The Year in Review: Big changes in Fordham's charter-school profile

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation became a charter-school sponsor in September 2004 when we signed a sponsorship agreement with the Ohio State Board of Education to serve as a sponsor of no more than 30 schools statewide. We are the only think tank in the country that has assumed this role (see Education Week's early look into Fordham sponsorship here), and during the last four years we have learned a lot and our education is certainly not finished.

Sharing these lessons is important-one reason we devote time, energy, and money to tracking what works and what doesn't work in the schools we sponsor. We want to help others understand the complexities of charter schools and appreciate the hard work of teachers, school leaders, and board members.  (For more, see Climbing to Quality: 2007-08 Fordham Sponsorship Accountability Report here.)

Ohio has 300-plus charter schools enrolling more than 80,000 students-the sixth-highest number of students enrolled in charters in America. Five percent of Ohio's public-school students attend a public charter school. With 28 percent of its public-school students enrolled in charter schools, Fordham's hometown of Dayton has the third-highest percentage of students enrolled in charter schools of any American city (see here). In addition to Dayton, Cleveland, Toledo, and Youngstown are also among the top-ten cities with the largest percentage of charter students.

The last 12 months have been a year of momentous change for Fordham's sponsorship program. We worked with governing authorities to close three schools; we parted company from two additional schools; and, for the first time in our sponsorship experience, we helped birth two new schools. Since Fordham began serving as a charter authorizer in June 2005, three of our 10 original sponsored schools have closed and three have moved on to other sponsors. Table I depicts this evolution.

 Table I: Fordham's changing portfolio of sponsored schools, 2005-present

Fordham-sponsored schools, 2005-present

Three schools closed

During 2007-08, the Omega School of Excellence and East End Community School, both in Dayton, and Veritas/Cesar Chavez Academy in Cincinnati, closed. The decisions to close these schools were made in consultation with their governing authorities, based on facts and circumstances specific to each school. Here's a synopsis of each school's history and the reasons for closing:

The Omega School of Excellence

The leaders of the Omega Baptist Church in Dayton founded the school in 1999 to teach disadvantaged minority students in grades five through eight the academic skills and attitudes they need to succeed at the best high schools (see the New York Times' coverage of Dayton's early charter schools, including Omega, here). Fordham became the school's sponsor in 2005. During the school's eight years, dozens of students won scholarships to top local private schools and some of the country's best prep schools.

Omega was originally modeled after the acclaimed Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools. During Omega's early years, it had an intensive 57-hour instructional week with an emphasis on leadership, self-discipline, and academic achievement. The school's successes were driven in large part by the vision, energy, and commitment of its founder and director Vanessa Ward. In 2005, she had to shoulder more church responsibilities as her husband-and church co-pastor-was quite ill. Additionally, teachers and parents alike tired of the extended days and Saturday classes, which were central to the school's early success. As the school cut back on instructional hours, and without the ever-present guidance of its founder, Omega encountered difficulties. Several school leaders turned over in rapid succession. Enrollment dropped, and the school found itself struggling financially and academically.

In 2006, Omega's board engaged a small nonprofit charter management company-Keys to Improving Dayton Schools, Inc. (k.i.d.s.)-to reconstitute the school. A new school leader was hired along with new teachers, and a new academic schedule and grade structure were developed. Omega also received a serious infusion of philanthropic support (including from Fordham). There was much energy around the reconstitution effort. Yet despite the hard work of k.i.d.s., the school's teachers, and its administrators, Omega's enrollment never went much above 100 students. This low enrollment persisted even though the school made real academic gains in 2006-07. A charter school simply cannot sustain itself economically with only 100 students, at least in Ohio, even with substantial outside assistance. The school's leadership (and Fordham as its sponsor), faced grave financial uncertainties going into the 2008-09 school year. Rather than roll the dice, Fordham and the school's governing authority made the hard decision in April to cease operations at the end of the year and announced this to the staff and parents at that time.

Between April and the last day of class in June, we worked in tandem with the school's leadership and the staff of k.i.d.s. to close the school successfully. This included ensuring that students continued to show up for class and were educated, that teachers continued to show up to work, that bills were paid, and that the school stayed in compliance with applicable state and federal laws. Despite some tough moments, Omega made it to its final day in June without an exodus. It also paid its bills and met its financial commitments to staff and vendors. Parting from this valiant little school was painful for all concerned (including Ellen Belcher of the Dayton Daily News, see here).

