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Charter schools see more attrition

Fewer students are graduating, union study finds

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 16, 2009

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Fewer than half of the students who enrolled in Boston charter high schools as freshmen over the past five years made it through to graduation, usually departing for other schools, according to a new study that will be officially released tomorrow at a legislative hearing on charter school expansions.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, which conducted the study, said the exodus reinforces its longtime assertion that charter schools systematically push out academically weak students in an effort to boost their college acceptance rates and MCAS scores.

“This is outrageous,’’ said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, who had been briefed by the union this week on the findings. “You are not bringing kids to their full potential if you are cutting them loose.’’

Most charter school leaders did not dispute the numbers yesterday, but disagreed with the union’s conclusions about what they meant. Many students, charter leaders said, choose to leave to dodge high academic standards, returning to city-run schools where getting a diploma is often easier. Only in rare circumstances, they said, did a charter student quit school without subsequently earning a diploma.

“We are not just handing out diplomas,’’ said Thabiti Brown, principal at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester. “We want students to be successful in college, but unfortunately we have students who leave because they feel our academic standards are too high.’’

The report, obtained yesterday by the Globe, appears to be the opening salvo of a legislative hearing tomorrow that is expected to draw hundreds of business executives, union leaders, parents, and others who are passionately embracing or denouncing Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to double the number of charter school seats in districts with the lowest MCAS scores.

Pressure to make drastic school turnarounds is expected to increase today when the state releases individual school MCAS scores and its annual report of schools designated for massive restructuring because of chronically low scores.

Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, said that the teachers union study highlights an important issue about student retention at charter schools that is worth addressing.

“Any time you see that level of attrition it raises questions,’’ said Reville, who was not convinced that the departures could all be chalked up to the desire to avoid high academic standards. “We need a more nuanced study.’’

Proponents laud charter schools for achieving student success by embracing innovative teaching, although not all have lived up to expectations and a few have been closed by the state. Created under the 1993 Education Reform Act, the state’s 62 charter schools operate under looser state regulations than traditional schools, almost always have no teacher unions, and are run by independent boards that report directly to the state.

Local school districts have railed against charter schools since their inception, often over the way the state funds them. Every student who goes to a charter school takes with them thousands of dollars in state aid, which is largely doled out on a per student basis. It can often create a financial pinch in hometown districts.

The study follows years of anecdotal evidence collected by local school superintendents indicating that charter schools coach students with poor academic records or behavioral problems to return to traditional public schools. Boston school officials during the 2007-08 school year publicly voiced their concerns after approximately 25 percent of seniors at MATCH Charter School departed for Boston public schools, with some students showing up just a few weeks before graduation.

The union’s report examined several years of student enrollment data that the charter schools report to the state each fall, comparing the size of classes as they progressed from one grade level to the next. The study included five charter schools that have had fully operational high school programs for several years: Boston Collegiate, City on a Hill, Codman Academy, MATCH, and Academy of the Pacific Rim.

On average over the last five years, slightly less than 1 out of 2 charter school freshmen made it to their senior year. The winnowing of the classes, the report said, seems to shed new light on charter school assertions, posted on their websites, that nearly all seniors get admitted to college.

While the report did not delve into where students went after leaving the charter schools, state data indicates that they enrolled in school elsewhere, rather than dropping out altogether.

“I think one of our concerns is before the state considers lifting the cap on charters, policymakers should investigate what’s going on at the charter schools, what are the reasons why students are leaving?’’ said Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Several charter school leaders said yesterday they have boosted tutoring for students in the last few years, with the aim of preventing attrition. They said many students enroll at the charter schools several grade levels behind in English and math. Not only do the charter schools need to get the students ready to pass the MCAS as 10th graders but they then must accelerate their academics so they are college-ready. Some students, they said, are not up for the challenge.

“We have never asked students to leave because of low grades,’’ said Erica Brown, principal and executive director for City on a Hill.

Paul Grogan - president of the Boston Foundation, which funded a study earlier this year that showed strong charter school success - said the high rate of students leaving charter schools is a legitimate issue to discuss, but added, “It’s important to remember the vast majority of these kids are not dropping out of school. They are going to school elsewhere.’’