Charter school enrollment set to rise

Achievement First charter school in Hartford

CT Mirror file photo

Achievement First charter school in Hartford

More students than ever are about to have the chance to enroll in charter schools in Connecticut. The State Board of Education is expected to sign off Wednesday on increasing enrollment at these schools by 4 percent next school year.

While the enrollment increase will cost the state an additional $4.1 million next year, funding for traditional public schools is being cut by $51.7 million and for regional magnet schools, opened to help desegregate city schools, by $15.4 million.

In recommending that 14 of Connecticut’s 23 charter schools be allowed to enroll another 401 students, Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell wrote the publicly funded schools had a “demonstrated record of achievement.”

Each school throughout Connecticut is given an accountability score between zero and 100, with the majority of a school’s score based on student performance on standardized tests. A fraction also comes from attendance rates and access to arts education, as well as other measures. The commissioner highlighted each charter school’s high Accountability Index in recommending the enrollment increases.

One of the schools being recommended for an enrollment boost, however – Achievement First Hartford – was put on probation last month after an audit criticized the school for a high rate of disciplining students and having too few of its teachers properly certified. Achievement First Hartford includes an elementary, middle and high school.

The schools were first identified in 2013 as having some of the highest suspension rates in the state, but enrollment caps have been waived by the state education board for three years so enrollment could grow from 874 to 1,125 students. In a 2013 memo to the state board, the leader of Achievement First outlined plans to revise its “if-in-doubt-send-them-out” suspension policy, to better train teachers on handling disruptive students, and to reduce the offenses students could be suspended for. But data released in April showed the schools still have high suspension rates.

One other school, Jumoke Academy, is currently on probation, and two others were given notice they needed to improve last May.

Jumoke was at the center of a controversy surrounding questionable fiscal practices that were unveiled by The Hartford Courant. The school is in its second year of probation and is the only charter school that is being recommended for decreased enrollment. However, enrollment at Jumoke has increased since it was put on probation, from 705 students during the 2013-14 school year to 765 students next year.

Stamford Academy and New Beginnings in Bridgeport both had their charters renewed last May for shortened terms, and conditions for improvement were imposed. Stamford is being recommended for an enrollment increase and Bridgeport for a flat enrollment.

Charter schools are set to enroll 9,572 students for the 2016-17 school year. Since Gov. Dannel P. Malloy took office five fiscal years ago, funding for charter schools has doubled to $110.8 million. Enrollment is expected to continue increasing because startup charter schools typically add grades over several years.

While enrollment in charter schools has been increasing quickly in Connecticut, the state remains well below the national average in the percentage of public school students attending charters.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that 1.3 percent of Connecticut’s public school students attended charter schools in 2013-14, which put the state in 35th place for the rate of students attending charters.

It’s not for lack of demand: According to the 2014 annual report by the State Department of Education, the most recent available, demand for a seat in a charter school “remained high” with more than 4,000 children on wait lists.

“We applaud state leaders for recognizing the growing demand for public charter schools in cities and towns across Connecticut,” said Jeremiah Grace, the state director of the the Northeast Charter Schools Network. “We’re glad to see the state answer the call and offer some of the thousands of children on charter waiting lists access to their preferred public school of choice.”

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