Entering the local arena of public education this fall is Cleveland-based I CAN SCHOOLS, a nonprofit charter school operator that manages five schools in Cleveland and has opened new ones in Canton and at the former Goodyear headquarters in East Akron.
The company’s portfolio includes schools rated “Effective,” a designation fewer than one in four charter schools statewide shared in 2012. (The most recent report cards do not give overall ratings.)
And “Effective” is atypical in the Akron-Canton area, where about 65 percent of the charter schools received the lowest possible ranking in 2012: Academic Emergency. Only two rated “Effective,” the equivalent of a B grade.
This fall the number of charter schools in the area, 20, surpassed the number of public school districts in Summit County, 18, prompting heightened competition.
So when vying with 13 established charter schools and six other newcomers, prominence sometimes overshadows performance as parents sift through a barrage of choices.
“It’s almost like you’re running for office and you’re the unknown candidate,” I CAN SCHOOLS co-founder Marshall Emerson III said in a recent interview while sitting in a sparsely furnished office on the second floor of the former Goodyear headquarters — the new home of Akron Preparatory School.
Buzzing cars along I-76 and children yelling their desire to attend college — a recitation of the school’s mantra — drown out the sound of an employee assembling a desk with a drill. Outside the office, the renovated southeast corner of the old headquarters, gutted and barren only weeks ago, now bustles with 244 children in black and white vests, skirts, dress shoes and pressed, button-up shirts.
Emerson and his team filled the school through a campaign of billboard ads, radio spots and door-to-door fliers. He hopes to keep it filled with proven results.
“First and foremost, parents want somewhere that’s safe, structured and disciplined for their children. They want a place that believes in sending their kid to college. Every family wants their children to do better than they did, to push forward and do better than the generation before them,” he said.
Though Emerson expected 280 students to enroll at the Akron school, Canton College Preparatory School has already exceeded enrollment expectations by more than 20 percent, with 140 students enrolling.
The I CAN team said months ago, while sifting through thousands of teacher applications, they are unlike most charter schools operating in Akron and Canton.
For one thing, their schools are not operated by profit-driven companies. Emerson and co-founder Jason Stragand have said they will open their books to the public. They have nothing to hide and stress that they have partnered with lawyers, former teachers, community activists and college professors who compose their unpaid board of directors. Each is required to donate time and money to the school.
Emerson said test data, compiled each six weeks, will be made available to that board prior to meetings.
He also said bad behavior, which undermines teaching and cuts into instruction time, will not be tolerated. In fact, he’s programming the students to act accordingly.
Akron Preparatory School, administrators said, is all about expectations.
To work there, teachers were expected to answer yes to such questions as, “Can any child succeed?” That’s one way they selected 12 teachers from a pool of candidates numbering in the thousands, Emerson and Stragand said.
In meetings held at public libraries over the summer, parents were told they are expected to get their children to school on time. At home, they must provide a “college space” where students are encouraged to learn. They’re expected to bring children to after-school tutoring or Saturday classes when their children fall behind.
And the children are expected to go to college.
Inside rooms with freshly painted yellow walls, staff and teachers bark out orders like drill sergeants whipping children as young as 5 into shape.
“Tuck in your shirt. ... Face forward. ... Be quiet. ... Move with urgency.”
One thing they won’t say in the first week is “Open your books.” There’s no instruction during culture camp, a grueling first week of modules designed to teach children how to ask to sharpen a pencil, how to enter and exit a room, how to get up from a desk or lunch table and how to walk along a piece of tape down a hallway.
The kindergartners, using a tactic employed in other schools, puff out their cheeks to avoid chatter.
In a seventh-grade classroom, students contemplate the purpose of homework. Next door, 36 sixth-graders recite the school’s mission — “To prepare students for a college preparatory high school ...” — for 10 minutes until the teacher is satisfied with their crescendo of enthusiasm.
In another room, Heather Petak counts down from 10 as children scurry between desks and line up facing the door. “You stay on the line. You do not cut the corner,” she says to a second-grader.
It’s structure. It’s what parents want and these kids need, Emerson said.
And it’s what will make a difference, he vows to parents and the public.
“I think the city of Canton has been burned by some low-performing charter schools,” Emerson said. No Canton charter school scored above “Continuous Improvement” — the same ranking given to Akron and Canton public schools, the latter under investigation for possible tampering with attendance data at the time. Four of the six charter schools in Canton received the state’s lowest score, Academic Emergency.
The number of Stark County charter schools has increased since then. In the fall, I CAN’s Canton College Preparatory School becomes the ninth charter school in the county as the statewide figure eclipses the 400 mark for the first time.
“I’m not saying all of the schools in this area are bad. They’re not all bad. But some of the charter schools have not been good,” Emerson said.
He spends more on advertising in a school’s first year than usual. It’s a “show-and-prove” year, he says.
“Give us our first year and we’ll show you what a high-performing charter school looks like,” Emerson said.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.