-founded in 2000. doing well but need 2 do bettr

At Confluence Academies board mtg. They're the charter skls I co-founded in 2000. We're abt to move into a new bldg, the stl pub library...

I haven’t focused on the charter schools, but he got me to thinking about the quality of charter schools here in St. Louis. So I thought I would do a quick mini-check. I randomly chose fifth grade comm. arts MAP scores to compare and 11th grade for the high school charter schools. Since Lift for Life only has middle school scores, I included its eighth grade MAP scores.

I can definitely see some charter schools than need some attention. Confluence, St. Louis Charter School and Lift for Life seem to be doing the best but with a lot of room left to improve. The CAN! charter school for high school drop-outs has been closed.

With KIPP coming to St. Louis to provide some upward competition for the charters and an openness to charter schools from the new SLPS superintendent, a dynamic partnership that incubates new ideas and improves education for all may be coming to the Lou.

I need a 20 on Callahan

Kelvin Adams, the new superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, said during an interview on KWMU’s St. Louis on the Air Monday that the SLPS would have a person at every school who would be responsible for monitoring attendance and a developing relationship with each family in order to improve attendance.

I immediately thought of this ad.

SLPS reported an attendance rate in 2008 of 88.9 compared to the state average of 94. This is a dramatic increase over the 2006 low of 80.3 but is still not high enough. Improving attendance is a first step toward improving quality, including test scores.

Put that curriculum on the website!

MRH high school
As part of my mission to make schools more transparent and accessible to parents, I searched several random area school districts’ websites for curriculum information. Some of them presented detailed information in an easy-to-use format (Rockwood, Mehlville and Maplewood-Richmond Heights), some had partial information (Clayton, Ladue) and some none (Ferguson-Florissant and St. Louis Public Schools).

Rockwood: detailed information on curriculum by content area, info on curriculum development, easy-to-use website
Mehlville: pdf of each grade and high school
MRH: pdf of each school level (elementary, middle, high) and content area, assessment report, easy-to-use website

Clayton: info on curriculum development including names of curriculum coordinators but not information on content level or grade level objectives
Ladue: info limited to elementary math under the district curriculum section

Ferguson-Florissant: no information on district site that I could find via browsing or by search, no info in at least two elementary schools (Airport Elementary, Bermuda Elementary)
SLPS: no information that I could find via browsing, no search available; no info in at least three elementary schools (Adams, Ashland and Cote Brilliante)

Since curriculum drives education, I applaud Rockwood and MRH for having comprehensive, easy-to-use curriculum sections on their websites. Clayton and Ladue have some catching up to do. Ferguson-Florissant and the SLPS are embarrassingly lacking in this area. While I didn’t look at every district’s website, I encourage educators to think about what they include and emphasize on their websites and the message that sends to their parents and broader community.

Parents tracking their kids' attendance, grades online

school bus
Photo by Ian Fuller
When Sarah Brodsky of Show-Me Institute asked why St. Louis area weren’t being more innovative by implementing programs such as online grade and attendance monitoring by parents, I was surprised as I thought they were doing that. After checking most of the county school districts, I found that they were. (I couldn’t find it on Parkway’s website. Do they not have it or is it just not easily found on the website? They do have online lunch accounts, which I wish my kids’ district had, so I’m assuming they have chosen not to have attendance and grades monitoring.)

The St. Louis Public Schools did not have any online monitoring that I could find. For a district that struggles with attendance, I would think that allowing the parents to easily check on their kids’ attendance and tardies would be a high priority. “Johnny, you were tardy for biology again today. You’re grounded!”

A+ for school choice--private anyway

A fellow parent who is from the west coast remarked that while while her former area had schools in the typical top 10 lists, she is impressed with the educational opportunities in St. Louis, especially the choices available. Forbes recently ranked St. Louis #9 best places for education. We received an A+ in private school options and college opportunities. If there had been a category for public school options, we would have scored high there also (although not an A+ because of access). We like options.

