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The True North Preparatory Charter School program hopes to increase its capacity to serve nearly 20 percent of city students, according to a report in the Democrat and Chronicle.

This could have very serious consequences, both good and bad. The good news is the school has proven results and could benefit the students who attend. However, the school has no special needs students. It has a “boot camp” style of operating. It’s not a good fit for everyone. Perhaps the biggest factor is in its success is tremendous buy-in from students and parents. All of these things make the True North model difficult to scale across the entire district.

The expansion raises questions about the students would be left in the City School District, which has an enormous population of special education and English language learners. Charters insist they don’t cream the best students, counsel special needs students not to attend and kick problem kids out, but there’s lots of evidence to the contrary.

Of course, charter schools put the pinch on unions. True North officials say being able to fire teachers is the secret to success. But the school’s rigid structure and student population seem to be much bigger factors. Busting teachers unions will lead to a lower standard of living and no job security for huge numbers of education professionals. (Instead of comparing True North with poor-performing School #30, I would have liked to see the D&C choose a high-performing city school, such as School #58 or School #23.)

The charter expansion could further wipe out parochial schools.

There are also space implications. There’s no question the RCSD has to consolidate and the charter school expansion will hasten the need to close buildings. Meantime, the charter schools will need to acquire property. So far, the district and charter schools have not been working on shared space. Charter schools find themselves in former Catholic schools that lack adequate facilities or spending lots of money to retrofit spaces.

Finally, there are financial consequences. Charter schools siphoned off $33 million from the district this year. The district also must pay transportation costs for charters. Until there’s a critical mass of charter school students (there are about 2,600 across all grade levels), it becomes difficult to achieve economy of scale.

This expansion is so massive, the district and the charter schools must start working together now.

Links of the Day

– Can Ralph Wilson Stadium stand the test of time? Many observers think, no way.

– The NHL lockout has serious repercussions on downtown Buffalo businesses and workers.

– Rochester’s orchestra is mired in debt and infighting. Syracuse’s orchestra folded. Buffalo’s orchestra is doing great!

A plea to Monroe County to consider a smart growth plan.

A very skinny building in Syracuse is for sale.

The state test score data released this week for grades 3 through 8 shows Rochester’s charter schools on the whole performing better than Rochester City School District schools. About 13,500 RCSD students and 1,200 charter school students took the tests.

English Passing Rate:

  • RCSD – 21%
  • Charters – 46%

Math Passing Rate:

  • RCSD – 27%
  • Charters – 63%

But there are some RCSD schools that performed as well or better than some charter schools. Take a look:

School 23 (RCSD, grades 3-6)

  • English – 54%
  • Math – 67%

School 52 (RCSD, grades 3-6)

  • English – 47%
  • Math – 54%

School 58 (RCSD, grades 3-8)

  • English – 42%
  • Math – 49%

Urban Choice (Charter, grades 3-6)

  • English – 39%
  • Math – 50%

Rochester Academy Charter School (Charter, grades 7 -8)

  • English – 43%
  • Math -41%

University Prep (Charter, grades 7 &-8)

  • English – 22%
  • Math – 42%

This shows not all city schools are terrible and not all charter schools are great.

There are charter schools serving students extremely well, such as True North, Genesee Community Charter, and Eugenio Maria de Hostos. Other charter schools are not doing better than the best city schools.

It is worth pointing out charter schools by their very nature attract families more involved in their children’s education. Charter schools have been criticized for drawing away better students. In addition, charter schools do not have as many children with special needs and children who speak English as a second language.

I suspect the better performing schools are more economically diverse. Studies have shown economic integration works to raise achievement.

As the city’s failing schools get criticized, it’s important to look at the common denominator of all of the schools mentioned above: They have students and parents who want (and in some cases, fought) to be there.

The charter school space debate is close to erupting in Rochester.

University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men opened in the former Nazareth Hall on Raines Park in 2010. Principal Joe Munno knew he’d quickly outgrow the location, but there were few options.

“There’s plenty of buildings that our big developers own and I met with all of them,” Munno said. “They do have an interest, but it’s about are they willing to spend money and put up some funds to renovate buildings? They’re not.”

Munno wants to build an addition, but the Maplewood Neigborhood Association successfully swayed the City Planning Commission to say no. A letter to the board cited rowdy youth, density, litter and traffic. There was also this stereotypical description of urban black boys:

Neighbors now have to deal with large groups of young men walking slowly up and down the middle of the street, defying cars that travel in the right of way.

NIMBY-ism aside, University Prep’s situation is not uncommon. The Rochester Academy Charter School is in the same boat, as it would like to unite its two cross-town campuses.

Even as Catholic schools are closing and the City School District is losing population, charter schools are struggling to find room. Closed Catholic schools are often not large enough for high schools. The RCSD hasn’t offered any of its space (to our knowledge) and it’s not clear if charter schools would be willing to share buildings. Munno said he wants his kids removed from the RCSD environment.

We’ve already seen some odd charter school conversions. The former Mapledale Party House was retrofitted for a now-closed charter school. An old factory on St. Paul was renovated for another failed charter school and ironically now houses RCSD offices. Greece Ridge Mall offered University Prep space, but the school’s charter mandates staying in the city.

So that leaves a city with a lot of empty buildings, a district that needs to consolidate space, and a bunch of charter schools spending millions of tax dollars on leases and construction.

Does any of this make sense?

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.

The longtime pastor of a Rochester church wants to open a charter school in a building owned by his church. This arrangement raises questions about the separation of the entities. Charter schools are independent, publicly-funded schools.

The school would be called the Mary L. Wright Preparatory Charter School for Health and Legal Services. The school’s namesake is the late wife of Rev. James R. Wright, pastor of New Progressive Church on Chili Ave. She was a vice-principal at East High School with a background in math and science. The school would be located a stone’s throw from the church.

“We would just simply be leasing the space to the school,” Rev. Wright said. “There would be a big separation. The charter school would be a its own entity. It’s not a church school at all. As a matter of fact, many of the people on the board are not affiliated with our church. We are just providing the motivation of getting the program going.”

The group’s application to the state discloses the potential conflict of interest:

The only potential conflict of interest in the lease arrangement for Wright Prep is the involvement of the school’s board chairman, Rev. James Wright, with the church that currently owns the facility. While the expected lease costs to the school are expected to fall far below market value, the school intends to have an independent valuation performed in order to ensure fairness and transparency. Likewise, Bishop Wright intends to abstain from any Wright Prep Board actions or votes related to the facility at 410 Chili Ave.

This would certainly not be the first time a charter school founded by a pastor and located in a church building has opened in New York State. In New York City, there have been debates about converting Catholic schools into charter schools. Hebrew and Arab language charter schools have also raised questioned.

Rev. Wright hopes the school opens in the fall of 2013. The school would have 150 students  in 7th and 8th grade the first year. It would eventually go to grade 12. There would be an extended day and year. The application promises a rigorous curriculum and high standards for students.

The application has some high profile support. There are very recent letters from Mayor Tom Richards, State Senator Joseph Robach, City Council members Lovely Warren and Adam McFadden, Assemblyman David Gantt and the head of the Monroe County Medical Society.

Rev. Wright said the state has asked for more information and the application is on hold. He said the issue of separation of the church and school has not be a state concern. Rev. Wright is still hopeful the school can open next year.

“We really want to improve the educational performance of students,” he said.