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Hope in Charter Schools

Despite profound differences in everything from lesson plans to student bodies, four charter schools that were granted new five-year mandates this week share one thing: They offer hope for reform in the beleaguered Los Angeles Unified School District. Not so much in what they do but in how they do it. Charter schools enjoy exemption from many state and district rules governing curriculum and funding--giving principals, teachers and parents stronger roles in deciding how children are taught.

The four campuses--Fenton Avenue Charter School in Lake View Terrace, Open Charter School in Mid-City, Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima and Westwood Charter School in Westwood--were the first of 15 granted charter status in the LAUSD. On Monday, the school board unanimously gave the schools second five-year charters after an independent report concluded that the campuses generally post better results in test scores and parent participation than traditional schools.

The report does raise some questions. For instance, researchers had difficulty documenting improvements in academic achievement as a direct result of the charters. Part of the problem stemmed from the district’s switching of tests in the 1995-96 school year. The researchers relied on current comparisons between similar schools. So, for example, test scores at Fenton and Open were compared with those of nearby campuses that have similar student bodies and then with district averages. In those measurements, Fenton and Vaughn showed the largest improvements, primarily in math and Spanish-language test scores. They had nowhere to go but up. Open and Westwood--strong schools even before adopting charters--maintained high marks. None of the charters had dramatic improvement in English reading scores.

Those numbers, however, tell only part of the story. At Vaughn, for instance, parents must agree to participate in the operation of the school, most often by volunteering to work in classes a few hours each month. Parent involvement is common to most charter schools but is still remarkable in schools serving poor and immigrant families.

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Given greater control of their finances, Fenton and Vaughn administrators have built new classrooms and increased the number of computers on campus. At Open, students and teachers work together to create “systems” of learning--a curriculum that highlights the relationships among seemingly unrelated disciplines. For instance, a field trip to the Ballona Wetlands led to questions about property development and a visit from Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. At Westwood, the creation of grade-based “families” gives students access to a wider range of faculty.

Despite their differences, the programs share a sense of ownership. Teachers, students and parents believe they control the process and want it to succeed. At Fenton, co-director Joe Lucente told of a kindergarten teacher who fell down a flight of stairs and broke an ankle one Thursday. On Monday morning, she wheeled herself back into the classroom: She didn’t want the school’s workers’ compensation insurance rates to increase. “Those are the kinds of things that change when you’re in charge,” Lucente said.

It’s tempting to think that that kind of commitment could be duplicated across the district with the simple granting of charters. But control and responsibility work only when exercised. And that doesn’t take a charter. The charter schools are labs--in which mistakes are as likely as successes. Over time, their innovation and energy may indeed produce consistently higher test scores. But no matter what the outcome, they should continue to be studied so parents, teachers and district administrators can put their lessons to work in classrooms citywide.

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Reading Scores

Scores of four charter schools and the L.A. Unified School District average:

* California Test of Basic Skills

** Stanford Achievement Test, 9th Edition

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