Mary Sanchez

Questions of accountability and fairness remain after charter school’s reprieve

Updated: 2013-05-23T05:11:35Z

By Mary Sanchez

The Kansas City Star

The lofty promise that is Gordon Parks Elementary School has won a reprieve, at least temporarily.

A Hail Mary effort to save the school came through Tuesday when a judge granted an injunction against the state’s order that the school shut down Wednesday.

The decision by the State Board of Education last week was punitive, even cruel for its timing for the students. But the lessons, the unanswered questions floating in the aftermath are for adults.

Gordon Parks’ dilemma raises the question of how to fairly hold charter schools accountable, given that many of them seek to serve disadvantaged students who often enroll performing below grade level.

Poverty cannot become an excuse for underachievement. But its power to undermine can’t be ignored either.

The state did not fairly assess Gordon Parks. It’s a problem of process, one that can be addressed if the State Board of Education, charter schools and their sponsors can come to some new understandings. The state is now holding charter schools far more accountable than in the past, a welcome move, if done fairly.

Gordon Parks reached this point in a perfect storm of circumstances, some in its control, others less so.

Anyone who still naively believes that charter schools will easily rectify all that ails urban public education should study the history of Gordon Parks.

“There has to be some equity in how we look at these schools,” said Douglas Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association. “You can’t compare a single school to a district.”

Yet that is the process now.

Charters operate with public tax dollars, but through a sponsoring charter. The University of Central Missouri is the sponsor for Gordon Parks and eight of the other charter schools among the 25 operating in Kansas City.

When that state board notes that a school like Gordon Parks is testing far below others in the Kansas City school district, here is what happens: The state compares the average scores of the entire district — combining those of outstanding, high-scoring schools like Lincoln College Prep along with its lower-performing schools — against the scores of one charter school.

It’s apples to oranges. Especially when the time-intense and costly interventions necessary for at-risk children are considered.

Nearly 82 percent of the children enrolled in Kansas City’s charter schools in 2011-2012 qualified for free or reduced lunch, Thaman said. At Gordon Parks, that disadvantaged population is even higher, 98 percent.

Also not taken into account by the state’s decision was a different set of more recent tests showing that Gordon Parks students were making headway from their scores of last year. Nor was the fact that the school was one year into a $1.5 million school improvement grant to help turn things around.

Under the law that allows charter schools, a charter that is in compliance with its contract cannot be shut down. But the state board can go after its sponsor, alleging problems in management. That is what happened with Gordon Parks, which some consider a loophole that should be looked at more closely.

“We feel we followed those duties and responsibilities, but DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) informed us that the test scores were the reason,” said Vici Hughes, director of the Midwest Center for Charter Schools and Urban Education within the University of Central Missouri.

A consultant hired by Gordon Parks’ board assessed the school in March, outlining far more problems than strengths. Yet he also wrote a detailed letter to state officials supporting renewal of its charter, noting improvements in test scores, as well as administrative and instructional changes.

“There are still challenges at GPES, but they are moving in the right direction,” the letter said and then went on to plead that the stability of the students also needed to be considered.

The school was struggling to rebuild after losing half of its staff more than a year ago to a new charter that opened.

The balance, of course, is determining how much leeway charters can have to get students up to grade level, much less make them proficient or advanced in their learning.

Gordon Parks is a special place. The warmth and loving embrace around its students and their families is palpable.

Five full-time special education teachers were at work, specializing in speech, hearing and a range of other needs that were not unusual at Gordon Parks. So many kindergartners were developmentally behind that a special program was designed to catch them up before they could take on work normally required of a 6-year-old.

Impressed by that commitment, Kansas Citians and major foundations embraced the school with funding. The school received a total of $7.5 million in community support.

Kansas City believed in Gordon Parks’ purpose. As volunteers and donors, people latched on to the hope that given the right supports, disadvantaged children can achieve at levels equal to or surpassing other children. That’s a virtue that is not open to measure.

Gordon Parks set out to upend generational poverty through education.

But maybe it is state leaders who need to understand that generational poverty is far different from situational poverty. It’s different from being temporarily at odds because of a job loss, a divorce, an illness or accident that might set a family’s finances ajar.

Generational poverty grinds into families. It undermines positive social connections and a focus on the long term that is the luxury of families who aren’t worried about when the lights might be shut off for nonpayment, when their belongings will land on the curb because the rent money is short again. In some families, a steady stream of undereducated adults ruthlessly cuts into the stability that should belong to every child.

These are the children who were the focus of Gordon Parks.

Back when charters were first introduced in Missouri in 1999, having such a lofty mission was enough. Oversight was slight.

That has evolved for good reason, with the public, the governor, charter schools and their sponsors welcoming more accountability.

What we need now is a measure of fairness, too.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to msanchez@kcstar.com.

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