Chicago charter schools struggle to hold onto weakest students

Some Chicago charter schools lose 15, 20, 25 percent of students in one year.

November 9, 2010

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(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Students clamor to get into charter schools, but a surprising number transfer to public schools they originally hoped to avoid.

Charter schools are being talked about a lot lately as a strategy for improving urban education. In Chicago, families line up for the chance to get their kids into these schools, drawn by tougher discipline and academic standards; 11,000 kids are currently on waiting lists. 

But students also leave Chicago charter schools in surprisingly high numbers.

WBEZ’s Linda Lutton looks into claims that charters move out students who are toughest to educate—kids with behavior problems, or kids who struggle academically.

This story was co-reported with Sarah Karp of Catalyst Magazine. Read the Catalyst story.

Nobody told Alberto Rodriguez to leave his Noble Street charter school.

Nobody had to.

By the end of his freshman year, he had about 50 detentions, mostly for small things.

ALBERTO: Yeah, I forgot my belt. And for being late to class, or for being late to school.

Those detentions and a string of Fs on his report card translated into a $700 bill for his mom. The school charges students for detentions and to make up failed classes.

RODRIGUEZ: Pues, no, le dije. Yo no puedo pagar ese dinero, porque es mi mortgage, o es la escuela de mi hijo.

I can’t pay that, Rodriguez told the school. It’s either my mortgage or his schooling.

If numbers from previous years are any indication, Alberto was one of more than 2,500 students to leave Chicago charter schools last year. About 11 percent of charter school students transfer out annually.

But a closer look shows that some Chicago charters lose 15, 20, even 25 percent of their students in a year—and these are schools kids are clamoring to get into.

Mike Milkie is co-founder of Noble Street schools—which are posting some of the highest test scores in the city.

MILKIE: Are there kids who come to us and say, ‘The discipline is too hard—I can’t take it.’ And we say, ‘Well, maybe you should choose another school?' Sure. We have very strict rules, we have high academic expectations. Kids who don’t meet those will often transfer. But in no way are they pressured to leave.

A look at charter schools in Chicago shows how complicated and difficult it is to hold onto those strict rules and high academic expectations without losing the weakest students.

ambi: North Lawndale charter school
Early in the morning on one of the last days of summer, brand-new ninth graders line up outside another charter school— North Lawndale College Prep on Chicago’s West Side.

During two days of freshman orientation, this school will lay out expectations for kids. And staff will make it clear they are here to help them succeed.

ADVISORY TEACHER: We’re gonna talk about different issues. I’m gonna help you stay organized to make sure that you’re ready. We’re going to talk about your grades. We’re just going to kind of be a support system for you guys as you go through the next four years.

This homeroom teacher tells her classroom of girls their goal will be to maintain a 3.5 GPA. It’s immediately clear that some kids will struggle with this.

TIARA: Speaking of the homework, is there like a lot of homework? Because if it’s like more than one sheet, I won’t do it.
TEACHER: OK, We’ve got to change the attitude on that, OK?

Down the hall, boys are meeting with their advisors.

THORPE: Write this down: 773-406…

Most in this class have never heard a teacher say this before:

THORPE: If you ever need me, just want to talk, you’re in trouble, you need help—you call me, and I’ll be there. Don’t ever lose that number.

Parent Thilia Matthews says that kind of support diminished when her daughter started struggling.

She says her daughter had just finished her sophomore year—and was not on-track to graduate—when a school counselor told her this:

MATTHEWS: She told me that she wasn’t gonna be able to graduate on time, and that they wasn’t gonna take her money for summer school, because they felt it was best that she just get a transfer out, so…
LUTTON: Are those the words she used?
MATTHEWS: Right. It was, 'Just transfer her out and then she can come back once she makes up her credits.' Which to me, it didn’t sound right. I said, yeah, OK, just forget it. I just took her out.

Of the students who began as 9th graders with Matthews’ daughter, a third are gone.

HORAN: Absolutely we’re concerned about it.

John Horan is the school’s founder. This year, he’s personally reviewing every student request to transfer out. Chicago’s largest charter network is doing something similar.

The reality is that getting rid of even a handful of low-performing kids can boost test scores and attendance rates at charters.

HORAN: The charter movement if it’s going to expand is vulnerable to this critique. Until we answer it in a clear way that people feel good about, it reduces the credibility of charters as a whole.

ambi: Wells High School 

Many kids who leave charters head to traditional Chicago Public Schools, where graduation requirements can be lower, and it’s easier and cheaper to make up credits.

Principal Ernesto Matias is trying hard to make Wells High School a place kids choose to come, but he also recognizes the role Wells plays in Chicago’s school landscape.

MATIAS: We are an educational hospital. We take the kids no one wants. They don’t score high enough. They’re a discipline issue, whatever.

Upstairs in a first-period English class I happen into, 7 of the 23 students present have transferred here from charter schools. Junior Deanna Nogueras is one of them:

DEANNA: I like it a lot better. It’s so much easier. I don’t have to worry about stupid things—about my uniform being perfect, my piercings. So it’s a lot better. It’s more relaxed. And I don’t be waking up every morning like, ‘Oh, my God, I gotta go to school.’

Deanna’s English teacher has his lesson planned down to the minute. But halfway through class, kids are still straggling in with tardy passes. Fewer than 3 percent of students meet standards here.

The federal government is encouraging districts to close schools like Wells and put charters in their place.

Schools chief Ron Huberman says when charters are successful it’s thanks to rigorous curricula, and motivated teachers who spend more time with students. He doesn’t believe charters have policies that systematically weed out weaker students.

HUBERMAN: I have found none of that to be true. What I have found is that it is a promulgation of a myth.

Huberman said he’d turn over data to support his finding, but the district didn’t keep that promise. WBEZ did  obtain an internal CPS memo. It’s titled “Memorandum on Charter School Myths.” The four-page report actually finds that traditional schools held onto more kids than charters did for the year CPS examined. It found that both charters and traditional schools lost lower-performing students.

University of Chicago Professor Charles Payne says we need more information about why kids leave charters...

And more about school policies WBEZ found while reporting this story: charging students to make up failed classes, for instance. Demanding that high school students repeat the entire grade if they fail even one class. Not allowing students to stay in high school for a fifth year. Requiring an adult to attend school with a problem child.

PAYNE: They sound to me like ways institutions have—whether intended or not—of pushing out the weakest students. And pushing them out in ways that may not count against the school’s evaluation. Because the student appears to be making an independent decision. In fact, the student is being encouraged, pushed in that direction.

Mike Milkie, the founder of Noble Street schools, says charter school leaders do grapple with this question of expectations—how much is too much— but he says most kids can and do raise their performance.

MILKIE: And I think the kids who even transfer spending a year or two here are much better off for the rest of their lives, because they’ve gained discipline and academic habits and they’ve learned consequences of actions.

And, Milkie says, those lessons will help kids at their next school.

This story was produced with support from the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news source based at Teachers College, Columbia University.