By NATE DOUGHERTY
The Fitbit is something of an inspiration for PUC Achieve Charter School in Rochester.
Like the fitness device, which keeps stats of physical activity with a goal of reaching 10,000 steps each day, the charter school gives regular data and feedback to students about their academic performance, challenging them to improve their grades and strive to achieve their best.
“That’s our premise,” said principal Arkee Allen. “If you know your data and you really care about your achievement, you’ll go somewhere.”
The concept has helped PUC Achieve Charter School grow, increasing to 200 students since opening in August 2014 with plans to add 200 more. The expansion—and the school’s mission itself—reflects what is happening with charter schools in terms of the number of schools and total enrollment.
City enrollment in charter schools has grown from 659 in the 2005-06 school year (2 percent of all district students) to 4,591 (14 percent) this year, Rochester City School District reports. The district predicts more growth, with 800 additional students expected to enroll in charter schools in 2016-17.
As enrollment has grown, so too have the options available to students. Some schools emphasize year-round learning; others cater to specific populations, such as Vertus Charter School, a prep high school for boys.
Perry White, who co-founded Vertus Charter School, said the growth has come largely by offering an alternative to low-performing schools in the city.
“Like parents in the suburbs, parents in the city want quality choices for their kids’ education, and to that extent the city often just doesn’t have those efficient and effective schools that parents are seeking,” White said.
Vertus Charter School uses a mix of online coursework with strong mentoring to meet the differing needs of students, White said. Teachers are more than instructors; they foster close relationships with the young men and focus on their character development along with their academic progress.
“At Vertus, we have a special kind of educator who works closely with students and is responsible for each young man on his team,” White said. “This gives each student someone who is there to keep them safe and motivated and learning how to grow up to be a good and successful man.”
The school also has a strong focus on preparing students both for college and careers, working closely with Monroe Community College to provide practical experience in fields like health care and advanced manufacturing.
“We know that college isn’t for everyone, so we want every student to graduate with a career credential in one of those three areas—health care, IT and manufacturing,” White said.
At PUC Achieve Charter School, administrators have made efforts to break out of the grade inflation that sometimes takes place at low-performing public schools. Allen said a grade given on a piece of paper can often reflect a lower learning standard rather than an achievement on the part of a student.
“If you’re in fifth grade, but the teacher has everyone doing third-grade work because half of the kids are at that level, yes, you’re going to be successful. But how motivated are you to do any work when you think you’re doing great?” he said.
PUC instead aims to challenge students, keeping them constantly abreast of their academic performance and empowering them to take strides toward improvement.
Parents are a close part of this process as well, Allen said.
“We have something called data meetings, where we call the parents and go over as much information with them about the students as possible,” he said. “The other important part of that is what we call self-monitoring, where we expect a student to tell their report card grade before. Any student in our school can tell you exactly what grade they have in math or English, and it challenges them to do the best they can.”
Performance across charter schools can vary, noted a 2013 study by the Center for Governmental Research Inc. Charter schools succeed when they attract exceptional management and teachers—a truism for all schools, the report stated.
The report also found that some of the strongest-performing charter schools have a more dedicated stock of students from whom to choose.
“To a degree, charter schools are passively ‘cherry picking’ students, as the families that are motivated to enter the charter lottery bring a greater commitment to education,” the report noted.
Some local charter schools acknowledge challenges in serving students with a higher level of needs, however. Nearly 95 percent of students at Discovery Charter School in Greece live in the city. The school has low standardized test scores and efforts in place to improve them. Joseph Saia, the school’s director, says these challenges are inherent with students who come from high-poverty areas.
“We’re located in Greece, but we see ourselves as an urban school in terms of the students we reach,” he said. “We only recruit students from the highest-poverty neighborhoods in the city. Research shows that once you get over 60 percent of students from poverty, the chances of having a successful school really diminish, and improving test scores is a major focus for us.”
Saia acknowledges that Discovery Charter School is very different from public schools and even most other charters, offering services that cater not only to the academic needs of students but also their health needs. This includes on- and off-site health visits and support to students with incarcerated family members.
“We take a holistic approach because so many of our kids are coming to school with the stress of poverty,” Saia said. “Many of them have post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma in their lives, and 15 percent of our kids are classified as homeless. We have to face all of those things, and we really try to celebrate our children, giving them a joyful and safe place where we work hard on character-building and instilling the skills they need to be successful in life.”
Despite some struggles with test scores or catering services to students with higher needs than others, charter schools have a bright future—particularly as an alternative to the challenges of RCSD, White said.
“These schools are offering a non-bureaucratic response to the needs of Rochester’s families,” he said. “We can be more flexible and more creative in understanding and meeting the needs of students than larger districts, and parents really recognize and appreciate that.
“As long as other schools are unable to flexibly adjust their programs to provide the kind of structure and support that students benefit from,” he added, “then they will continue to look elsewhere, and inspired educators will look to meet those needs.”
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