Troy’s charter school, the Ark, is still afloat after the SUNY trustees’ Charter Schools Committee meeting yesterday in Albany, but Schenectady’s International Charter School appears to have drowned. The committee endorsed a recommendation made last month by the Charter Schools Institute that the school be shut down at the end of this term. We have mixed feelings about the recommendation, which there’s every reason to believe the SUNY Board of Trustees will act on at its March 11 meeting.
While we could have seen giving the six-year-old school a second one-year reprieve to get its act together, the report of the Charter Schools Institute offers justification enough for closure. Still, it’s sad that children in the school will face such disruption; that all children in Schenectady will have one less educational option; and that the school district, which to its discredit has done everything possible to undermine the charter school, will have no competition to keep it on its toes.
The school’s problems — or “failures,” as SUNY Trustee Randy Daniels repeatedly called them yesterday — were widespread. They included a spotty academic record: encouraging test scores the first year, where the school’s mostly minority students outperformed students in the Schenectady district and comparable students elsewhere, followed by years of discouraging test scores, where they slightly underperformed students in the Schenectady district and badly underperformed comparable students elsewhere. Charter schools, which operate with fewer bureaucratic rules than other public schools and have a student body that wants to be there, are supposed to be different and somehow better. If they can’t distinguish themselves from the rest academically, what’s the point?
The charter school complains that students are now doing better in English and social studies but the Charter Schools Institute used data from past years, before management and curriculum changes were made. The institute says these gains have not yet been documented, but even if they can be, based on the curriculum used and other things it saw in the school during a visit in November, they are unlikely to last.
The institute also was concerned about the school’s frequent shake-ups, including getting rid of a management company and seeing a series of directors either leave or be fired. The key to a good school is strong, consistent leadership. The lack of this has very likely played a part in the school’s high teacher turnover, the discipline problems it has had in the past (and which it now claims to have overcome), and poor student performance. The institute acknowledged that the board has tried to address these problems, but concluded that it was too little too late.
Also, without directly assigning blame, the institute points to the role the Schenectady district played in the school’s fiscal problems that have hurt it in the past year. First, when confusion from management changes caused many parents to miss the deadline for requesting transportation in April, the district took a hard line and denied their students transportation this school year. That cost the charter school many students, and a lot of money.
The district also refused to pay the school nearly $750,000 for disputed students, when state Education Department policy says that districts should pay and then settle such disputes at the end of the school year. And finally, on the eve of yesterday’s SUNY Charter Schools Committee meeting, Superintendent Eric Ely couldn’t resist sending an e-mail to the trustees calling attention to the charter school’s shortcomings.
So, it appears the school system has got back its monopoly, and the state aid that comes with the charter school students. It should use it to overcome the logistical problems, successfully integrate these kids into the district and give them the education they deserve.