Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Deviating from the Formula


Gist also recommended that Blackstone Valley Democracy Prep, a new kind of charter school under the authority of Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee, be allowed to double its incoming kindergarten class this fall, at an estimated cost of $700,000 to $800,000.

That would bump each grade at DMBV up to 150 students, and the ultimate total size of the K-8 school up to 1350, although one would guess it would end up being divided up into, say a 750 student K-4 building and a 600 student 5-8 building.

That's not particularly big for schools in general, but it is very big for a high-performing, "no excuses" charter, certainly the biggest I've heard of. These things tend to break down in multiples of about 35, so you get some with 35 per grade and some with 70-ish per grade. The Democracy Prep mothership started in 2006 with 131 kids but seems to have settled on 105 - 110 per grade, which is bigger than most.

I always try to look up the enrollment numbers. You usually get get no signal from a reporter if you're reading about a school that has 35 students, six teachers, a full-time counselor, and principal (plus support staff). The high flying CMO's (KIPP, Uncommon Schools, etc.) have unquestionably gotten better at achieving high scores for students right out of the gate -- rather than requiring 3-5 years for the school to "find itself," if at all -- but a lot of that is because they've gotten good at recruiting good principals and keeping the school so small over the first couple years that the principal can know every person in the community well. I'm sure in a lot of those schools if you walked into the office this afternoon the principal could rattle off the latest interim assessment data of individual students from memory.

So, on one hand, we've got a big push to scale up DPBV and start more mayoral academies managed by out of state CMO's, based on their successful application of a specific model elsewhere. But on the other hand, we don't seem to be very careful about actually adhering to that model in significant ways, including:

  • Size: (see above).
  • Demographics: every "no excuses" charter I've seen has been aimed almost exclusively at poor/minority students. While I believe in aggregate separate cannot be equal, it is also true that it is possible to create effective programs aimed at the needs of specific populations. We don't know how this will play out in a school whose populations are drawn equally from two urban (minority) and two suburban (white) districts.

    For example, in 2007-2008 Democracy Prep New York's out of school school suspension rate was 30% (compared to, say 4% for Francis Lewis High School). Since all the kids are minority, this is only an equity problem outside the school context. If you've got a more diverse population, it gets more complicated within the school.

  • Governance & Unity of Command: the current structure of DPBV seems to be dependent on maintaining the ongoing support of all of the following parties: RIDE and the Commissioner of Education, the state legislature, four mayors and their representatives on the school's board of directors, the electorate of four towns and cities (whose interests generally don't align), Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, and Democracy Prep HQ in New York. This is not the way it is done elsewhere at high performing charters.

Now, this may work, and I'd bet that in January 2013, when we actually get NECAP scores for this year's kindergarteners, they'll be quite good. And in fact, DPBV's biggest competition test-score wise in the medium term will probably be smaller more conventionally "no excuses" charters. 10 years from now DPBV, even if it is a successful school, will probably look considerably different than the current high performing charters in Boston and New York. It will probably have to go through several significant reorganizations, perhaps breaking with some of the involved towns or with its CMO. Mainly, it will probably stick out as another typical Rhode Island administrative oddball who everyone is used to but nobody can remember why this slightly too big for its mission charter school was stuck there.

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