East End Community School

East End Community School opened in 2001 and Fordham became the school's sponsor in 2005. Its mission was connected to the East Dayton community, not only to educating children but also to giving students, parents, teachers, and school leaders a voice in decisions that affected them and their school.

Facilities, however, turned out to be an overwhelming challenge. Dayton Public Schools (DPS) are in the midst of a $600 million-plus school construction program, while the community's largest charter schools have buildings constructed with private dollars. Charter schools in Ohio receive no public dollars for school facilities, so small independent operators without deep pockets face serious facility challenges. In 2006, East End's governing authority started negotiations with DPS to become a district-sponsored charter school housed in a new facility built by the district.

By 2007, East End enrolled more than 250 students, based in a church that was itself struggling with a shrinking congregation and ensuing fiscal challenges. In May 2008, the school's governing authority and DPS reached an agreement whereby East End would cease operating as an independent charter school, and the children would be encouraged to enroll in the district's newly-built Ruskin Elementary School (the Dayton Daily News explains the arrangement here). Many of the teachers and staff from the East End Community School subsequently took positions with DPS at Ruskin. This was a marriage of convenience. The district had a new building that it needed to fill with pupils, while East End had students but no suitable facility. As sponsor, Fordham supported this marriage and provided legal and technical assistance to facilitate it.

Veritas/Cesar Chavez Academy

The Veritas/Cesar Chavez Academy opened in July 2005 as a sister school to the W.E.B. DuBois Academy. Its mission was to serve gifted students from inner city Cincinnati. Located in the city's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, the school struggled to enroll students. This lack of students eventually brought about its death when the school's governing authority voted to suspend day-to-day operations. In January 2008, the governing authority agreed to a mutual termination of its sponsorship contract with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Parting from two schools

W.E.B. DuBois Academy and Cincinnati Speech and Reading Center

On November 1, 2006, we placed the W.E.B. DuBois Academy family of schools (DuBois, the Cincinnati Speech and Reading Center [CSRC], and the Veritas/Cesar Chavez Academy) on probation because they had neglected their academic programs, had fallen into financial crisis, and were out of compliance with basic state obligations. Much of this difficulty occurred after the schools' founder and head abruptly left his post as a result of acute difficulties with the law (he pleaded guilty this week to five counts of theft and records tampering, see here). The situation was a bona fide education tragedy (as Education Week and the Dayton Daily News reported here and here). The W.E.B. DuBois Academy had been the highest-rated charter school in the state, had been praised in the United States Congress, and had been visited by then-Governor Taft. Yet it and its sister schools were in free fall.

At the close of the 2006-07 school year, with the "compliance" issues under control but the schools' academic performance unsatisfactory and their education programs in disarray, Fordham faced two options: close these schools or allow them to continue. State law allows a sponsor to keep a school on probation for only one year. We thought seriously about closing the schools because they did not meet our educational expectations or their own contractual obligations with regard to curriculum, instruction, and student achievement.

Then we examined the school options in the community that would be available to the 500 or so children in the DuBois "family" who would be stranded if these schools closed. We found that the academic performance of other district and charter schools available to those girls and boys was woeful-worse, actually, than in the DuBois schools. (About 18,600 students in Cincinnati attended public schools with lower state ratings than the W.E.B. DuBois Academy's 2007 "Continuous Improvement" rating.) In other words, if we closed these schools, odds were strong that their pupils would wind up in even lower-performing schools. Instead, we decided to negotiate an agreement with the schools' leadership to keep two of the three schools open (DuBois and CSRC), while suspending operations at the third (Veritas).

In May 2007, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the chairs of the schools' Governing Authorities that suspended operations at Veritas and outlined an improvement plan to remedy academic deficiencies at DuBois and CSRC. Key elements of that plan included:

  1. Realigning the schools' grade levels to better target instruction;
  2. Acquiring strong new academic leadership and/or engaging an outside school management organization to create and implement a revised academic program for the sponsorship contract, with "said revision to be completed to the satisfaction of both parties by September 30, 2007;" and
  3. Showing notable success in redesigning and implementing the new academic program (including curricular scope-and-sequence, formative assessments, etc.), and aligned assessments by December 31, 2007.

