The first senior class at a Rochester charter school will graduate in June.
Rochester Academy Charter School has largely flown under the radar in the four years it’s been open. It’s a very small school – 278 students in grades 7 through 12. There are only 25 seniors – about three-quarters of those who started out with the school.
Officials said the first year was tough with staff turnover and getting students to adhere to expectations. But they say it’s now very stable. The school aims to provide a nurturing environment, small class sizes, an extended school day, home visits and a focus on math and science.
There are six charter schools in Rochester and three more will open next year. The state previously shut down two under-performing charter schools in the city in the last decade.
Critics say the charter schools attract and retain good students, while forcing out and deliberately not recruiting challenging students. They say charter schools don’t have the capacity to address special needs or non-English-speaking students. Indeed, the demographic profiles don’t always line up with the Rochester City School District.
Critics also say the charter schools siphon off money from the RCSD and lack sufficient oversight. The district will give $33 million to charter schools next school year, though the state is chipping in $9 million. The state recognizes that although the RCSD will be serving fewer students, it’s not so easy to immediately achieve economy of scales.
The RCSD will eventually have to consolidate facilities and I wouldn’t be surprised to see charter schools request to use district space. Charters have a hard time finding suitable buildings. RACS would like to house all of its students in one building; instead it has two cross-town campuses. Many charter schools don’t have athletic fields or gymnasiums. The RCSD’s charter school compact attempts to address those concerns.
Charter schools appear to be a viable choice for some families, but it’s hard to see them as a solution for the problems in urban education. They’re simply too small to scale. The RCSD can offer comprehensive special education and ESOL because it has the numbers to justify the support staff. Charter schools also tend to experience greater turnover in leadership and staff. Furthermore, Rochester’s charter schools have been a mixed bag – showing tremendous success, outright failure and something in between.
Charter schools aren’t going away. I have a feeling they’re only getting started.