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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Following up on my district's stealth charter school

In my last post, I talked about my experience learning about Morris School District schools; how I used the district website, informational meetings, and discussions with neighbors to learn about my options; and how the one option that no one ever mentioned to me was the Unity Charter School. I wondered how parents who have fewer resources available to them, especially those whose English might be limited, could possibly learn about Unity, let alone enter the lottery.

Since then, I've done a little more digging. Here's what I learned.

On the bilingual Spanish/English Morris School District kindergarten registration form (available here), there is a section called "Program Preference," which asks the parent or guardian to check off "multiage" or "traditional" as their first choice. Checking "multiage" enters the child into the lottery for the Normandy Park School, a magnet school with multiage classrooms. Nowhere on the form is there any mention of Unity Charter or a program that teaches sustainability, environmentalism, ecology, etc. It's not an option.

In fact, the only ways to learn about Unity that I've been able to discover (and again, please enlighten me if I've missed something) are through local newspapers (English language, of course) and fliers, and, of course, word of mouth.

So perhaps this other interesting bit of data is really not surprising at all. According to the state school report card on Unity, in 2009-2010 the proportion of Unity students who lived in homes where English was the first language was 100%. The proportion whose English proficiency was limited was, of course, 0%. No other Morris School District school can say that. Among the elementary schools, limited English proficiency rates range from around 5% up to around 18%. The rate at Normandy Park, the multiage magnet school included on the district's registration form, is 17.1%.

Proponents of charter schools say they're just another kind of public school, managed independently but entitled to public dollars. They're supposed to give parents a choice. But looking at those numbers, you have to wonder - which parents?

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Unity is open to students from around Morris County, not just the Morris School District. While there may be towns around here that have a near-0% rate of English language learners, there aren't many, and they're probably not sending too many students to Unity. No, I haven't done that research. Maybe if I get really bored next week....

Sunday, July 17, 2011

My school district's stealth charter school

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate in New Jersey about whether charter schools produce better student results than similar public schools. Gov. Christie wants to see lots more charters, especially in poor, urban districts, because, he says, kids will get a better education in these smaller, less regulation-bound environments. But opponents question this assertion.
Critics claim that the student population of charters is not equivalent to nearby public schools, and therefore comparisons of student scores between them must be adjusted for factors like poverty, parental involvement, etc. Reports like the one produced by the Christie administration showing better results in charters aren’t valid, critics say, because the comparison isn’t fair; charter schools start out with a more advantaged population. 
But how would this happen? As charter school advocates loudly proclaim, charters are populated by lottery. Everyone has an equal opportunity to enter and win it, and therefore, they say, the student population it produces is similar to the populations found in nearby public schools.
 Opponents argue that a self-selection process occurs because, in order to get into a charter school, parents must take an extra action - they must enter their kids in the lottery. This presents an obstacle to parents who lack knowledge of the system, don’t speak English, or are simply uninvolved in their kids’ education. Number crunchers who have examined the data say that the differences are significant between charter and public school populations even in areas where the majority of the population is poor; the charter school students are, on the whole, less poor. (In addition to self-selection, there are other factors that may contribute, including attrition and lack of special education services in charters.)
I’m not a numbers cruncher, nor have I researched the situation statewide. But I wanted to share my own experience because, though it’s anecdotal, I think it sheds light on the reality of the situation.
I live in Morris Township, where kids attend the unified Morris School District along with Morristown residents. A little demographic information: My husband and I are white, American born, with post-graduate degrees. It’s a very long walk from our income level to the poverty line. My husband is a professional, and I left a career in online publishing to become a stay-at-home mom. By any measure, we are miles away from the demographic you would imagine might find it difficult to enter their kids in a charter school lottery. The only stumbling block we faced was that we’d moved to Morris Township just a year before our first kids (twins) were born. We didn’t know a lot of people here. We sent our kids to preschool in a nearby town, so most of their classmates were heading for kindergarten in a different school district.
When my oldest kids approached school age (around 2001), I began doing my homework. I read everything on the district’s website. I talked to the few parents I knew in the neighborhood about our local schools. Having learned that there’s a magnet school in our district with multi-age classrooms, I toured it a full year before my kids were to register for kindergarten. When the time came, I entered them in the lottery for the magnet school. (They didn’t get in, which, as it turned out, was just as well. But that’s another story.) I attended a district parents’ orientation meeting at some point. I brought the twins to be tested for kindergarten readiness and to register on the appointed day.
In other words, I did absolutely everything I could to get every scrap of information about the schools, the available options, the procedure. I honestly don’t know what else I could have done.
So imagine my surprise a couple of years later when, in a discussion with another parent, I learned there was another school my kids might have attended. She knew that it was somehow focused on teaching about the environment. She wasn’t sure  what the deal was; it was a very small school that kids got into by lottery. “Like Normandy Park?” I asked. (That’s the magnet school.) “Yeah, kind of like that, only no one knows about it.” I don’t know how much more time passed before I learned that there was a charter school in our school district - Unity Charter School. Since then, I have met many other parents in the district who have never heard of it. 
As of this writing, the Unity website is down, so I can’t tell you whether there is information about their lottery on their website. But then again, if you didn’t even know Unity existed, you wouldn’t seek out their website. Meanwhile, the Morris School District website contains no mention of Unity that I can find. (Please feel free to correct me if you find one.) On the District Information Page, here’s what you’ll learn about MSD schools:

"Within the District there is one preschool, three primary schools (K-2), three intermediate schools (3-5), one multiage magnet school (K-5), one middle school (6-8), and one high school. In addition to our pre-K-12 program, the Morris School District operates an innovative Community School that offers an extensive adult school curriculum for lifelong learners."
There’s a listing of every district school. None of those schools is Unity. Unity is invisible.
If you go on the NJ Dept. of Education website and click your way down to the charter schools section, then search for charter schools in Morris County, you will find Unity.  But if you’re a parent of a kid approaching kindergarten, why would you think to do that? Wouldn’t you assume that all options open to you are listed on your school district’s website? A quick Google search finds that, in the past couple of years, Unity has held open houses for prospective parents that were publicized in a couple of local papers. I have no idea if they’ve always had the open houses, but I’m certain that, with three kids in the public schools, I never heard about them through district channels or any other way.
I don’t know if the situation here is similar to other NJ districts currently hosting charter schools. But clearly, under existing regulations, this is how it can be. Our school district is socioeconomically diverse, with a significant number of Spanish-speaking families. I’m guessing that, if I failed completely to learn about our charter school, most of them did, too. (Anyone who has the time and know-how to seek out a comparison between the student demographics at Unity and the rest of the Morris School District, I’d sure be interested in reading what you find.)
So, is there a self-selection process created by the charter school admission system? If the situation in the Morris School District reflects the general situation even a tiny bit - you bet there is.