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I’ve been contemplating this issue for a while and have wanted to write about it, but I’ve finally been motivated into action because of today’s Denver Post article about the lottery at West Denver Prep.

There are some charter programs that I actually like (I know, I know, the “other side” spins me as The Evil Charter Hater). 

One-size-fits-all for poor/minority kids?

I have three nephews that previously attended a Catholic school but who now have gone through a few years at Highline Academy in Southeast Denver and who are thriving.  There are also beautiful programs like Odyssey in Northeast Denver, an experiential program that guides kids along the path of building kids’ skills in critical thinking and finding answers.  I actually like the concept of DSST, which a young cousin-in-law attends.  She seems to be succeeding and fitting in quite well.  I am also a supporter of P.S. 1 in central Denver because they are able to take kids who aren’t properly supported in our comprehensive schools and arm them with some sense of control over their own lives…which is crucial in getting kids back on track.  I also feel pretty good about the new leadership at Southwest Early College.

However, not all charters are the same, and I think many people confuse a high-stakes testing environment with some of these great programs that I’ve delineated above.  I also think that some of the crafty marketing that’s out there, reflected in the Denver Post article, might lead some to believe that “high performance” is the same as “kids with critical thinking skills,” which is not always the case.  Some charters are specifically geared toward getting kids to test well, and I am generally not in support of those types of programs.

I have a real issue with No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  It was legislation that, at its core, operates from the fundamental premise that testing reveals everything you need to know about a kid’s development in school.  It created a situation in which we really did “teach to the test” and in which schools and districts had to become increasingly ruthless in forcing curriculum to cough up results on standardized tests like our CSAP…or lose funding.

NCLB looked at kids from underprivileged backgrounds and said, “we have to force these kids to achieve.”  That, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad philosophy, but it fails to look at the reasons why socioeconomically-disadvantaged kids trip up in the first place.  I think it has lots to do with the difficulties in their lives.  For example, you will hear me state over and over how one of the zip codes in our district, 80219, has the NUMBER ONE rate of foreclosure in all of the state.  At one time it was in the top 10 nationally.  If a kid at Doull Elementary, say, knows they are losing their home, do you think it will have an effect on achievement?

Consider the work, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, by Betty Hart and Todd Risley.  In a nutshell, the work shows us that kids from underprivileged backgrounds start off significantly behind more affluent kids even in just exposure to vocabulary and syntax (grammar).  This is precisely why early childhood education and strong kindergarten programs are so absolutely crucial.  They do a lot to level the playing field and help pre-literate kids start out strong.

If you’re not dealing with root causes and employ corrections, results don’t just shift for no reason.  It’s illogical.

I have been very resistant to approving the placement of certain charters that do not operate from a whole-child philosophy but that instead have a high-stakes, rote- and drill-based style, much like West Denver Prep (WDP).  Physical education or the arts are virtually excluded from the program because, as WDP’s head of school puts it, “there just isn’t enough time.”  Now, there is no doubt that WDP kids score very high on the CSAP and consequently, the schools do well on our School Performance Framework.  But is a high-stakes environment really a good one for all kids?  Apparently not, because of the first class of 6th graders that were selected in 2007 at the South Federal campus, only about half or so made it out the other side in 8th grade. After “washing out,” these kids end up at Kepner or Henry (but the per-pupil funding stays with WDP).  In fairness, I have heard that they have done much better recently with regard to retaining kids, but time will tell.

Further, more affluent or more discriminating parents do not seem to want that type of a program for their own kids.  WDP seems to market exclusively to Spanish-dominant or socioeconomically-deprived families.  In fact, according to the 2009 School Performance Framework, around 94% of all WDP students are “minorities (read: Latino).”  I was canvassing this weekend for a candidate running for state house in the Lake Middle School feeder pattern, and in speaking with a non-Latino, affluent voter, I was told that their Brown Elementary child would be going “out of the district” for middle school and though they had hoped to send him to Lake, it was no longer the school they wanted for their child.

Is WDP to be commended for helping poor/minority kids succeed?  I suppose that if all you care about is a CSAP score, then yes.  In all honesty, they are exceeding expectations over what the district contracted them to do: offer a high-stakes environment for poor/minority kids to test well.  There really is no window dressing we can apply here.  It is what it is.

I wish I could join the bandwagon on these types of programs, but I can’t…not in good conscience.  I believe that every child has the right to a whole-child program and the right supports to keep them at grade-level aptitudes.  I believe that the arts and music and physical education aren’t just nice-to-have “specials,” but rather are integral parts of cognitive development.  As a musician, I know that even with one year of musical instrument instruction, a child’s IQ can go up by as much as 10 points.  When we’re dealing with kids who start out behind in the first place (and we most decidedly are), you would think that this kind of cognitive boost would be the best tool in our toolbox.  I don’t know…maybe I’m just naive.

More to come…