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Competing for Minds

A second revolution is reshaping public schools, as charters educate poor kids - and even make schools around them better.
By D Magazine |
Rosemary Perlmeter, the founder and executive director of Uplift, says charter schools give kids without means a choice. She started nationally recognized North Hills Preparatory with $1,500 and a credit card.

As a child, Maria Belmonte dreamed of going to college. Life—coming to this country from Mexico 23 years ago, working as a restaurant cashier, then entering a bank training program and getting licensed as a financial counselor—took other casts. “It didn’t happen for me,” says the 43-year-old mother of two. “I’m doing everything I can to make sure it happens for my kids.”

Belmonte was hardly confident those ambitions would be fulfilled by her neighborhood schools in Pleasant Grove. Her daughter Anna, now 14 and beginning ninth grade, “would bring home 100s all the time,” she says. “I was proud, but I thought she wasn’t being challenged. She’d tell me, ‘I’m the first one to finish. It’s a little boring.’ For me, if you’re getting 100s all the time, something isn’t right.”

So two years ago, she enrolled Anna and her 13-year-old son, Jesus, in Peak Preparatory in East Dallas, a community-based charter school that offers the kind of rigorous academics more commonly found at top private schools. As a publicly funded charter school, Peak does not screen its students or charge tuition. Almost nine out of 10 are eligible for free lunches, state records show, and nearly all are Hispanics and African-Americans from inner-city neighborhoods. Yet before a student can graduate, he or she must have applied to and been accepted by at least one four-year college. Next school year, as Peak graduates its first class, school officials expect to send plenty of students to the state’s major universities and others outside the state. An admissions counselor from Middlebury College, an elite liberal arts school in Vermont, visited Peak in September. “We want to let our kids know those schools are out there. They can reach that high,” says Jacqueline Ray, senior director at Peak.

Peak, which opened in 2004, is one of five schools in Dallas run by the nonprofit Uplift Education, which received national attention after its oldest school, North Hills Preparatory in Irving, began making regular appearances on Newsweek’s annual list of the best 100 public schools in the nation. This year, based on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests, North Hills ranked 18th, three places behind Highland Park High School, despite spending between 35 and 40 percent less per pupil than any other school on the list.

Uplift Chairman Phil Montgomery says top-notch charter schools provide “an incredible value fo the public dollar.”

Uplift and several other standout organizations in the area show the promising side of Texas’ charter school experiment, which state lawmakers launched 13 years ago in an attempt to spur innovation and choice within the bounds of public education. “People with means have always had a choice,” says Rosemary Perlmeter, Uplift’s executive director and founder. Freed from the bureaucracy of a large district, charter schools can pick their staff, set their schedules, and more easily fire underperforming teachers and discipline problem students. Staffed by teachers and administrators who are given freedom to run their classrooms in ways they know work, Uplift schools have attracted considerable support from local and national philanthropists.

“They’re attracted to something as entrepreneurial as creating a new form of public district for kids that don’t have a choice,” says Perlmeter, whose schools currently serve 3,300 students. She expects to expand to 7,400 students at nine campuses by 2012.

Not that all, or even most, Texas charters have been so successful. The image of the failing, if not outright corrupt, charter school is backed up by dozens of examples across the state, many of which were chartered by the Texas Board of Education in 1998. That year, the board granted 109 charters—statewide, the total number is presently capped at 215—and nearly anyone who proposed to serve impoverished students landed one.

Maria Belmonte put her children in Peak charter to challenge them.

“It’s a lot more difficult to run a school than people realized,” says Katie Howell, executive director of the Resource Center for Charter Schools in Corpus Christi. Leaders of failed schools ran the gamut from well-meaning educators who lacked financial and management savvy, to those with weak teaching credentials, to a handful with clear intent to steal and cheat. Lynacre Academy, a southern Dallas school for at-risk children, was the most recent member of the 1998 schools to fail. When it closed its doors in January, the school, which had 73 students at the time, owed the state nearly $750,000 after years of inflating attendance records, which is the primary mechanism through which charter schools receive their public support. Unlike district schools, charter schools do not receive public money for building and maintaining facilities. In addition, charter schools in Texas receive $752 to $3,537 less than the $9,000 per student the state spends on other public schools.

