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Charters go off course

By John Published: June 6, 2011
LifeSkills Center on Romig Road on Thursday, June 2, 2011, in Akron, Ohio. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal)

By David Knox
Beacon Journal staff writer

After Ohio lawmakers agreed to move tax dollars from public schools to private charter schools more than a decade ago, Akron businessman David L. Brennan had a quick response to critics who feared the school districts would be financially crippled.

The money would be better spent on charter schools, he said.

''This is the best answer, ever, to the issue of decrepit schools in the state, most of which are in the cities,'' Brennan said in a May 1998 story in the Beacon Journal.

Yet 13 years after the first school opened in Ohio, charter schools generally and Brennan's schools specifically have failed to match, let alone exceed, the academic performance of traditional schools.

That would be the conclusion drawn from the Ohio Department of Education's annual report card, which found more than a quarter of the state's 286 charter schools rated

that year were in ''Academic Emergency'' the equivalent of an ''F'' grade.

A slightly smaller percentage of the 466 elementary and secondary public schools in Ohio's ''Big 8'' urban districts scored that low.

The rest of the report card also was a wash. The charter schools did somewhat better than traditional urban schools in the ''Academic Watch'' and ''Continuous Improvement'' categories, but fell down in the highest designations: effective, excellent and excellent with distinction.

Overall, there is little in the 2009-10 report card to indicate charter schools have kept their promise to provide a better education for city youngsters.

Brennan's schools typically fared much worse than other charters: Nearly two-thirds of the 31 Ohio schools operated by Brennan's White Hat Management received the state's lowest two ratings.

Brennan and his supporters say it's unfair to use the state report card to compare his charter schools, which are all in Big 8 districts, with regular public schools. They argue that within every city, there are some excellent public schools that skew the district average.

Furthermore, many charter high schools including all of Brennan's 18 Life Skills Centers are designed to rescue teenagers who have dropped out of school.

''The vast majority have been out for more than just a few days,'' Brennan said in 2008. ''They're way behind academically when they come to us.''

To test that argument, the Beacon Journal took a closer look at how his charter schools stack up against traditional schools in one city: Brennan's hometown of Akron.

Brennan operates five schools in the city: three Life Skills high schools and two Hope Academy schools, spanning kindergarten through the eighth grade. There also are five other charter elementary schools and two more charter high schools. (One of the charter high schools, Akron Digital Academy, is an online school sponsored by Akron Public Schools that enrolls students of all grades.)

A comparison of report cards showed Akron's charters did much worse than average for Ohio charters. Nearly three-quarters of the charter elementaries five of seven, including Brennan's Hope Academy University Campus were ranked in the lowest two grade categories, Academic Watch and Academic Emergency.

In contrast, a third of Akron's 45 public elementary and middle schools scored that low.

One charter school, Brennan's Hope Academy Brown Street Campus, was designated Effective the equivalent of a B grade. But seven traditional schools did that well, while four were judged Excellent.

One public middle school, Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts, was awarded the state's highest designation, Excellent with Distinction.

Comparing high schools

The gap between Akron's charters and traditional public schools widens at the high school level. Charter schools had the lowest percent of students passing in all 10 of the Ohio Graduation Tests included in the report card for grades 10 and 11.

A Brennan Life Skills school scored lowest on nine of the 10 tests.

The three Life Skills schools also had the worst attendance and graduation rates by far, despite having programs designed to reclaim dropouts.

Brennan's high schools also were much lower than Akron Public Schools in three other categories: teacher experience, qualifications and pay.

Teachers at the city's public high schools averaged at least 15 years of experience, according to the report card data. Ellet High School posted the highest average of 19 years' experience.

One Akron Life Skills school reported an average of 13 years' experience, but the other two had a much greener staff, averaging only two and six years experience.

In addition to more years on the job, teachers at traditional schools also are more likely to have a master's degree. Two-thirds of Akron Public Schools teachers, across all grade levels, have more than a four-year degree, according to the state data.

That compares to a high of 31 percent at one of Brennan's Life Skills schools, 9 percent at another and none at the third.

The pay at Brennan's schools also is much less, averaging about $34,000 compared with an average of nearly $60,000 for public school teachers in Akron.

David Knox can be reached at 330-996-3532 or




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