In two reports Public Impact has worked on, we look at charter schools’ effects, from a close-up of one school in Nashville to an entire district in New Orleans. We consider the 10 years of charters since Hurricane Katrina in Ten Years in New Orleans: Public School Resurgence and the Path Ahead, and the gradual conversion option in Expanding District Capacity to Turn Around Failing Schools: An Evaluation of the Cameron Middle School Charter Conversion.
In Ten Years in New Orleans: Public School Resurgence and the Path Ahead, Public Impact worked with New Schools for New Orleans to consider the impact of changes in New Orleans public education following Hurricane Katrina, when the city closed its schools and let go 7,500 teachers and administrators. Since that point in 2005, the percentage of New Orleans students performing on grade level has doubled, reaching 62 percent in 2014. With multiple charts to highlight the data on the past 10 years, the report looks at the successes and remaining work in six areas:
- Governance: New Orleans refocused the role of government to be a regulator of educational outcomes and equity. The Recovery School District acted aggressively to replace the lowest-performing schools each year with new operators, becoming the leading practitioner of what Public Impact has called the Try, Try Again approach.
- Schools: Autonomous public schools now serve more than 90 percent of students in New Orleans’ decentralized system as drivers of innovation and system leadership. The percentage of New Orleans students attending schools in Louisiana’s bottom decile fell from 60 to 13 percent between 2004 and 2014.
- Talent: New Orleans educators work in a unique environment where schools compete for talented teachers. More than a third of New Orleans teachers now generate student academic growth that places them in the top 20 percent of teachers statewide.
- Equity: Public schools adopted mechanisms to ensure that reform created a system that served all New Orleans students well, particularly the most vulnerable. Eighty-four percent of school seats are filled through the city’s centralized enrollment system. And the graduation rate for students with disabilities climbed to 60 percent in 2014, 17 points above the state average.
- Community: The city continues to work toward building shared ownership among a diverse group of New Orleanians for its transformation of public schools. But parents who are satisfied with the quality and responsiveness of schools outnumber those who aren’t by a ratio of 11 to 1.
- Funders: An estimated $250 million in one-time federal funds and philanthropic support have contributed to the past decade of reform.
Those are just a few of the “numbers to celebrate” in the report—which balances them with the “numbers to motivate,” statistics that reflect remaining work.
“This report shows that something remarkable is happening in New Orleans,” the authors write. “An innovative system has generated substantial gains on state tests. ACT results…are closing stubborn gaps with students elsewhere in the country. New Orleans educators are helping more kids over the finish line in high school and onto college campuses. This is real progress.
“Improvements like these do not happen without citywide investment in the success of its young people.”
But, the authors conclude, the system must keep up the momentum, because much work remains to become “a just community, led by graduates of New Orleans public schools who are prepared to uplift neighborhoods and solve inequities across New Orleans: in housing, healthcare, economic development, and criminal justice.”
In Expanding District Capacity to Turn Around Failing Schools: An Evaluation of the Cameron Middle School Charter Conversion, Public Impact’s Daniela Doyle looks at Metropolitan Nashville’s first attempt at gradually converting a chronically low-performing district school to one operated by a charter management organization.
In Nashville, Cameron Middle School had already attempted several unsuccessful turnaround efforts when the district invited charter operators to convert the school to a charter. LEAD Public Schools took over the school one grade at a time. But unlike most charter schools, only students living within Cameron’s attendance zone could attend; they were automatically enrolled in what became Cameron College Prep unless they opted out—bringing a new school option directly to the students who needed it most.
By the end of the conversion, Cameron’s students were better off, the report concludes, pointing to performance and survey data—though the report also finds that the results could have been stronger and come more quickly, offering lessons for other districts and charters interested in pursuing a charter conversion:
- Build the district’s capacity by developing “turnaround corps” with a turnaround leader, team of excellent teachers, and solid turnaround plan—one that includes helping the district-run part of the school to improve before it moves under the charter’s control.
- Develop a rigorous process for evaluating providers’ capacity to conduct the work. The provider’s plan must be clear in its strategies to transform the school’s instruction and culture, and must show evidence of prior success.
- Develop the district conditions that providers want, to attract great turnaround specialists. Those include access to funding and district resources, the possibility of feeder patterns for a provider, and clear district systems built to outlast district office turnover.
- Set clear expectations for the turnaround, in culture and achievement, and in how the district and provider work together. Districts must be explicit in expectations for the first years as well as consequences for failing to meet those expectations.
- Over-communicate at every step why the turnaround is happening, its benefits to students, goals for the turnaround, how things are going, and what everyone involved can expect—with charter and district officials using the same language to minimize confusion.