At Peak, students are expected to dress well, behave, and do homework, but they still find time for flag football.

But they are succeeding, sometimes in subtle ways. A 2004 study by Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby showed that charter school students are more likely to be proficient in math and reading than students in the nearest comparable public school. As well, many charter schools in minority and high-poverty areas show even greater achievement gains. An unanticipated effect from this is that parents from neighboring traditional public schools see the strides made by their charter school neighbors, and they demand more accountability and excellence from their school. This peer pressure often results in the traditional public school doing a better job of educating kids.

Uplift now has investment bankers on its board and a $27 million annual budget. But Perlmeter started it with $1,500 and a credit card. Before she opened North Hills Prep, she was a lawyer working as an executive for Zale Corp. “We moved four times in four years, from one ugly warehouse to another,” she says. “We were not pretty, but we thought if we tried to open a great public school, people would come.” By contrast, its second school, Peak Prep, opened in a set of sunny modern buildings tucked behind a tall black fence along Bryan Street, thanks to a $10 million donation from the Dallas-based Communities Foundation of Texas.

Peak and other Uplift schools have eight-and-a-half-hour days, Saturday morning school several times a month, three weeks of classes in the summer, and daily homework that cannot be skipped. Students, who wear blue-and-white uniforms, are given plenty of life lessons as well, in everything from how to deliver a proper handshake to the importance of serving one’s community. In the school pledge, recited every morning, students vow “to do my best this day, to honor myself and others in everything I do. To accept responsibility for my own learning … . For me, mediocrity is not an option. Only excellence will do.”

Perlmeter says Uplift schools are not embarrassed about being so prescriptive. “We have messages we expect kids to get, and we can’t count on them getting them at home,” she says. “On the teaching side, we have them sitting up, looking at the teacher. Often they’ve come from classrooms where there’s been a lot of horsing around, or they know if they just lay low they don’t have to do any work.”

Jacqueline Ray is the senior director at Peak.

Teachers are hired selectively. They must give a demonstration lesson and pass through a battery of interviews. “When I was a principal at a traditional public school, you said you needed a teacher and they sent you one,” says Laura Cobb, Uplift’s chief of schools. “Here we spend a great deal of time identifying the right person, the right hire to fit the school.”

Not very complicated, but it works, say parents who were questioned as they arrived to pick up their students on a recent October afternoon. Maria Hernandez, a 47-year-old housekeeper from Oak Cliff, says her son Simon, now an 11th grader, resisted the small amounts of homework he was asked to do at Raul Quintanilla Middle School, a Dallas district school in North Oak Cliff. “They use different techniques here to keep the students motivated,” she says, describing her son’s two years at Peak. “The amount of homework is much larger, but the amount I have to supervise him is much, much less.”

The novelty of the approach is that there is no novelty, Perlmeter says. “We don’t have an agenda du jour. Education has been full of churning and burning ideas so quickly you can’t tell if they worked. We have a mission, monitor results and look for steady progress.” This year, the Texas Education Agency rated Peak as “recognized,” based on statewide achievement tests.

The work ethic Uplift schools use to bring students up to college prep-level work is also in strong evidence at KIPP Truth Academy, which opened in 2003 in a converted bank building in a South Oak Cliff strip mall. It is Dallas’ first introduction to a nationwide chain of charter schools begun in Houston in 1994 that has proven it can take fifth-graders who have fallen multiple grades behind and have them caught up and advancing by the time they are ready to enter high school.

