We’re still waiting for Superman here in Charterland

Magicians often use smoke to distract their audience and achieve illusion. The result leaves audiences not only captivated but also mystified. In the film “Waiting for Superman,” charters are held out as the potential saviors of our public school system, despite the fact that nationally, they do no better and often worse than district public schools. (See this study, for example.)

Moreover, because they float outside the normal governance system and are privately managed, terrible charter schools sometimes are allowed to continue, despite poor performance. Too often, their wealthy supporters use their money and their influence to evade accountability. My family’s experience with Ross Global Academy (RGA) charter school is indicative of the problems that often hide behind the smoke and mirrors in Charterland.

Charter schools have been in existence in New York State for over a decade. They appear to offer what every parent wants for their child, which is a private school education at no additional cost. Small class sizes, sciences, arts, and enriched activities are what have drawn countless parents to charters, and me to Ross Global Academy charter school, for my three children.

Ross Global was founded by Courtney Ross in 2006. Ms. Ross is the wealthy widow of the Steve Ross, former head of Time Warner. In Forbes she was recently profiled as “ a role model for the charter school business.” On the school’s board sit many powerful and influential people. The walls of the school are covered with paintings and glossy nature photos, and the children are served gourmet meals with organic vegetables. They take music, dance and Chinese, and start the day with either yoga or t'ai chi. Michael Duffy, the former head of charter schools is quoted in the Forbes article as saying about Courtney Ross, "What she has done is remarkable.”

Yet the reality is quite different. There have been numerous problems with this school, chronicled in magazines and newspapers. NY magazine ran a profile, describing Ms. Ross’ imperious and impulsive leadership style (said one ex-employee, “It was as if Donald Trump were a school principal.” The NY Sun reported on a scandal linked to test tampering.

Even worse, the school has had 20 percent student attrition rate for each of the first three years of its operation. During 2009-2010, the year my children first enrolled, the attrition rate soared even higher. As the NY Post reported, “Village school students take charter flight”, 91 out of 410 students had left RGA by February of 2010, because of bullying and the counseling out of special education students.

There has also been extremely high turnover of teachers, according to the NY state school report cards -- 82% and 75% during the first two years of operation. RGA is currently on its 7th principal in four years! Other teachers and top administrators have vanished, including the assistant principals from the middle and lower schools. Last June, my daughter was on her sixth English teacher of the year.

The teacher turnover rate at charters is very high, both nationally and in NYC. Why should teachers leave in such high numbers if the charters create such ideal environments for teaching and learning?

Last year, our former Principal, Julie Johnson, assured parents that despite the massive turnover of school staff, our children were receiving strong academic support, ensuring that they were on track to succeed on the state exams. We realized only after the release of Ross Global’s scores this summer this could not be further from the truth. RGA performed way below average .. My daughter’s 6th grade class performed horrifically. Only 9% of her class scored at grade level in ELA (the state average is 81%) and only 11% at grade level in math ( the state average is 61%).

Though the grades on the school progress reports are not fully reliable, the lowest score of all was received by Ross Global Charter School. It also received an “F” for environment, based on teacher and parent surveys. I can vouch for the accuracy of those surveys.

I still have not received my children’s individual scores, but due to the dismal scores for the 6th grade, I felt I had no choice but to remove my daughter from RGA’s middle school. I have since placed her in a district public school.

According to the charter lobby and authorizers, there are supposed to be multiple levels of oversight and accountability for charter schools. According to the SUNY charter institute, “When one considers the legislatively mandated oversight of each charter school by its own board of trustees, its charter authorizer, and the New York State Board of Regents…. it becomes clear that accountability is more than a goal for charter schools, it is a non-negotiable requirement. “

Yet where are these multiple levels of oversight when it comes to Ross Global? The school was authorized by NYC Department of Education, and the State Education Department is also supposed to oversee its operation and ensure its performance. Where is their accountability in this fiasco?

Many school leaders and other charter officials will tell parents that if they don’t like the school, they should leave. It is far from easy for parents to simply uproot their children from their schools. I still have two of my children attending the RGA lower school because I believe in choice. I have a special needs child, and I hope that RGA makes the effort to not only to retain my child but educate him. If charters are truly PUBLIC schools, they need to serve ALL students, including the special needs student population.

This is also why I am working with NY Charter Parents Association, an independent organization that supports the improvement and reform of charter schools, because we recognize that involved parents help make GREAT schools. We want to ensure that all charter schools are delivering on their promises to parents.

According to the recent school grades, twice the percentage of charters got failing grades last year than district public schools (8% compared to 4%). Not only the school grades, but also the recent election results show that not all is right in Charterland. The hedge fund moguls, the daily papers, and Education Reform Now and its associated lobbyists all tried to silence the dissenting voice of Senator Bill Perkins, who has been working for more accountable charter schools.

On September 14, 2010, the people of Harlem spoke up, and Senator Perkins won in a landslide, showing that our children and communities cannot be bought. I hope this is a warning to DOE, the charter lobbyists, their funders, and the authorizers, to remember this: it is our children you are supposed to serve.

-- Mariama Sanoh, Vice President of the NY Charter Parents Association
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