Planning for charter schools in the U.S. Virgin Islands is still in its "infancy," according to a lawmaker sponsoring such a bill, but speakers at a forum on school choice Saturday made a case for the effectiveness of schools that are allowed to try.
Saturday’s conference on educational equity and parental choice was sponsored by the U.S.V.I. Parent Teacher Student Association and the St. Croix Foundation. About 50 people came to the conference room at the Cardiac Care Center to listen to national speakers talk about their success with charter schools.
Charter schools are schools that receive public money but are not subject to some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to schools in the same state or district, allowing them to try innovative programs. The rules by which charter schools operate vary from state to state, but usually they operate within a local school district.
Currently charter schools are not allowed in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly is working on a bill that would open the local school system to them.
The biggest key to the success of charter schools is really nothing new or revolutionary, according to Kelly Hurley of Green Dot Public Schools and Alison Rouse of KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program. It’s about setting high expectations and, most importantly, putting kids first.
"We don’t ask the kids ‘Do you think you might want to go to college?’" Hurley said. "We ask them, "What college are you going to?’"
Setting high expectations is important, both speakers said, because most kids will rise to the level of those expectations. If you don’t expect much you probably won’t get much from them. But if you make it clear that you expect students to succeed, and give them the time and tools and support, they’ll prove you right.
Rouse teaches in a New York City KIPP school in the neighborhood in which he grew up. When he graduated from high school he was one of three students in a class of 4,500 who went on to college. He said the KIPP school in that neighborhood is on track to send 900 to 1,000 kids to college.
Another aspect the two programs have in common is that while the teachers are still members of their unions, the principals of their schools are given CEO authority: They can spend money within their budgets in the way they believe will get the best results; they can hire the best teachers they can find – and the teachers tend to get paid more than their public school counterparts; and they can dismiss teachers who don’t produce results.
It’s a collaborative effort, Hurley said, and when teachers and administrators do have trouble, the decision always comes down to what’s best for the kids.
Parental involvement and commitment is another key factor. In most districts, the call for a charter school usually first comes from parents dissatisfied with failing schools. And most charter schools require a certain amount of hours of parental involvement in the school each month.
In fact, in KIPP schools, students and parents are part of the hiring process. Teacher applicants are screened by peers and administrators, and by parents and students who have input in the decision.
Hurley was tasked with turning around a public high school that was not only failing, it was on the brink of civil war, as riots broke out on the south Los Angeles campus. Locke High School had about 2,600 students, which meant that most students went through their school day without any meaningful interaction with a adult. Teachers didn’t know the names of most students. More students were wandering the halls getting into trouble than actually sitting in classes, he said.
The Green Dot model called for schools of about 500 to 600 students. To make the model work, they actually broke up the campus into six different schools on the same campus. The students have all their classes and spend all their time within their school, which occupies a specific area on the campus.
Green Dot also spend a lot on security – $1.2 million the first year, $700,000 three years later – to keep out gangs that turn the surrounding streets into a dangerous maze.
And empirical numbers show that the system is working: test results are up, attendance is up and the dropout rate is way down. While that’s good news, Hurley said the project still hasn’t met expectations and has a lot of work to do before it can be called a success. Green Dot doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, he said. But the people who work at the Green Dot schools hope eventually to become a model for the entire district, making the need for charter schools moot.
There are 90 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, Rouse said. At KIPP schools, a lot is expected of students – so much so that the contract students, teachers and parents sign is called a "commitment to excellence."
KIPP students spend 60 percent more time in class than their public school counterparts. The average school year is 181 days. For KIPP it’s 210, and the school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with half days on Saturday and mandatory summer school.
But the curriculum and the positive feedback keep the students motivated and engaged, Rouse said. And the students know that the faculty is there for them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The result has been schools that routinely outscore the corresponding public schools and send kids on to exclusive high schools and colleges, often on full scholarships.
Byron Garrett, the chief executive officer of the National PTA, told the audience that the educational system is failing, and there isn’t time to have a long debate about who’s at fault. A new crop of kindergartners will be starting school in less than a month and they need schools that work now, he said.
"America can’t survive half-educated," Garrett said. "The only one who’s hurt when schools fail are the kids."
The impetus has to come from parents demanding that their local schools do a better job of educating their children, he continued. The necessary changes won’t come from the top down.
"Education is the only business where as a consumer you can’t get what you demand," he said. "That’s insane."
Allowing that money for everything, including education, has a finite limit, there is still one secret weapon to improve schools, he said: An active, engaged parent. "That’s the equivalent of a thousand dollars of additional funding."
If America can’t improve its schools it’s going to lose the economic battles of the future, he added. Making better schools makes economic and social sense. Otherwise, the current generation of adults may find itself being cared for in old age by a generation that can’t read or do math.
"It’s better to build a child than repair men and women," Garrett said.
Sen. Rivera-O’Reilly has prepared a bill that would allow the public school system to have charter schools, and has submitted the measure to the legislative counsel for review. It’s a complicated issue, she said, "there are so many pieces to it," and she doesn’t expect the 16-page bill to come up for debate in the Senate until early next year.