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Last updated: Tue. Jan. 29, 2013 - 08:10 am EDT

COLUMN

To survive, charter schools must overcome a Catch-22

They need to demonstrate performance, not dismiss test scores

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With a daughter already in fourth grade there, Kathryn Skordos hopes to enroll her son in kindergarten at Imagine Schools on Broadway this fall.

If the charter school at 2320 Broadway is still open, that is.

So Skordos enthusiastically showed up at Monday's “Parents Choice Rally” and was assured by the sign on the gym wall that “every voice counts.” Parents and supporters were encouraged to counteract negative publicity created by Ball State University's recent decision to revoke the charter of Imagine and two others in Fort Wayne because of low test scores. They were even provided pre-addressed forms that could be filled with impassioned pleas to Gov. Mike Pence.

But should the future of a school entrusted with about 350 young lives and lots of public money really hinge on the success or failure of an 11th-hour public-relations campaign?

Principal Ra'Chelle Spearman probably would have preferred to be doing almost anything but serving as chief cheerleader Monday evening, but felt she had no choice in the wake of Ball State's decision, which she said was both premature and – contrary to the university's press release – a surprise.

“We have a five-year charter but only four years (of state test scores),” Spearman said, noting that the final scores won't be available until May and should show continued improvement. Surely Ball State could have delayed its decision a few more months, she said, especially when it did not implement new accountability measures until this year she believed would take more than test scores into account.

But therein lurks the Catch-22 for Imagine on Broadway, Imagine MASTer Academy, the Timothy L. Johnson Academy and other charter schools now fighting for their lives. Having been justified as alternatives to public schools with chronically low test scores, charter schools risk credibility by implying that such scores should not be used to measure their performance.

And even if Imagine on Broadway's latest scores do improve – and Spearman said less than 60 percent of students are meeting math and English standards – what would that prove if the tests are suspect?

So Spearman, Skordos and others Monday were left with anecdotal arguments very much like those often made in behalf of struggling public schools: How caring teachers had made a difference for children challenged by poverty, family problems or academic neglect.

“My daughter struggled in kindergarten in the Fort Wayne Community Schools. Her teacher called her 'stupid' and said she would never amount to anything,” Skordos said, her eyes filling with tears and her voice choked with emotion. “I'm saddened and heartbroken by this. You can't judge a school only by tests. Our kids would be lost in the public schools.” Other parents said much the same.

Fourth-grade teacher Katie Tunis said Imagine's dedication to students matches what she experienced while teaching for 20 years at Fort Wayne's private Canterbury School. “We're seeing a lot of individual growth by students,” she said.

According to teacher Emily Kleinschmidt, in fact, students who have been at Imagine for several years have shown improvement in test scores much better than its overall scores. “It proves we are more than just an 'F' that ISTEP and its grading scale would lead some to believe,” she insisted.

No doubt that's true. The staff at Monday's rally seemed professional and genuinely concerned about their students. The parents were passionate about saving their school. The problem is that, for better or worse, Indiana has established a way to evaluate school performance that casts a negative light not only on Imagine on Broadway but on many other schools with dedicated teachers struggling to educate children from a variety of challenging backgrounds.

Spearman said her school will appeal Ball State's decision and, if that fails, will seek other alternatives. “We have a lot of potential here,” she said. But potential is by definition in the future. The school's survival is about the here and now.

This is, appropriately, “School Choice Week” in Indiana. But just as public-school supporters lose credibility by applauding the demise of charters while absolving underperforming public schools, I and other advocates of charters and vouchers should welcome the chance to demonstrate the ability to help the very students public schools have not.

If Imagine on Broadway and the others are to survive, in other words, they should be prepared to base their case on facts – not emotion.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.


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