WHOSE CHOICE? / First in a four-part series



Published Sunday, December 12, 1999



 



Parents have freedom of choice, but not freedom of information



Many hope charter schools will be the answer, but find limited options and little data on how schools are run



By Dennis J. Willard and Doug Oplinger



Beacon Journal staff writers



   Theresa Davis thought her problems were solved when she enrolled her seventh-grade son in the Riser Military Academy -- a new bootcamp-styled charter school that opened in Columbus.

    Little did she know her headaches were just beginning.

    In the first two months of school, her son would be called a thief by Col. Darryl Riser, the school's founder, in front of the student body, although he had taken nothing. A few days later, he and other students were ordered to leave the school building for being out of uniform.

    The Columbus police were called: Riser students were roaming Alum Creek Drive, a busy commercial and industrial strip. When Davis arrived at the school, she could not find her son.

    "I looked at Col. Riser and I said, 'I'm here to get my son.' He said, 'I have no idea where he is,' " she said.

    The son had wandered to his grandmother's house.

    "After getting involved, it was definitely a mistake," Davis said.

    Davis enrolled her child in Riser with high hopes, a great deal of faith, and almost no information.

    She is not alone. Parents in Ohio and across the country, in growing numbers, are embracing charter schools and the idea that they finally have achoice.

    But parents -- who as consumers of charter schools were supposed to be given priority in the program -- are finding that Ohio is not consumer-friendly when it comes to school choice. Among the reasons:

    + Parents have few options. While they choose the school, charter school operators decide where to locate, what grades to offer and the number of children to enroll.

    + Parents have few places to turn for information other than sales pitches from charter schools. And they cannot rely upon the Ohio Department of Education, which is struggling to monitor and understand the rapid expansion of charter schools.

    + After the release of first-year charter school proficiency test scores, which were abysmal, state lawmakers and Gov. Bob Taft waited less than 10 days to slip a line into the state budget exempting the schools from issuing performance report cards to parents and the public for two years. It also is unclear what those reports will finally look like.

    + The Legislative Office of Education Oversight will issue an initial report on charter schools later this month, but it will focus on impediments to opening and running charter schools. An assessment of the impact upon parents, children, public schools and the state won't be completed until 2003.

    State Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman acknowledges that parents need information to help them make such educational choices.

    "We have to make sure there is accurate information for parent choice, and that's really key," Zelman said. "(And that) the health, physical safety of kids are first assured, and second that there is a sound educational program.

    "At the same time, one of our roles as the state is to make sure we're helping the buyer beware," Zelman said.

    Indeed, buyers should beware.

    That is because in Ohio it is the charter school operators, and not parents, who are making most of the choices. And some of those choices aren't available to Ohio's public schools.

    Unlike public schools, charter schools can limit grade levels, turn students away if seats are filled or force parents to place their name in a lottery drawing.

    Elementary children are cheaper to teach, which may explain why there are 37 charter schools in Ohio for grades K-8. Most of these schools are open to regular, known as general population, students.

    While many of Ohio's public high schools offer costly advanced placement courses and extracurricular activities like sports and band, there are no comparable charter high schools.

    Instead, most charter high schools are targeting the least expensive students possible. There are trade and vocational schools that emphasize on-the-job training, and schools for dropouts that rely on computer courses given to students three hours a day.

    Michigan State University professor Gary Sykes, who has studied charter schools, said charter schools cannot discriminate, but they use "cost sorting" to exert a subtle influence by screening parents and setting policies for student behavior.

    "The potential is there for various kinds of sorting and selection," Sykes said. "That we regard as a dysfunctional development."

   

    PORTA-POTTIES, NO BOOKS

    Getting information about charter schools also is difficult. The state prints a few pamphlets on charter schools, but there is no widescale public information on the program or individual schools.

    Charter school operators have placed ads in newspapers, tacked posters on telephone poles, mailed flyers to families and, in some cases, sent the message to church congregations through clergymen.

    Theresa Davis enrolled her son after listening to a sales pitch at a public library from Riser officials. She believed the school would mix academics with military discipline.

    Davis could not turn to the state for more information because the Office of School Options, which oversees a majority of charter schools in Ohio, also had little information. Neither Davis nor the state knew the school would open without textbooks and that students would use portable toilets in the parking lot for the first three months. Nor did they know that the school would not have a working telephone in the facility for more than a month after opening.

    When parents complained, Steve Ramsey, assistant director of the Office of School Options, had to send a registered letter to Riser that it was unacceptable for the school to use a voice mail box, especially one that was full.

