Rochester area parents know what they want when it comes to their children’s education: Of the state’s 233 charter schools, Monroe County is home to 13, with a 14th to open in the fall.
By comparison, Syracuse, considered the central region, has two charter schools. Buffalo/Niagara, the western region, has 16.
“We believe that every child living in the city of Rochester should be attending a high-quality neighborhood school that will provide rigorous academics—math, reading, writing, science, history—preparing those kids for college, career and life,” Joseph Klein said.
Klein is chairman and cofounder of E3 Rochester, a non-profit organization that entices charter schools to take up residence here and supports them in their goals.
E3’s mission is to transform the opportunities for learning that are available to Rochester’s children.
The first charter school law passed in Minnesota in 1991. New York’s version passed in 1998.
“Like charter schools across the country, charter schools in New York were created to provide more quality public school options to parents who may otherwise not have access to a public school that meets their child’s needs,” said Susan Miller Barker, executive director of SUNY Charter Schools Institute, which authorizes 147 charter schools across the state, including six in Rochester.
Charter schools do not charge tuition, nor do they select students. When there are more applications than available seats, they use lotteries, Barker explained.
“Charter schools have greater autonomy than district schools to allow for greater innovation and in exchange are held to higher levels of accountability for advancing student achievement,” she said.
Funded publicly, charter schools are typically governed by a group under a legislative contract, or charter, with the state or local jurisdiction, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The charter exempts the school from a number of state or local rules and regulations.
In return for flexibility, the school must meet the accountability standards outlined in its charter. The charter is reviewed periodically by the group that granted it and can be revoked if guidelines on curricula and management are not followed or if the standards are not met, NCES notes.
When determining whether to renew a charter, SUNY evaluates the school along four guidelines: whether the school is an academic success, fiscally sound and an effective, viable organization, and what plans it has laid for the next term, Barker said.
“Fifteen SUNY-authorized schools have not been renewed since the institute’s inception, demonstrating that underperforming schools are indeed held accountable,” she noted.
A recent report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that urban charter schools provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading skills compared with their traditional public school peers.
Additionally, positive results for charter school students on average increased over the period of the study. But, despite overall positive learning impacts, in some urban communities the majority of charter schools lag the learning gains of their public school counterparts, the report states.
Several calls to local charter schools seeking comment were not returned. Klein noted that charter schools in Rochester overall are achieving their goals. That is not true everywhere.
“When you look at the national level, I’d say probably not,” he said. “Many states have laws that make it hard to have good charter schools. Our academic results are much better.”
The biggest challenge local charter schools face is funding, Klein said.
“When I started in this mission of bringing charter schools to Rochester, we were getting 75 cents on the dollar of what the district got,” he explained. “Now it’s 60 cents on the dollar.”
That translates to difficulty providing what children need, especially in terms of social, emotional and physical needs, Klein said.
“The other thing is there’s a creeping increase in regulations that we’re seeing that make it harder for us to do our job,” he added. Still, E3 continues to try to recruit schools to the region despite growing regulations.
More than 4,300 students in Rochester attend charter schools and their parents choose those schools for several reasons, Klein said.
“No. 1, they’re safer. You won’t find a metal detector in a charter school,” he said. “No. 2, better academics and more time being spent on reading, writing and math, which we need as a base to be able to do anything.”
In addition, charter schools are set up to keep parents informed and a part of the school. Finally, Klein said, Rochester’s charter schools offer more art and music than most public schools.
“It’s not just about rigorous academics,” he added. “It is that the visual and performing arts in most of our schools are a vital part of education.”
The overall mission of charter schools has not changed in the 17 years since their inception in New York, Barker said. They must still provide quality public school options to parents and children.
“In the past 15 years the schools, and the authorizers, have demonstrated that the charter sector in New York is working,” she said. “Eighty percent of SUNY-authorized schools outperform their district counterparts, with some SUNY-authorized charter schools performing in the top 20 schools statewide as measured by state assessments.”
The top reason Rochester’s charter schools are successful, Klein said, is uniform, high-quality teachers with accountability. Teachers are carefully screened for a belief that all children can learn, he said.
“We have shown in Rochester in our charter schools that our kids can learn regardless of circumstances. They grow up poor. The parents may not have the capability to always help out; they’re pretty stretched. Yet our kids are learning,” Klein said. “We’re instilling character. The kids are thriving. We’ve shown it’s possible.”
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