The Libertarian-leaning Show-Me Institute is recommending tuition tax credits for families in St. Louis city, Kansas City and Wellston school districts that are under a certain percentage of the poverty level.

Another, very visible, attempt to increase access to choice is Mayor Slay's push to increase charter schools. Andy Rotherham of Education Sector has proposed five "deals" (pdf) for critics and advocates to work on.

I was especially intrigued by #3.

❝School districts should receive temporary transition aid to help them adjust to losing students, but that funding should be linked to giving charter schools access to unused space..❞

SLPS has extra room, charter schools don't have room, and transitional money would make everyone more likely to sit down at the peace table at come up with a plan to help our kids.

St. Louisans like choice after all. Now we just need to find a model that will work in real life and not just in ivory towers.

Photo of 6th grade Lift for Life students at space camp

Teachers can do research too!

The St. Louis Post profiled an elementary teacher in the beleaguered city school system.

❝Johnson labored at night and through winter and summer breaks for three years, and the product of that passion is a supplemental learning project. It represents one teacher's homegrown effort to solve one classroom's deficiencies, with the hope of later helping to turn around an entire district.❞

The program works by having students progress through levels as they learn their basic math facts down cold.

❝When a master steps to the podium, there's good reason that mesmerized classmates congregate at the podium like mere mortals gathering at the cage while Albert Pujols takes batting practice:

A master can write the answers to 100 multiplication questions in 110 seconds.❞

It sounds like a personalized version of the Fastt Math that is becoming popular in suburban districts.

I want to highlight one of the problems with the attitude of the city school district.

❝Though district officials subscribe to the theory that the achievement gap needs to be erased one classroom at a time, they say educational practices must first undergo rigorous research and academic review.

"He knows what works for him. That's not to say he doesn't have a program that works well for his students. But he doesn't have the research base yet to implement what he is doing on a larger scale," said William Parker, an assistant superintendent for elementary education.❞

I understand wanting to use research-based curriculum changes, but the district is essentially telling its teachers that no matter how hard they work and how effective they are since they can't provide the large research basis that commercial suppliers can, they are not as important. A better response would be to work with him to run a larger pilot study and to help publish. Working with teachers as collaborators instead of just implementers of off-the-shelf but "researched" curriculum would go a long way toward improving working conditions.

❝When his wife, Cathy, asks why Johnson remains in the city when he "could be making $10,000 more to work in the county" his response is uniform. And it starts with those students who hail, as he did, from a single-parent home absent a father.❞

While the city schools don't pay that much less than the county, an effective African-American male elementary teacher is highly recruitable. The city shouldn't rely on his desire to help kids from single-parent homes and should provide the supportive environment that teachers like him need, including helping them know how to share their work with others.

Debating at the Chase

I really want to see The Great Debaters while it is still at the theater, but I admit it is probably not the top choice for most high school students. That is where the Rams have stepped up. (If only they could step up during the game also...) Linebacker Chris Draft's foundation sponsored a screening for 300 St. Louis city school high school students last Friday, Jan. 11, 2008.

After watching the movie at the beautiful Chase, students heard a panel discussion moderated by St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Bryan Burwell. The panel consisted of community leaders, students, educators and Rams players Chris Draft, linebacker, Isaac Bruce, wide receiver, and Corey Chavous, safety.

The Rams had previously seen a private screening of the movie set up by Denzel Washington' son, JD Washington, who is on the practice squad.

Debating at the Chase is more inspiring than the Wrestling at the Chase!

Update--I really want to encourage readers to watch the video of Draft on Fox news I linked to above. I've also pulled out a couple Draft's quotes I like.

❝We need you guys [students] to be leaders. We need you all to step up, and the way to do that is research and facts, communication. Stand up and say we want to learn, we want to be better. How can we help St. Louis public schools be better?❞

❝We have to demand to be taught.❞