From June through September 2007, DuBois and CSRC made progress. They began the 2007-08 year in far better shape organizationally. Yet when they presented their new education plan, Fordham concluded that it was not what their students deserved or needed. It simply did not meet our standards of quality education. After investing enormous amounts of time and money in this relationship, and in efforts to strengthen the schools, we reluctantly concluded that they were not likely to meet our standards anytime soon. Fordham also couldn't afford to keep nudging them into getting better.

Bottom line: we concluded that it was time to end our relationship. In December 2007, we agreed to close Veritas and part ways with DuBois and CSRC. DuBois and CSRC subsequently signed sponsorship agreements with Educational Resource Consultants of Ohio, Inc. At the end of 2007-08, neither school made Adequate Yearly Progress. W.E.B. Dubois was rated in Academic Emergency by the state (down from Continuous Improvement the previous year) and CSRC was in Academic Watch (up from Academic Emergency).

Opening two new schools

Though Fordham's portfolio of schools shrank by five schools in 2008, the year also saw two new Fordham-sponsored schools open their doors, marking Fordham's first foray into sponsoring schools in Columbus.

KIPP: Journey Academy

KIPP: Journey Academy, the first Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) school in Ohio, opened in Columbus in August 2008 (see the Columbus Dispatch's coverage of the school's opening here and its early challenges here). It serves fifth-grade students in the Linden neighborhood. Plans are for it to expand by one grade per year, until it serves students in grades five through eight.

A KIPP school's mission is "to develop students with disciplined minds that are committed to academic excellence and leadership so that they will be successful in college preparatory high schools and competitive colleges of their choosing." The school expects that graduating students will enter and complete college-prep high schools and then college (see here).

Columbus Collegiate Academy

Columbus Collegiate Academy (CCA) opened in September 2008 in the Weinland Park neighborhood of Columbus. It opened with sixth-grade students and will add one grade per year through grade eight. CCA is led by founder Andrew Boy, who formerly taught at the W.E.B. DuBois Academy in Cincinnati and (in 2007-08) participated in the Building Excellent Schools Fellowship program (see here), where he received leadership training at some of the top charter schools in the country.

Central to CCA's mission are high expectations for scholarship and behavior in an achievement-oriented culture. The college-prep curriculum is founded on the beliefs that all students have the ability to achieve academic excellence, all students thrive in a highly disciplined school environment, all students must be prepared to excel in demanding high schools en route to selective colleges, and all students deserve outstanding teachers who produce outstanding results (see here).

In summary

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is the only think tank in America to serve as a charter school sponsor. In this effort we have moved from talking the talk to literally walking the walk. As a sponsor we not only preach reform but work hard to try and help set the conditions for it. We believe passionately in quality education for all children, and we believe just as passionately that when a quality education does not exist, particularly in the economically hardest hit urban areas, that children and their parents deserve a choice-an option to attend, hopefully, what will be a better school. Quality schools are what charters are ultimately all about, and as this review of 2007-08 shows it is difficult work. Sometimes charters work and sometimes they don't, and the reasons for success and failure are as varied as the schools themselves. It is important to note that charters operate on about 70 percent of the per pupil revenue of traditional district schools; so they are truly expected to innovate with less. This makes the challenge all the harder, but education needs risk-takers.

Despite the challenges, charters remain a tremendously important space for innovation in Ohio and for providing educational lifelines for children in schools that don't fit their needs. We are encouraged that in Dayton last year, for example, six of the ten top performing public schools were charters, and that as a group charters academically outperformed the Dayton Public Schools (see here). We are further encouraged by the fact that Dayton and other school districts are finally beginning to embrace charter schools as important tools for improving student achievement (as the New York Times noted here). Sharing the lessons of our charter experience is important because it is part of a larger effort to improve schools and educational opportunities for children who for too long have been short-changed. By sharing our successes and failures, we hope that readers will better understand the complexities of charter schools and better appreciate the hard work of teachers, school leaders, and board members who are serving not only the schools we work with, but, in schools around the state and the nation, working to make a difference in the lives of children who desperately need it.

(Climbing to Quality: 2007-08 Fordham Sponsorship Accountability Report is available online here.)

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