Charter Schools Achieve Dramatic Turnarounds in LA, Philadelphia

Published August 24, 2011

Public schools converted into charters in Philadelphia and Los Angeles have managed to dramatically boost students’ standardized test scores and graduation rates, says a new report from the Center for American Progress. 

In the schools studied, “Charter operators were able to secure some of the core principles that have made them successful,” including authority over budgets, staff, and school operations, said report author Melissa Lazarin. 

How to reverse the course of a failing school has long puzzled researchers and stymied reform efforts. “Charting New Territory: Tapping Charter Schools to Turn Around the Nation’s Dropout Factories” points to dramatic turnarounds of formerly failing schools in Philadelphia and Los Angeles after these public schools converted to charters under private management. 

The U.S. Department of Education has offered approximately $1.4 billion in School Improvement Grants (SIG) under the federal No Child Left Behind law in the past year to schools among the nation’s 5,000 lowest-performing and identified for corrective action. Schools accepting SIG grants must choose one of four improvement models  Five percent of the 846 schools accepting SIG grants have chosen conversion to a charter school.

‘Powerful Example’ in Philadelphia
President Obama recently recognized Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia as “a powerful example of a school turnaround in action.” 

Before the Mastery Charter School network took over Shoemaker in 2006, barely 30 percent of the school’s students scored proficient or above in math on state tests. Fewer than 43 percent achieved reading proficiency. 

Now, four times as many students are proficient in math, and violence is down 80 percent.

“Metal detectors and security guards have been replaced with bright linoleum hallways and sparkling classrooms,” proclaims a school marketing video. “More importantly, the culture of violence is long gone, and the culture of learning has taken its place.”

L.A. Teachers Request Conversion
In Los Angeles, a majority of teachers at Alan Locke Senior High School, “frustrated with the school’s mediocrity,” Lazarin’s report says, petitioned their school district to allow Green Dot Public Schools to convert the school. Green Dot operates 17 charter high schools in highest-need areas of the city. Eight of them compose Locke’s conversion as several new, smaller schools were opened within it.   

In 2008, one-quarter of Locke’s class of 2008 graduated. Nearly 60 percent of that class had dropped out by the end of their sophomore year. Two years later, after Green Dot took over, 73 percent of sophomores remained enrolled at year’s end. 

Key Conversion Elements Identified
The CAP report identifies several key elements in the successful conversions in Los Angeles and Philadelphia: an experienced, successful charter operator, flexibility and autonomy for the schools, community partnership and trust, and more charter operators willing to take on conversions. 

Bryan Hassel, codirector of the education policy consulting firm Public Impact, calls having a proven operator “the critical success factor.” 

Lazarin agrees, but she says many school districts and communities lack access to charter management organizations like Green Dot in Los Angeles. Since most successful CMOs concentrate in urban areas, where the opportunity for collaboration with school districts is “ripe,” she said, charter conversion “is understandably not going to be the best option for some schools.” 

Fruitful cooperation between school districts and charter organizations require “a good deal of partnership and trust between the district and the charter community,” Lazarin said.  “I think we’re starting to see some of this happen in some cities, and that’s encouraging. But it’s going to take some time, and it’s not going to organically happen everywhere.”

Calls for Administrative Freedom
Control over school budgets, staff, and operations were essential to the charters’ success in the successful Philadelphia and Los Angeles conversions, Lazarin said 

In exchange, operators agreed to run the converted charter as a neighborhood school “and open their doors to everyone,” such as local students who had attended that school the previous year, or who are learning English or have disabilities. 

Schools like Philadelphia’s Mastery operate well under such arrangements, Hassel said. 
“The district required Mastery to keep all the students, but beyond that [it] gave them wide freedom to implement their model, with great effect,” he said.  

Though trends in those schools “appear to be going in the right direction,” says report author Melissa Lazarin, it’s too soon to tell “what the impact of these conversions will be in the long term.” 

Operators Prefer Start-Ups
Despite these dramatic successes, most charter school operators prefer to start a new school, not convert an existing and often entrenched institution. Even schools required to change under SIG requirements often prefer closing their doors permanently over becoming a charter.

“Even when district leaders are interested in conversions, we have a terribly limited supply of charter operators willing to take on restarts,” Hassel said. “Existing successful charter school operators have understandably been wary of jumping into this work.  They naturally worry about being saddled with constraints or diluting their valued ‘brands.'”

Conversions will continue to be rare until the supply of charter operators increases, which will require new funding streams, he said. 

“To meet the need to fix failing schools, the nation probably needs a new breed of operators willing to take over and run existing schools,” Hassel said. “We’re beginning to see that, but philanthropists and entrepreneurs need to step up their efforts.” 

Image by Christopher Michel