Between classes on a recent school day, students read books as they walked the halls or stood outside their next class. “They know what we mean when we tell them, ‘Assign yourself,’ ” says Shaniqua Rischer, the school’s director of community outreach and development. Another of the school’s favorites sayings: “There are no shortcuts.”

Principal Steve Colmus says he almost quit teaching after the chaos of teaching eighth-graders in a Milwaukee public school. His peers let the kids talk through class or run in and out of the room, or were so uninterested and beaten down by the school bureaucracy they seemed resigned to poor results.

At KIPP Truth (the acronym stands for “knowledge is power program”), he has the freedom to run the school as he sees fit, but he also must take responsibility for the progress of its 230 students. “They’re not the cream of the crop. You can look from their incoming test scores,” he says. “To get them to where they need to be, we are very deliberate. I tell them we are not preparing you for the city track meet. We are preparing you for the Olympics. We promise we will do whatever it takes over the course of four years so that when you leave us, you will have as many options as possible open to you.” Two classes of students have now completed four years at KIPP Truth, and nearly all have gone on to the Dallas district’s top magnet schools or landed scholarships at private schools such as Greenhill, Hockaday, Jesuit, or boarding schools in the Northeast.

Todd Williams is on the Uplift board. He and his wife, Abby, gave $3 million in 2007 to start up Williams Preparatory, an exemplary-rated school with 90 percent low-income students.

For younger students from disadvantaged backgrounds, Lindsley Park Community School has been the charter school gold standard since it opened nine years ago in a pleasant, oak-shaded church building in the Hollywood/Santa Monica section of East Dallas. The advent of charter schools allowed Terry Ford to expand the success of her East Dallas Community School, a private school charging nominal tuition that she founded 30 years ago on a street so thick with violent gangs that Dallas police officers showed up to warn her about the dangers.

“I see our schools as an answer to that,” Ford says. “The neighborhood is very proud of our schools.” The foundation of Ford’s approach is to start young and get parents involved. Both schools use the Montessori method of teaching, in which children are grouped in broader age groups and classes are less structured and more geared to get the children interested in what they are doing. On a recent morning, Ford led a visitor through Lindsley Park’s collection of vibrant, active classrooms, where kids ages 3 to 9 appeared engrossed in and excited by their work. Although almost half of Ford’s students are not fluent in English when they enroll, 94 percent of her school’s alumni will graduate from high school and 88 percent of those will go on to college, she says. Lindsley Park has a 100 percent passing rate on the state’s reading competency test, which is administered to its oldest students, those in third grade. Presently, about 400 children are on the combined waiting lists of the two schools.

Statewide, 17,000 students are on waiting lists for quality charter schools such these, charter school leaders say. Uplift’s North Hill Prep, which has more students on its waiting list (1,500) than it has students (1,200), has made it an experiment in bad will. In 2007, State Sen. Florence Shapiro, the Plano Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, led a push for legislation that would rein in underperforming charters while it provides, for the first time, facilities funding to charter schools that earn top state ratings. The bill drew opposition from those who see charter schools as competing for money with standard public schools. It also sewed division within charter school ranks about what constitutes a low-performing school.

There are charter schools targeting dropouts or juvenile offenders that are doing a good job of teaching that is not adequately measured by state tests alone, says Perlmeter, the Uplift executive director. “Dropout recovery schools do some of the toughest work in our industry, and their students take the same tests as any other,” she says. “If these kids start five years behind grade, and you bring them up two, which is unheard of, you can still be seen as failing.”

For the Legislature’s 2009 session, Shapiro and others, including a new organization representing a majority of charter schools, are expected to bring a bill that attempts to measure such progress. And they will be pushing again for money and less red tape for top-performing schools that want and need to expand.

Last year, Uplift turned down a $1 million grant for operating money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation because Uplift doesn’t have the budget to add high school classrooms, Perlmeter says. Besides being among the most accountable public schools in the state because parents vote for them with their kids, they are also a bargain, leveraging tax dollars with grants from reform-minded advocates of great schools.