    Parents also allege Riser charged them an $80 registration fee and would not accept applications without the payment -- a potential violation of the state law that says public schools cannot charge registration or tuition.

    Ramsey said he was aware parents were paying for uniforms and extracurricular activities, but the state did not know there was a registration fee.

    But Challey Payne, a parent who pulled her three children out of Riser, needed the help of an attorney to get her money back. Her letter to the state mentioned the registration fees.

    Ramsey now admits it may have been wiser to delay Riser's opening for a year. Still, the state has been accommodating to the new charter school.

    The Ohio Board of Education did not follow up on a condition in the contract that the school could not open without a suitable facility.

    Parents like Joann Alston, desperate to flee the public schools, keep believing and hoping for the best. Her 11-year-old son and the nephew she watches are in Riser, but Alston admits she doesn't know a lot about the school.

    "I wanted them to be enrolled here for discipline purposes. I'm very pleased with the discipline," Alston said. "I have seen changes (in their behavior) already."

    What about learning?

    "Everything takes time," said Alston. "Eventually, it will be ready, and they will focus on learning."

    Alston said she was afraid for the children's safety in Columbus public schools. But a spate of incidents raises the question of whether Riser is any safer.

    The school has been a regular stop for Columbus police, who have been called to investigate reports 12 times since Sept. 14. There have been charges of stealing, sexual assault by one student on another, a student threatening other students and a case where a 10-year-old just wandered off.

    At one point, the police were called after five suspended students decided to throw rocks at the building and passing cars. Such incidents might stem from the fact that Riser routinely throws students out of the school without calling parents; the expelled students then must go next door to a McDonald's or across the street to a White Castle to call home.

    State education department officials were aware of some of the police reports, but not all. Col. Riser did not return phone calls made to the academy over the last several months.

    And the two people at the top of Ohio's education operations -- Superintendent Zelman and state school board President Martha Wise -- said they were not aware of any of the ongoing problems at Riser.





    STATE IN THE DARK

    It is not unusual for the state to be the last to know about a problem at a charter school.

    For example, state education officials did not know the Cleveland fire marshal inspected the International Preparatory School and ordered it closed in early October for fire code violations. And the education department remained in the dark while the fire marshal went to court to get a judge to order the school to close.

    To make matters worse, it was the second charter school that failed a fire safety inspection by the city fire marshal's office.

    Those oversights may be traced to the fact that the Office of School Options did not open until July, has a small staff and directs most of its resources toward opening charter schools and assisting developers -- including holding weekly workshops throughout the fall.

    In October, after most schools were open more than a month, staffers made site visits to the 36 charter schools approved by the state Board of Education. They did not visit schools in Toledo, which are sponsored by local public agencies.

    Ramsey said the site visits were to determine whether the schools were in safe buildings with employees who were qualified to teach and had passed background checks. The answers were troubling.

    As of mid-October, 350 employees did not have criminal background checks completed, and 36 had not even applied to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation. A month later, only two schools were in full compliance on background checks.

    Ramsey downplayed the checks, saying a backlog at BCI&I during the first 60 days of a new school year was natural. But Jennifer Detwiler, a spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery, said there are no unusual backlogs at this time, and that all checks are completed within 30 days by law.

    Detwiler also said charter schools could use a new Web site that cuts the background check time down to two working days.

    The site visits also revealed problems with teachers.

    The school options office determined that 96 charter school teachers were not licensed by the state to teach -- and 12 had not even applied for licensing certification. If the dozen teachers were in public schools, they could not legally be paid; the others could only be paid if the state sent them a letter saying certification was on the way.

    In early December, 24 charter schools still had not completely certified their teaching staffs.

    Although Zelman told the state board earlier this year she had the resources to monitor the charter program, she said recently she is reexamining the need for more people.

    Also, despite data showing that teacher turnover rates are high at charter schools nationally, Ohio does not track turnover rates at charter schools or the length of time a teacher is in a classroom, said Monica Zarichny, an education department spokeswoman.

    And the state does not have any information on substitutes -- such as how they are hired and who is filling in when certified teachers are sick for short or long periods.

    Such information is important because teachers are important to parents. But what many parents don't know is that the experience levels of charter teachers vary widely.

    In Dayton, at the World of Wonder, or WOW!, Principal Dick Pendry hired 13 teachers away from Dayton public schools with the promise they wouldn't lose a penny of pay or their union membership.

    "After 37 years in education, what I have noticed is there is not one education model that works like magic, or better than any other. It's the classroom teacher, pure and simple," Pendry said.

