I sardonically joke during trainings, that I can give school leaders the 2 step secret to the high test score performance; recruit high achievers and kick out the “bad” kids. Unfortunately, there is truth underlying the joke, which echoes across all sectors of American education. And while some laugh at the joke, others frown, and a third group is taking notes.I am a lawyer and I wrote or reviewed many of the sections of this charter years back, including admissions, and I know there is no fracking admissions test, and as a fairly empowered Black man, I have learned its best to just listen sometimes, without betraying my credentials, and see how far people will go.... As someone who has worked with charter schools for the better part of two decades, I do see the subtle and not so subtle ways that schools can and sometimes do manipulate the student bodies coming in to increase the test scores coming out, or to more generally serve “their kids”.... charterspookThis link came to me through an email. I'm not sure who wrote it but this guy pretty much lists just about every method charters use to control admissions.
A long time ago in a land far away, I went to enroll a foster child, let’s call her Keasha, in a charter school. She needed a good school; that was smaller, more personalized. Brushing aside the fact that I did not have any legal authority, we asked the woman at the desk about enrollment. She explained that the school may not have any spots for the particular grade, described the school culture in fairly negative terms, under-emphasizing the clubs and after school, and noting that many students resented the closed campus, where they could not leave for lunch. I still asked for an application. She then told Keasha that she needed to take an “admissions test”, a series of math problems. An “admission test” or other preconditions to enrollment in a charter school is illegal, they are public schools and, by law, must admit any student who applies if there is space, holding a lottery if there are more students than spots. Full disclosure, I am a lawyer and I wrote or reviewed many of the sections of this charter years back, including admissions, and I know there is no fracking admissions test, and as a fairly empowered Black man, I have learned its best to just listen sometimes, without betraying my credentials, and see how far people will go.
Keasha fills in answers, they are graded, she does well, and then is offered a spot for admission. Rather than blasting the office person, I met with Board chair, it was not an “admissions test” but one to determine placement, and the school, being small, offered only two options in terms of 9th grade math, he earnestly apologized and would push training for the leadership and the front line staff on these areas. In my own mind I felt like there was also a racial tinge to the issue and the underselling of the school to a student who might be perceived as more difficult than others, and was a different race than the office person and the majority of the school. I really don’t think this was a policy per se, but really the way a front line worker interpreted her job and chose to act, which had a particular racial impact. And as the initial face of the school, with wide and largely unchecked discretion, these front line workers matter.
As someone who has worked with charter schools for the better part of two decades, I do see the subtle and not so subtle ways that schools can and sometimes do manipulate the student bodies coming in to increase the test scores coming out, or to more generally serve “their kids”. This is not the only “admission” test story out there, alongside subtle and not so subtle counseling out of students who may be more challenging. Schools have also, selectively recruited, as well as sometimes just saying there is not more room, when room is made for other students that showed up later.
Furthermore, seemingly neutral rules can also be used to screen out students; a very short enrollment window where only the chosen few are informed; creating hurdles to application, like requiring single or multiple meetings before providing applications to families, limited or no translation of application documents or limited distribution. And “zero tolerance” or “no excuses” disciplinary policies, where students are given little leeway and staff are full of excuses why they can only serve the “good” kids. I have seen schools suspend or threaten to expel students for being absent too much, homeless students rack up uniform policy violations, and other school rules that have the effect of pushing more (perceived) challenging students out. These students are almost never expelled, instead they are threatened with continuing punishments and potential expulsion, so the parent withdraws them, interrupting their academic year, and enrolling them mid-year elsewhere, when better options are likely full.
I wholeheartedly believe that these are exceptions to the rule, and a small minority of schools with a small minority of staff that act in ways the subtly or not so subtly discriminate. But if we claim to be public schools, and most all of the schools I have worked with deliberately tried to serve high needs populations, we really do have to work to serve the public. And that means calling a spade a spade.
This is a 2-way street though, and part of a larger systemic issue where schools often choose students while we imagine students choosing schools. It was entirely predictable which students the local District schools would recommend apply to our charters, sometimes based on a perceived match, but often on a desire to push out more difficult or failing students, students with big thick files. And anyone who follows high school admissions in NYC’s selective high schools, should be asking some of the same questions, about policy mechanisms that discriminate. In a system where the 70% of students are Black and Hispanic and those students make up 12% of the seats at the best schools.
If we are honest, the game has always been rigged, with zip codes and family wealth being pretty directly correlated with educational opportunities. Anyone who looks can see the vast disparities in the District schools, and between districts, often based on where students physically can afford to live. In charters, the increased flexibility and autonomy can be used for good or nefarious purposes, and sometimes the line is actually fairly grey. I remember expanding our class size to add a student who was a sibling of a current student who had just moved out of a very difficult and rural family situation, who we felt would really struggle in a larger District middle school, where they knew no one and would like get little support. I have also heard school leaders say how kids or families looked like “trouble” and were told there was no room, when there was.
We need to stop the straight up discrimination, and I think using admission testers, who would try to enroll more “diverse” learners at schools and record their treatment would be immensely helpful as it is in the employment context. The trickier issues are around schools that may liberally push out the more challenging students, often based on completely legal and public school policies, that parents technically agree to when they enroll their student. For these situations, charter authorizers should require transparent tracking and publication of attrition rates, AND schools with disproportionate rates would suffer a financial penalty that would go to the school where the student was received. While these would not solve every problem, it would catch the worst offenders, and also reset the financial incentives, which right now can be to push more challenging students down the line, with good actors increasingly carrying the weight shed by bad ones.
There is a viewpoint expressed mostly behind closed doors, sometimes with a complicit authorizer in the room, that the so called charter movement should admit no fault around serving all students. That making the admission then changes the narrative to a defensive one, and we are better just playing offense. Were this football, I probably still would not agree, but it’s not a game. And until we engage this debate as a cooperative struggle rather than a rhetorical death match, we really can’t claim to be a public school movement.
I sardonically joke during trainings, that I can give school leaders the 2 step secret to the high test score performance; recruit high achievers and kick out the “bad” kids. Unfortunately, there is truth underlying the joke, which echoes across all sectors of American education. And while some laugh at the joke, others frown, and a third group is taking notes.