During Covid-19, Are Charter Schools Leading the Way?

On Monday I looked at the stark disparities in the quality of online instruction offered to children during the COVID-19 school closures, comparing Princeton Regional Public Schools with Trenton City Public Schools. This is one data point, although representative of New Jersey’s two separate and unequal school systems, an exemplary one for the wealthy (disproportionately white and Asian) students and an inferior one for the poor (disproportionately black and brown) students. These inequities are exacerbated during crises like the pandemic we’re weathering now.

Yet there is an additional question worth examining: Are there differences in how effectively traditional schools and public charter schools— both serving low-income students— are responding to COVID-19 school closures?

So let’s take another look at Trenton City Public Schools, still displaying a banner on its homepage that says, “The district has exhausted all of the printed packets [intended for home instruction]; the district is closed and our vendors have limited resources in printing out additional packets. Therefore, no additional copies are available until further notice.” As I noted earlier in the week, if a Trenton district student has a laptop and access to the internet, he or she will  get up to four hours of online instruction with no assured teacher contact. Without internet access and a device, he or she will get nothing.

Yet 22% of Trenton students attend public charter schools, with many more on waitlists. How do online instructional strategies compare? Let’s take a look at Foundation Academy, Trenton’s largest charter school that currently enrolls 1,042 students. To do a fair comparison we need to check the demographics. According to the Department of Education’s School Performance Reports, 83% of Foundation Academy students are economically-disadvantaged, 52% are black, and 46% are Hispanic. At Trenton Central High School 48% of students are economically-disadvantaged (this seems low to me but that’s what the DOE says), 44% of students are black, and 55% are Hispanic. At Foundation Academy 11% of students are eligible for special education services and it’s 16.8% at Trenton High. 

How about student achievement? The most recently reported SAT scores at Trenton High are 421 in reading and 401 in math. At Foundation they’re 503 in reading and 516 in math. The graduation rate at Trenton High (using the five-years-to-finish-high-school number) is 87%; at Foundation Academy it’s 100%. Sixteen months after graduation 51% of Trenton High students are enrolled in two or four-year colleges; 83% are enrolled at Foundation Academy.

In other words, student outcomes are better at Foundation Academy (even factoring in for the lower number of students with disabilities), although total annual cost per pupil is $15,692, compared to Trenton’s $23,009. And as this current crisis drags on, Trenton traditional students will fall further and further behind (surely there’s someone out there who can donate paper and printing supplies, not that this will compensate for systemic inadequacies!) while Foundation charter students will continue to learn. (See here for Foundation Academy’s daily student schedules, meal pick-ups, technology support, the “Parent Tech Guide,” and deadlines for work completion.)

Why? It seems to me that the non-traditional structure of public charter schools in New Jersey —untethered to institutional stasis, structured to encourage experimentation and innovation, a culture that is less risk-averse, more pressure from the State to raise student achievement  —is better suited to extraordinary circumstances. For example (see here), College Achieve Public Charter Schools, with campuses in  Paterson, Plainfield, North Plainfield, Neptune, and Asbury Park, pivoted on a dime to reinvent at-home instruction with daily teacher contact. Just across the border, Success Academies’ 18,000 students in New York City will follow a typical school day ( elementary students have shorter days) with “the most engaging and inspiring, the clearest, perhaps the funniest” teacher selected to deliver online lessons while other teachers will work individually with students and speak to them twice every day.

Another example: Uncommon’s network in Newark and Camden first scrambled to ensure that every student  has a laptop and a wifi hotspot while everyone was provided with two weeks of review work. Beginning on March 30th, review will stop and new learning will commence, From Advance Media:

[E]very student will be on a virtual school program, watching daily lessons recorded by teachers and speaking one-on-one with them for at least 10-20 minutes each week.

“If you would have told me a month ago that we would have a whole online program up and running in less than a week, I would have told you you are crazy,” [CEO Juliana] Worrell said. “But somehow we made it work.”

But that’s harder in traditional districts, especially as union rules inhibit innovation.

NJEA Spokesman Steve Baker conceded that traditional school students will make do with less:

[A]n entire education system can’t abruptly shift to remote learning for weeks without students being significantly affected, said Steve Baker, spokesman for the state’s largest teachers union.

“There is no question that something is lost here, but I think we are also seeing pretty exceptional efforts to mitigate that,” Baker said. “I think it remains to be seen what the longer-term educational consequences are.”

But that’s the point: Non-traditional education systems —or at least some NJ public charter schools—are switching abruptly, mitigating loss of learning.

NJEA’s Baker is right in that none of us knows the “longer-term educational consequences.” And I’m sure there are other charter school leaders not as nimble as the few recounted here. But suddenly, while the tale of New Jersey’s two disparate school systems persists, a subtext to that story may be the difference in response to long-running school closures between traditional schools and charter schools.

What do you think?

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