Are charter schools cherry-picking their students?

Hartford -- As students from the highly regarded Jumoke Academy Charter School filed into the gymnasium for a mid-afternoon assembly last week, onlooker Gov. Dannel P. Malloy pointed out that at first glance these students seem to mirror those attending the neighborhood public schools.

"Look around," he said, fielding questions about whether this school is teaching the same type of students who attend Hartford public schools.

But enrollment numbers tell a different story.


Just one of the 432 students who attended Jumoke last school year spoke limited English, while in other schools in Hartford, 18 percent spoke limited English.

Likewise, 4 percent of Jumoke students require special education compared with 15 percent in Hartford.

Jumoke's lack of diversity is not unique among the state's 17 charter schools. An analysis of their enrollment by The Connecticut Mirror shows that students who speak limited English or have special education needs have been largely left out of most of the state's charters.

Public schools serve twice the percentage of limited-English students in the districts where 12 of the 17 charter schools are located, the data show. No charter in the state has a higher percentage of ELL students than their local district, and only four enroll more special education students.

This reality has fueled fierce responses from public school principals, superintendents and teachers unions when asked why they aren't achieving the same success as their neighboring charters are.

"We take everybody," Mary Loftus Levine, head of the state's largest teachers' union, told an audience of municipal leaders recently.

Malloy is well aware that this is the No. 1 grievance toward charters. He has included in his education reform package a proposal that would require some new charter schools to enroll and retain these underserved high-needs students.

"In this package we take very substantial steps to make sure that the charter schools are in fact reflective of the communities that they are located in," Malloy said.

Charter school and teacher union leaders have other suggestions on how to get these schools to better reflect their communities. The first step, they say, is to change the makeup of the lottery, which is how students are now selected to attend charters.

The next step, being pushed by charters, may be tougher: the state needs to fund them better.

Replicating what works?

When charter schools were pitched to state legislators years ago, they were sold as a way to create a model for public schools to replicate how to provide quality education for low-achieving students.

But this never happened for many of the worst-off students. Most charters drifted toward enrolling the average urban student and left districts to figure out how to reach special education students and English language learners.


A class at Jumoke charter is observed by Gov. Malloy and the leader of the school

Hartford public schools never did. As the percentage of students with limited English rose over the years, the city's results on the state's standardized tests stagnated.

"They probably have half the representation of high-need students that our neighborhood schools have," Hartford Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said of charters. She made this observation the same day Malloy proposed narrowing the difference in the amount of money per student the state gives for charters and public schools.

In addition, the governor's plans would pay for the state to open as many as five new charter schools that promise to enroll and retain high-need students. He hopes this will lead to a new model on how to best serve these students.

But he has no plans for controlling the demographics of the 381 new seats he's proposing for already operating charters.

A special charter

Explorations charter high school in Winsted is one of the few in the state that enrolls more special education students than do the nearby public schools.

And administrators there say they have a plan that Malloy and the State Department of Education will someday look to replicate.

"I know this is working," said Gail Srebnik, the school's principal.

She points to Marcus Washington, a junior with severe intellectual impairments and other emotional issues, as proof.

Marcus himself explained that he doesn't do well in large schools or gatherings. The school he would have attended in Torrington has 1,100 students.

Markus Washington

Marcus Washington, a special needs student at Explorations charter school in Winsted

"I don't belong there," he said, taking a break from a science lab.

Luckily for him, his mother landed him a seat in Explorations, an 80-student charter school that mirrors an elite private school with an average class size of 12 students and a gym class that includes horseback riding and surfing zip lines.

"Students with special needs do best in small schools. They can't get lost in the shuffle here," said Srebnik. "There really is no small public high school. Your only option really is an expensive private school."

One-quarter of the students attending Explorations require special education, double the percent of students in nearby public schools. The school has one certified special education teacher and two full-time tutors who work the with special education students. Srebnik is also a certified special education teacher.

"At the larger school the staff is maxed out and there is just no time. Here there is so much more one-on-one time. We find out right away when our students aren't picking up the material. They can't hide," said Larry Shortell, the school's special education teacher.

The jury is still out, however, on whether this school is providing a better education for these students. Because the school is so small, the test results of the special education students are not made public. Legally, a school that serves so few students cannot release test results; this is to prevent the scores being linked to an individual student. The school's overall graduation rates, however, lag far behind the state average, as do its overall results on the state's standardized tests.

Explorations, though, has significantly improved Marcus' chances for success, both his mother and the principal said.

"You just can't imagine him in a big school. For him, coming here made the difference of whether he would or would not be graduating," said Srebnik.

Two other charter schools in the state attract special education students at higher rates; both are in Stamford, where Malloy use to be mayor. Their outcomes also are unavailable because of privacy laws.

Changing the lottery

Michael Sharpe, the leader of Jumoke Academy, acknowledged after Malloy's pep talk during the assembly that his school needs to work on attracting more students with limited English proficiency.

"That is something we need to do a much better job at," he said.

However, charter schools are not allowed by law to handpick students, even to ensure that their student body closely mirrors the district's. State law requires them to have a blind lottery; if parents of children with high needs don't apply, there is nothing school officials can do.

Sharon Palmer, the leader of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, is pitching a solution to help end accusations that Hartford charters are responsible for teaching students without high needs. She wants every student in the city to automatically be entered into the lottery for a chance to attend Jumoke and Achievement First, Hartford's charter schools. This would expand the pool of students whose parents are less involved in the school selection process.

Malloy supports that idea, as do several charter school leaders.

"I would welcome that," Sharpe said.

A fiscal obstacle

Charter school leaders say money will be a real obstacle to Malloy's plans to open five new charters that focus on special education or English learners.

While Malloy wants to boost charter funding to $12,000 per student, the districts where these charters are located spend far more than that per student, according to the State Department of Education. Hartford, for example, spends on average $28,000 per special education student, according to the SDE. In addition, charters receive no funding to transport their students.

"Transportation is a huge issue. We don't screen students, but we do have to explain the situation to parents, which ultimately ends up turning some students away," Srebnik said.

Malloy at Jumoke

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at Jumoke

Her school has agreements with some districts, but that only gets a fraction of her students transported to school.

Sharpe said charter school leaders have no problem with a requirement that their schools more closely reflect their district's population.

But, he said, "You have to send the resources to go along with that."

Special education students can require significantly more individualized instruction, materials and counseling.

State law requires charter receive a "reasonable" reimbursement rate -- to be determined by the district where the student would have attended school. But districts such as Hartford and Bridgeport already have huge budget problems, even before charters seek special education funding.

"I think the law was intentionally kept vague when they decided to require a reasonable reimbursement. There is one district that I always have to go round and round with to get a fair reimbursement," said Srebnik.