On Monday CEE-Trust’s Ethan Gray and I provided ideas to the Columbus Education Commission on ways that city could improve its schools. The following provides more details for some of the recommendations offered at that time.

Terry Ryan and KidsOhio.com’s Mark Real join Columbus Education Commission members listening to CEE-Trust’s Ethan Gray present at the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Main Branch on February 18, 2013.

Like much of urban America, Columbus urgently needs more high performing schools for its children, especially its poor and minority children. In 2011-12, nearly 30,000 (just under 50 percent) of all Columbus students attended failing schools (D or F on the state rating system). Within the Columbus City Schools, 60 of 117 buildings have been designated by the state as “persistently low-performing” – meaning they had been rated “academic emergency” or “academic watch” for at least two of the last three years. The city’s charter schools are equally troubled with 28 out of 59 being rated D or F by the state in 2012. In contrast, only 3,500 students attended schools with grades of A or A+.

Yet, turning around failed schools is nearly impossible, despite the best of intentions. Both charter and traditional district schools are stubbornly resistant to significant change—the kind that might actually make a difference, which generally entails replacing the entire staff and program. In Fordham’s 2010 report “Are Bad Schools Immortal,” researcher David Stuit identified more than 2,000 low-performing charter and district schools across ten states and tracked them from 2003-04 through 2008-09 to determine how many were turned around, shut down, or remained low-performing. Results were generally dismal. Seventy-two percent of the original low-performing charters remained in operation – and remained low-performing – five years later. So did 80 percent of district schools.

To be sure, closing failed schools is wrenching for all involved, but it is better for children than leaving them in hopeless situations. No child should be stuck without hope or alternative in a failed school Closure, however, should apply equally to both long-suffering district and charter schools.

Smart school closure requires a workable triage strategy for determining which schools are salvageable and which should close, what achievement data will be used to inform those decisions, and what non-achievement variables may also bear on closure decisions (e.g. demographic and enrollment trends). As with federal “base-closings.” Columbus may want to consider empaneling an independent body to recommend—to the mayor, the district, the charter authorizers, even the legislature—which schools must go and why.

In tandem with the strategic closure of long-suffering schools, Columbus should pursue a new schools strategy. This would entail helping current high-performers expand their efforts while also recruiting higher performing models to Columbus from across the country and the state. There are a handful of non-profit charter management organizations (CMOs) running some of the very best and most effective urban schools in the country. This list includes national models like KIPP, Achievement First, Aspire, Green Dot, Uncommon Schools, High Tech High, and Rocketship. Together these CMOs presently operate about 250 schools serving some 85,000 students in 22 states—but only one of these schools is in Ohio (KIPP). Columbus is not starting from zero, however. It has 14 charter schools serving about 4,300 students that are ranked Excellent or Effective. Some of these schools are well positioned to grow and/or replicate.

But the organic growth of these existing Columbus school models alone won’t be enough to meet the needs of 30,000 kids currently enrolled in troubled schools. Providing better opportunities for more of these students demands a larger strategic effort. Specifically, Columbus needs a multi-faceted reform plan that includes significant reforms to the school district, plans to improve pre-K for the city’s neediest children, and a “new schools” strategy that focuses launching new high-performing schools across the K—12 spectrum. These new schools could include schools already operating in Columbus and Ohio as well as national CMOs.

A significant new-schools strategy could be supported and accelerated by Columbus leaders in five ways:

  1. Find a way to increase the per pupil funding available to high quality charters. Charters in Ohio, on average, receive about $2,200 less funding per pupil than traditional district schools.[1]  This disparity is due in large part to charter schools’ lack of equitable access to local revenues and facilities funding. This is one of the reasons that highly regarded national CMOs have shied away from Ohio. If Columbus leaders want to get $2,000 more per child into charters, this can happen in three ways or some combination thereof: a) allocate part of a district levy to eligible charters (as is happening in Cleveland); b) get state law changed to allocate more money for charters (perhaps limited to high-performers); and/or c) philanthropy could cover the costs on an ongoing basis. 
  2. Charter schools need facilities. Again, several different approaches could be taken. The school district could make buildings available through sale, lease or gift. Alternatively, the city could provide unused or underused facilities of other kinds to charter operators. (Charters don’t have to operate in conventional school buildings.) Other options could include community leaders identifying and making available former private or parochial buildings, buildings on college campuses, malls or residential developments. Imaginative financing arrangements combined with philanthropy can also enable charters to build green-field facilities of their own design. (This has happened in Dayton for example.) Again, all of this support would hinge on the continuing academic success of the partner schools.
  3. Charter schools need better and more consistent pupil transportation options. One option would be for the district to commit to a public master transportation plan that would treat charter students as district equals in all decision making and/or outsourcing of all bussing operations to an outside group with the capacity to do it better. Such groups could include an Education Service Center or other public or even private providers. Another option would be to bypass the district altogether. This could be done by seeking changes to state law that would allocate full state dollars for the cost of transporting students to flow to the charters themselves or to a third-party transportation provider (an ESC, a private bussing company or even the local municipal bus system).
  4. Demand and support high quality charter school authorizers that focus squarely on holding sponsored schools accountable for their performance, that close troubled schools, and that commits to being persnickety about who is allowed to open schools in the first-place.
  5. Create a “new and innovative schools office” dedicated to working with current Columbus charter operators, district innovators committed to growing new schools and programs, and prospective charter operators. The “new and innovative schools office” would work to identify neighborhood needs for schools (K-6 versus middle school, versus 9-12; brick and mortar versus blended learning, etc.), identify and recruit potential operators who could serve the needs of the neighborhood and kids; and help prospective operators raise start-up dollars, identify and recruit board members, find teaching talent, identify community partners, funders and expertise (legal, financial, etc.), navigate bureaucracies and find facilities. Such a “new and innovative schools office” could be housed in the mayor’s office, at a university or be part of an existing organization like the Columbus Chamber of Commerce or the Columbus Partnership.

Great schools demand quality teachers and school leaders. To help improve the talent available to schools, Columbus civic, business and philanthropic leaders should invite Teach for America (TFA), The New Teacher Project (TNTP), the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and other national talent partners to work in Columbus and its neediest schools – district and charter alike. TFA is already established in Ohio (northeast and southwest) and is looking to expand its efforts in the state. Columbus is a natural expansion site. These teacher programs not only place top talent into the neediest classrooms, but serve as an important pipeline for future school leaders and innovators.

Taken together, these steps – strategic school closure, new school development and focused talent recruitment and development – would allow for a significant expansion of high-quality schools in Columbus and provide better opportunities for the nearly 30,000 Columbus students who need them.

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