Charter school enrollment ready to surge

More students than ever are about to have the chance to enroll in a charter school in Connecticut.

Not only has the State Board of Education approved increasing enrollment at the state’s 17 existing charter schools by 9 percent for the upcoming school year, but four new charter schools are also expected to open over the next two years.

“We must aim to offer a variety of high-quality options for families… Public charter schools have the potential to deliver great new opportunities to our young people,” Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said last month after his board approved opening a new charter school in Waterbury.

Charter schools are set to enroll 7,132 students for the 2013-14 school year –- an 11 percent jump from the previous year. The state board has also paved the way for enrollment to increase by at least another 900 students over the next three years, pending additional state funding.

But according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education, Connecticut remains well below the national average in the percentage of public school students attending charters.

It’s not for lack of demand: According to the 2013 annual report by the State Department of Education, demand for a seat in a charter school “remains strong.”

“In spite of steadily growing enrollments, there continue to be waiting lists for public charter schools.”

These increases –- made possible by a dramatic spike in state funding approved by legislators and the governor –- has not sat well with teachers’ unions. Since Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his education commissioner took office two fiscal years ago, funding for charter schools has increased by 43 percent, bringing funding to $75.5 million in the upcoming school year.

The state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers earlier this year sent out an email breaking down what it called the disparities in where new education money is going.  

“Achievement First [charter schools] will receive an increase in state funding of $2,600 per student while the average student in 30 poorer districts will see an increase of an average of $150 per student,” reads the alert.

And then there are the high suspension rates at Achievement First, the largest network of charter schools in the state, with schools in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport. Charter officials also recently settled a complaint for how they handle discipline for disabled and special education students.

Charter schools suspend elementary students at twice the rate as the districts where they are located, the State Department of Education reported last month.

“We want to deal very directly with the suspension issue,” Dacia Toll, the co-chief executive officer of Achievement First told the state board last week. “We were not focusing on this and now we are.”

In a memo to the state board, Toll outlines plans to revise the “if in doubt send them out” suspension policy, provide training to teachers to better handle disruptive students, and narrow what offenses students can be suspended for.

Toll’s promises to “drastically reduce” the number of suspensions — in the past, about half of her middle school students in Hartford would be suspended at least once throughout the school year — were enough to convince the state board to grant her permission to further expand enrollment in Hartford.

The Hartford schools will get to add 71 seats this fall and enroll the first grade in a new high school that will be at full capacity in three years with 400 students. Achievement First also plans to open a new middle school.

When the state board found out that the school had such high suspension rates, members promised to factor that in when considering whether to renew their contract to operate in the state. And last week the board decided to renew that contract for three years with the requirement that the district report to them annually their progress in improving their suspension numbers.

“It’s very troubling for me… when 50 percent of middle schools students go through suspension, it’s a culture,” said Estela López, a board member from East Hartford.

“I look forward to seeing next year’s report,” said Board Chairman Allan Taylor.

A handful of charter schools have been forced to close their doors in Connecticut following poor performance.

“While the majority of Connecticut’s charter schools have proven to be successful models of alternative public education, there have been some that have struggled and some that have closed their operations,” the education department’s annual charter school report for 2013 says.

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