    "We put a priority on getting the best . . . We have no brand-new starting teachers."

    At Eagle Heights Community School in Youngstown, like most of the charter schools operated by Akron entrepreneur David Brennan, starting teachers are paid about $19,000 a year, and the instructional staff is young and inexperienced. Teachers average two years' experience.

    Aida Perez, who takes her granddaughter, Jacquelyne Polk, to kindergarten at the school, picked Eagle Heights in large part because she and her daughter heard that teachers there were "top of the line."

    Diana Zidian, a fourth-grade teacher at Eagle Heights in her second year, said the money she earns is not as important as the opportunity.

    "I always wanted to work with inner city kids. I see it as a calling," Zidian said. "I've seen the growth so much from last year to this year."

    When the school options staff made their site visits, they did not examine learning or academic programs. That is because charter schools are free to teach the way they wish, and the results will be measured through test results at a later date, Ramsey said.

    But early test results aren't promising.

    On the first round of proficiency tests for the state's charter school students, just 2 percent of fourth-graders and 1 percent of sixth-graders passed all five parts of their grades' tests in math, reading, writing, science and citizenship.

    In public schools, 32 percent of fourth-graders and 33 percent of the sixth-graders passed all five parts.

    The results were disappointing for charter school advocates, but parents would have a hard time locating test scores. Although proficiency test scores for public schools are on the Internet, the state is not posting charter school test results.

    Ramsey said the school options office is working on a Web site that will provide information about proficiency tests along with profiles of schools and other information to help parents make informed choices.

    Other states have similar Web sites, but the information is not geared toward helping parents make informed choices. Instead, it generally outlines charter laws and contains routine profiles of schools and lists of individuals active in the charter school movement.





    THE THREE-HOUR SCHOOL DAY

    Sharnetti Walker, a 20-year-old Akron high school dropout who lives with her grandmother, is depending on the Life Skills charter school in Akron to get her life back on track.

    Students at Life Skills -- a Brennan creation -- spend three hours a day, five days a week in the school preparing to pass all parts of the ninth-grade proficiency exam to earn a high school diploma. Students also must work or volunteer outside the school five a hours a week.

    Walker saw an ad at the Metro bus stop for the school and took her first class in August.

    "You can work on whatever subject you want at any given time," Walker said. "There are tutors whenever you need them."

    "It's less strenuous (than public school)," she said. "But you get a standard diploma. The work is basically the same as being in school."

    Life Skills appears to be giving students what they want, but state staffers question if students are getting what they need.

    On Carnegie Avenue in Cleveland, about 20 blocks east of Jacobs Field, the Life Skills school has posters in the windows that have big dollar signs at the top. Inside the school one September day, a reporter observed a teacher telling a parent to forget about four years of sitting for long hours at a desk five days a week.

    When a student meets the minimum proficiency on the computer, they're done, he tells the woman. And the school has impressed state regulators so much that it doesn't have to meet the state's minimum standards of 18 credit hours to award diplomas, he adds.

    Bus stop ads and sales pitches are useful forms of advertising, but parents and teachers aren't getting the whole story.

    Five of the six state staffers who reviewed the Life Skills contract proposals pointed out the schools were going to give diplomas for passing a test that measures eighth-grade skills.

    "This program is specifically structured to prepare students to pass the ninth-grade proficiency tests," said Virginia Bollinger, who looked at Life Skills' Canton contract. "Is the ninth-grade proficiency test equivalent to a high school diploma? In this reviewer's opinion, the answer is no."

    Rowena Douglas, who reviewed the Cleveland contract, was more blunt.

    "This program is designed to help students achieve an elementary education," Douglas said.

    Ramsey, in the options office, said the agreement negotiated with Brennan and the Life Skills schools requires students to earn 18 credits through computer courses. Brennan would not talk to the Beacon Journal about the Life Skills schools.

    Brennan declined to be interviewed for this article. But Charles Byrne, an Ohio Board of Education member who has been through the Akron facility, praised the school for using discipline and order to help dropouts.

    He said he was not concerned that students would get a high school diploma for taking computer courses and passing the ninth-grade proficiency test.

    "That is what everybody gets out of high school right now, until there is a 10th-grade proficiency exam," Byrne said.

    Melanie Bates, an elected board member from Cincinnati, believes the lure of a three-hour school day at Life Skills would be too much for many high school students, including her son, to pass up.

    "If my son would see that ad," she said, "that's where he would go."



 Doug Oplinger can be reached at doplinger@thebeaconjournal.com