On May 13, the Rochester Beacon will hold a “Solutions Forum” that will examine education in the city of Rochester. With participation from the mayor, the local teachers’ union, a district parent, and leaders of various groups committed to improving education outcomes in Rochester, presenters represent a range of perspectives on local public education.
My role, as the leader of the advocacy organization for charter schools in Rochester and across New York, will be to discuss the role that charter schools play in improving educational outcomes in Rochester. I am excited to be part of such an important dialogue that includes so many different approaches and ideas to solve the biggest challenge Rochester faces today.
Twenty years ago, the New York State Charter Schools Act was passed to increase the number of high-quality school options throughout the state, especially for at-risk or disadvantaged students. Currently, 292 charter schools serve over 140,000 students statewide.
The premise of the act, and key to the success of charter schools across New York as well as in Rochester, is that charter schools are required to meet specific and high expectations for performance, or be closed. In exchange for this high level of accountability, charter schools are granted a level of autonomy to use different school models and implement programs in order to ensure their students achieve academic success.
Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools operate under the authority of their authorizing agencies— the New York State Board of Regents and the SUNY Board of Trustees—not the local board of education. Of the 14 charters schools currently operating in Monroe County, six are authorized by the SUNY Board of Trustees and eight by the State Board of Regents. The Academy of Health Sciences Charter School, also authorized by the Regents, opens in September.
Schools report regularly to their authorizers on academics, finances, and operations, including compliance with state and federal regulations. At the end of their initial five-year authorization term, the school must seek re-authorization to continue operations and face a rigorous review process. The effectiveness of charter schools across the country is largely driven by the willingness of charter authorizers to close schools that fall short. Of 18 charter schools that opened in Monroe County over the last 20 years, three were closed by their authorizing agencies (Charter School of Science & Technology, Rochester Leadership Academy, and Rochester Career Mentoring) and one is closing this year of its own accord, having failed to meet the goals of its charter (ROC Achieve).
Few upstate communities have seen as much benefit from the charter movement as Rochester. The 14 charter schools now operating enroll over 6,000 students—over 20 percent of all students enrolled in public schools in the city. See links to state reporting for each of these schools here and enrollment information for each here. On average, Rochester charter students outperform both the statewide average for large cities and also the statewide average for urban-suburban and rural districts on the annual state tests administered in grades 3-8.
The strength of the charter movement lies in its ability to create and implement diverse programs that would otherwise not be available to students in a community, and Rochester is home to some strong examples of what that autonomy makes possible.
Eugenio Maria de Hostos School opened in Rochester in 2000 in partnership with the Ibero-American Action League, a Rochester-based dual language human services agency. EMH prepares students with intensive Spanish-language education. From kindergarten through second grade, EMH students are immersed in a true bilingual environment. Instruction is alternated between English and Spanish each day at the lower grade levels and then language studies carry through to grades 3-8, where all students take Spanish classes.
Another school delivering on the promise of offering a school model made possible by charter autonomy is Vertus Charter School, an all-boys high school that opened in Rochester in the fall of 2014. Vertus’ school model includes learning labs that blend online lessons with individualized instruction, group projects and support from teachers. Vertus is organized around small learning teams of 12-14 and places an emphasis on career preparation. Twice a week, students take enrichment classes, such as robotics, game design and computer design. Career programs in information technology, health care and advanced manufacturing have also been developed in concert with local employers and colleges to prepare students with 21st century skills for good-paying, stable jobs. Many of Vertus’ young men may have left school were the Vertus program not available to them.
Other schools have created strategic partnerships and programs to capitalize on professional development opportunities. Genesee Community Charter School received a $500,000 federal grant in 2016 to adopt an early literacy curriculum aimed at grades K-3 and provide peer mentoring and targeted professional development in conjunction with the Rochester City School District, specifically Rochester School No. 8. As part of the program, teachers from one school observe their counterparts in the other school for a full day, coming away with new knowledge that they can bring back with them to their own classrooms.
The largest charter program in Rochester, Rochester Prep (operated by Uncommon Schools), provides a continuous K-12 program focused on preparing all students to enter, succeed in, and graduate from college. The school’s focus on higher education is evident even in its homerooms, which are named after colleges and universities. Rochester Prep students’ hard work shows: In 2017-18 more Rochester Prep students of color, a total of 83, passed the 7th grade state math test than in the entire city school district combined, which had only 58 students of color pass the same test. Rochester Prep also has a partnership with Rochester Institute of Technology, which includes a variety of college-prep programming, including a Senior Capstone project where students work directly with RIT professors on college-level research projects.
Charters can be a wellspring for innovation in classroom learning and forge strategic partnerships that help elevate education practices across a given district, all while still being held to rigorous performance standards. Through collaboration with the district and other community stakeholders, charter schools have improved the overall landscape of education in Rochester. Perhaps even more importantly, these schools have offered thousands of parents a choice in their child’s education that they would not have had otherwise. Many of the most-privileged parents in Rochester have long exercised similar choices by sending their children to private schools or by successfully navigating the school assignment process to ensure that their children attend the best schools within RCSD. The power to choose where your child attends school should not be reserved for the privileged few.
The charter movement is not without its critics. One of the major criticisms of charter schools is that, by providing parents options for their children’s education, the most engaged parents opt out of the district schools, leaving the student population that remains in the district with a higher concentration of the most at-risk students, whose parents, by implication “don’t care.” This claim, aside from creating a false distinction between “good” and “bad” parents, and, by extension, charging them with the responsibility for the success of public education, is not borne out in the demographics of Rochester’s charter sector, nor is it supported by national research comparing students who enter charters to those that do not.
But perhaps more fundamentally, no parent should be expected to send their child to a school they believe is not the best fit for them, and no one can claim that by doing so they will help to solve the challenges in education.
Charters stand ready to be partners in the difficult work that faces the Rochester education community. Most successful models of urban education reform have embraced charters, as well as many other innovative models, because the urgency of improving education options for students makes arguments about school models a little more than petty bickering among adults, while children suffer.
I encourage you to see for yourself the impact that charter schools have by visiting one. I know I speak for every local charter school when I say that they are excited to welcome visitors to show them what is special about their school and how they are helping to address the challenges of urban education that the city of Rochester faces.
Anna Hall is the CEO of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, the membership and advocacy organization for charter schools across New York and Connecticut. NECSN’s mission is to support and expand the high-quality charter school movement in both states.