Democracy Prep Harlem, the first school in a new network that plans to open more schools in New York and Rhode Island, is a charter that subscribes to the "no excuses" principle common at charters, meaning everyone, from students and parents on up, is held accountable for their performance and must pay consequences if they don't measure up. Unlike many charters, Democracy Prep, a middle and high school, has an outsized population of special-education students. Seth Andrew, the school's founder, says students at the school are far behind when they arrive in sixth grade. Last year, more than 20 percent of the sixth-grade class was held back. "The reason that charters exist is to help remediate for traditional public schools that are not teaching students to read, write, or do math, and that's not a one-year job," he says...
Nyeesha Hill, a student at Democracy Prep, had to repeat sixth grade at the school. Nyeesha is one of 12 siblings and lives with her grandparents in a lower-income section of Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan. She was held back in first grade -- because of behavior issues, she says -- so she was already old for her grade when she was chosen in a lottery to attend Democracy Prep. She struggled at the charter school and was assigned to summer school to improve her grades in three classes -- global history, writing, and math. She ultimately failed one of the classes, so under Democracy Prep's retention policy, she had to repeat the grade. "In the second year, I raised my hand for help and participated more. It helped me," she says. "It's a second chance."
But Nyeesha faltered again, and she will have to repeat eighth grade this year. She has pressed her grandparents to let her attend an alternative high school, where she hopes she can join peers who are her age and graduate faster. "I'm going to be 16 this year, and I feel like I shouldn't be in that school," she says of Democracy Prep. "I don't want to go back." Most of her classmates will only be 13 or 14 years old. Her grandfather, Duely Adolphus, shares her frustration. "I was under the assumption that by going to that school that she would be getting her high school diploma," he says. "I have really high regard for the school. I don't know why she can't move from that grade. Maybe Nyeesha isn't motivated."
School leaders say that the higher attrition rates at charter schools are due, in part, to their retention polices: Students who are held back often return to regular public schools where looser academic standards allow them to move up with their peers. A 2004 study of charter schools in Arizona by the conservative Goldwater Institute found that charter-school students were significantly more likely than traditional-school students to switch schools if they were going to be held back. Andrew says Democracy Prep lost about half of the eighth-graders it planned to retain. (Around 15 percent of the eighth-grade class is held back each year.) At Kings Collegiate, the attrition rate ranges between 15 percent and 18 percent for all grade levels, school leaders say.
The high transfer rates leave charters open to the criticism that they're forcing out the lowest-performing students. Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University researcher who studies charter schools, says the retention policies of charter schools may sound good, but they "could be a mechanism to have the weaker kids go back to traditional public schools."
But Raymond says her studies have found that students who leave a school rather than be retained are less likely to be minorities or on free or reduced-price lunch, suggesting that it's the more affluent parents who worry about the stigma of repeating a grade. And charter-school leaders say they work hard to hold on to students whom they want to retain. That's why Kings Collegiate tries to hold back students only in the early grades, Peiser says. "They're more likely to stay with us," he says. Andrew, at Democracy Prep, says his school has an incentive to keep the students it wants to retain because they're the ones who make the most progress -- and New York City relies heavily on student progress on state tests to evaluate schools.
It will be interesting to see how that process plays out in the more integrated Democracy Prep Blackstone Valley.