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Charter school boosters try to close the gap

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 13, 2009 - One of the highest scoring public schools in Missouri is Academie Lafayette, a language immersion charter school in Kansas City. Not only does it outperform other charters and many regular public schools on state assessment exams, Lafayette stands out this year for being the first charter to become a Missouri Gold Star school. These are schools, 15 in all this year, that the state says are performing at a high academic level.

French is the primary language spoken at Lafayette; English is used for no more than 50 minutes of class time a day, usually involving a reading assignment. In operation for 10 years, Lafayette now has 480 students and such a record for academic excellence that many of its grads earn scholarships to attend private high schools.

Next fall, a charter school group in St. Louis will try to duplicate Lafayette's success by opening the St. Louis Language Immersion School, which will be sponsored by the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Its founder is Rhonda Broussard, a tall woman with long, thick braids hanging down her back.

She cites plenty of good reasons for language immersion schools, including that of turning out students for a job market that will increasingly value bilingual skills. But her bottom-line message is that these schools will give children across the economic spectrum the training they need to move "from Head Start to Harvard."

Placing children, especially poor children, in language immersion programs is one way to help them become high academic achievers, Broussard says. Rachel Gordon, community relations director for Lafayette, agrees, saying language immersion forces children to "become more critical thinkers, better listeners, good at problem solving," Gordon says.

The language immersion school is one of at least two potentially high-performing charter schools that will open in St. Louis next fall. The other is KIPP St. Louis, whose sponsor is Washington University. A third charter school might open in St. Louis next fall but hasn't yet completed all its paperwork, says Jocelyn Strand, who monitors charter school programs for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. She expects the state to have 32 charter schools by the fall.

St. Louis now has 10, but one, Ethel H. Lyle Academy, is expected to close this year because of administrative problems. If all three new schools open this fall, St. Louis would have 12 charters. Kansas City now has 18. One will close this year, and three new ones will open by fall, giving Kansas City 20.

Obama Supports Charter Schools

As part of his education reforms, President Barack Obama is urging states to remove restrictions that have slowed the opening of more charter schools. Missouri law limits charters to St. Louis and Kansas City. The law also limits charter sponsorships to school districts and to universities with campuses near the schools, notes Hillary Elliott, director of communications for the Missouri Charter Public School Association.

She hopes some of those restrictions will be lifted this legislative session. One bill, SB64 , introduced by Sen. Scott T. Rupp, R-Wentzville, would expand charter schools to 18 additional school districts that the state has cited for academic deficiencies. These include Ferguson-Florissant, Jennings, Normandy, Riverview Gardens and University City, along with smaller districts such in Kingston, Caruthersville, Hayti and other small cities and towns in Missouri.

Rupp's bill also would make a major change involving sponsors. It would allow the mayor of St. Louis to sponsor charter schools; it also would allow charters to be sponsored by any public or private four-year college or university with a teacher preparation program.

Initially, state law forbade even private colleges, such as Washington University and Saint Louis University, to sponsor charters. The law still requires that the sponsoring university be situated in the same city or county in which the charter school is located or have a satellite campus in an adjacent county.

"We'd like to see sponsorship by any four-year institution," Elliott says. "For example, Missouri State University in Springfield can't sponsor charter schools because of the geographic restrictions. Missouri is the only state that has limited charter schools to two cities."

Elliott says many charter association members support eliminating all geographical restrictions, but she says it might not be politically possible to do more than what Rupp is proposing in this session. Even so, those changes aren't guaranteed. Neither SB64 nor two other major charter bills have been reported out of committee.

The other two are SB564 , sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis , and SB51 , authored by state Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City. Smith's bill would allow the state to revoke the license of a charter school that has decreasing MAP scores. Bray's measure would require the state to revoke the license of a charter school that is unaccredited for two successive school years.

Whatever the outcome of these measures, the rise of innovative new charters like the language immersion program and KIPP, and Obama's push for expansion of charters mean that this option is likely to grow.

Achievement Gap Still an Issue

Still, charters have yet to close the racial achievement gap, even in highly regarded schools like Lafayette. Nearly 58 percent of black kids at the school score at the proficiency level in communication arts, compared to 80 percent of whites. In math, over 50 percent of blacks are proficient, compared to 81 percent of whites. Statewide, more than 51 percent of whites and 24 percent of blacks were proficient in  communication arts, while nearly 53 percent of whites and over 21 percent of African Americans were proficient in math.

As the MAP scores from Lafayette show, some black students do nearly as well as whites or better, depending on how comparisons are made. But, as a rule, the scores of black students tend to lag behind those of whites when the comparisons are based on students in the same school or district. Some educators say comparisons between schools or between districts can be misleading unless they take into account certain variables, including the number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches, which can correlate with low test scores. Other variables include motivation of students, parental involvement, and teacher quality.

But the bright spot is that language immersion schools, and KIPP schools as well, have at least been able to help more black students perform at proficient levels.

Given Lafayette's overall performance, Gordon, the community relations director, was asked why the school doesn't do more to publicize itself and recruit more students.

She tries hard to prevent her response from sounding like a boast.

"We already have a waiting list."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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