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Report slams charter school efforts

Report slams charter school efforts

The agency that recommended closing the International Charter School of Schenectady is sharply criti

Charter school report

To view the report by the Charter Schools Institute in which it recommended the closing of the International Charter School of Schenectady, click here.

The agency that recommended closing the International Charter School of Schenectady is sharply critical of the school in its report — at one point saying that some students in the classrooms its representatives visited last November were “socializing, staring into space, or sleeping.”

The Charter Schools Institute, the organization that oversees charter schools in the state, provided a copy of the 51-page document to The Daily Gazette in response to a Freedom of Information Law request made last month. The institute had provided a mostly blackened-out copy of a draft report on Feb. 12, arguing that only the contents of the final report could be released publicly.

The institute’s main reasons for recommending that the school close down at the end of the 2007-08 year are that the school does not have a strong academic program and its sharp enrollment drop from last year raises question about whether the school is financially viable.

The State University of New York’s Committee on Charter Schools is scheduled to review the report when it meets at 10:30 a.m. today at the SUNY office in Albany. It will make its own recommendation to the SUNY board of trustees, which is scheduled to meet on March 11 for a final decision on the school.

The report said that during the last two years, only half of the students were proficient on state math tests and only 40 percent proficient on the English tests.

“While the school performed about the same as, or slightly below, the Schenectady City School District in the two subjects, it consistently scored lower than predicted when compared to demographically similar schools statewide,” according to the report.

In addition, the report said the quality of student writing work displayed in the hallways was poor.

“Posted work in the primary grades appeared to be below grade level and consisted mostly of coloring worksheets. Some student work posted in hallways and classrooms was rife with spelling and mechanical errors, but teachers’ comments included ‘Good Job!’ and ‘Great’!”

Middle school work also had spelling, grammar and usage errors, but still contained high marks with few or any comments or corrections, according to the report.

The school had a set aside time called an “enrichment period,” but institute officials said it was not effective. Some classrooms in the lower grades did tasks like group math instruction, while about 50 middle school students in the drama club watched a cartoon during the same time period.

The report also stated that there were discipline issues in both the elementary and middle schools. Misbehavior in the lower grades included “students talking to each other, making noises, or being off task.”

The problem was worse at the middle school, with students “wandering around classrooms, leaving the classroom without a stated destination or a pass, wrestling with each other, and using profanity,” according to the report.

It went on to say teachers routinely did not address the problem.

“Several middle school teachers displayed a sense of frustration and even resignation with regard to students’ behavior; one teacher reported that in the past she attempted to demand silence while she was teaching, but since that was unsuccessful now she just tries to get their attention and then ‘moves on.’ Another teacher stated to an inspector who was observing his unruly class, ‘You can see what we have to deal with.’ ”

The inspection team reported that instruction was not tailored to different student levels.

“The renewal inspection team did not observe teachers engaging their students in a rigorous curriculum, asking probing questions, or developing students’ critical thinking skills; in contrast, teachers in the middle school were observed working on their computers during class, pleading with students to complete a low-level worksheet, and lecturing to disengaged students.”

It also said that the teachers were not familiar with the methods the school was supposed to use to assess student performance. The report said that curriculum development was lacking. School officials had said they were going to use a Buffalo-based curriculum document, but teachers did not adhere to this format. One teacher told institute officials “I am winging it. I haven’t gotten much guidance since I got here.”

The report also said that three curriculum coaches were supposed to help teachers in grades kindergarten through second, third through fifth and sixth through eighth. However, it stated that there was not a clear direction about whether then-director Sam Penceal, former assistant director and current Acting Director Shirley Reed or the curriculum coaches were guiding instruction.

“The confusion about leadership had resulted in a lack of clear expectations for and consistent feedback on classroom practice. Further, both the director and assistant director reported to the inspection team that they have not observed as many classes or attended as many grade level team meetings as they intended,” the report stated.

The curriculum coaches themselves were also inexperienced. One of the coaches told the site visit representatives. “Nobody taught us how to do this job. We taught ourselves.”

The report also cited morale issues. Thirty-five of the 50 teachers were new for the 2007-08 year. All but one of the seventh- and eighth-grade teachers resigned from the previous year. Because of the drop in enrollment, some teachers were reassigned, which caused stress and morale problems, the report said.

It also said the school’s financial situation has weakened because only 587 students are enrolled compared with 685 the year before. Also, the school’s income declined because of the Schenectady City School District’s withholding of aid payments. (Charter schools are privately run but publicly funded. Most of the International Charter School’s student population comes from the Schenectady City School District.)

The report also faulted the charter school’s board of trustees for not acting more swiftly to raise academic performance. It said board members mentioned the improvement in the school climate since its former educational management company SABIS had left in March 2007 and the school decided to govern itself. However, the institute said the board did not seem to be aware of how much it needed to raise student performance.

The report also said the board of trustees had not established any criteria for how it would review the director. It also hinted at some discord between the board and Penceal, who was fired on Jan. 21.

“Several school staff described the board as ‘micromanaging’ since it had moved to self-management. The lack of a formal evaluation protocol for the school director tied to academic achievement indicates a lack of oversight by the board, and was particularly concerning given the quality of the educational program at the school,” according to the report.

When contacted for comment about the report, board President Tracy Petersen said the institute did not take into account information the board submitted refuting its conclusions, particularly about the school’s financial status. They sent documents from their accountant and First Niagara to back up their claims.

Also, she said even if the school continues to have a dispute with the Schenectady City School District over aid payments, it can get the money by filing an intercept with the state Education Department.

In addition, she contends the school’s educational program is sound. “They have no evidence in their report that backs up the reason why they think we don’t have a strong program,” she said.

Petersen said institute officials only visited the school for a two-day period. Half the school was in the midst of taking the state social studies test, on which students scored 23 percent higher than last year, she said.

She also criticized the institute’s conclusion that the school has a widespread discipline problem.

“To say that one visit is indicative of how those classes [are] all the time is ridiculous. There is no behavioral problem in the school at this point,” she said.

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