by Leslie Layton
Chico Country Day School’s classroom No. 22 was hopping on a spring morning with 29 fourth-graders on the cusp of greatness. Regan had opened the world’s largest orphanage, Morgen had found a cure for malaria and Alex was a “record-breaking lawyer.”
The charter-school students were completing an assignment that required they imagine themselves 30 years in the future as Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Each student was putting together an issue of the magazine honoring his or her future self.
One mile to the east, at Chico’s most diverse public school, fourth-graders at Chapman Elementary were also tackling a hands-on project, but theirs was a fourth-grade ritual, one performed for decades. Each student was building a cardboard model of a California mission he or she had selected and researched.
Both Chico Country and Chapman are public schools running on taxpayer dollars in south Chico. Their differences go beyond the matter of structure – Chapman is a traditional school – and illustrate how the charter movement may re-shape public education by increasing segregation based on class, ethnicity and even ability.
Take a look at the numbers. At Chico Country, less than 1 percent of the student body is comprised of Latinos learning English as a second language. (There were five last spring, up from two the previous year.) The school serves free and reduced-price meals to 125 children (25 percent of the student body qualifies.)
At Chapman Elementary, 52 percent of the students are Latino and Hmong children learning English as a second language. Federal guidelines qualify 92 percent of the students for subsidized meals. “For some of these kids, these are the two meals a day they get,” said Principal Ted Sullivan as he supervised breakfast.
Chico Country doesn’t come close to matching the demographics of the Chico Unified School District, while Chapman, located in low-income Chapmantown, serves a large number of the district’s English learners and disadvantaged students.
Class and ethnic segregation were occurring in school districts long before charter schools appeared, but a UCLA study shows the charter movement worsening the racial, ethnic and class divide in most of the country. And the high number of white students enrolling in Chico-area charter schools was a trend seen throughout California and even the western United States in the study “Choice Without Equity” released last February.
The study shows that in Butte County, white students made up 81 percent of the 2008 charter-school population and only 67 percent of the traditional-school population.
“We found that charters were acting as havens for white students,” said Research Associate Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a co-author of the study at the School of Education’s Civil Rights Project. The study brands the charter movement a “civil rights failure,” in part because of what authors sometimes call “white-flight.”
In Chico, the contrasts in class and culture at Chapman and Chico Country are at the heart of the charter-school divide. Throughout the Chico Unified School District, teachers and parents worry that many of the 10 local charter schools are “skimming” – attracting students who are the best prepared and who have parents who can help in the classroom and in raising funds.
Probably most media-consuming Americans are by now familiar with the charter-school fairy tale — the inner-city school rescuing impoverished kids and opening doors to opportunity. But those schools aren’t the norm, and the charter movement, like any sweeping reform, is grounded in a mix of realities and myths.
The 1992 charter-school law was designed to foster innovation, choice and competition by giving the schools the freedom to operate much like private schools. But how competition will improve education for the majority of Chico kids is unclear. Chico Unified serves 82 percent of the district’s students, including those who are most challenging and expensive – most disabled children, English-language learners and students with behavioral problems.
English learners are vastly under-represented at all but one of 10 charters — Nord Country School, located in a farming community on the outskirts of town.
“I do worry that if the trend were to continue, taken to the illogical extreme, one could see where we would be Chico Unified EL [English learners]/Special Ed,” said Bob Feaster, CUSD assistant superintendent of human resources. “In [terms of] diverse groups, we’re kind of going backwards to the old, ’50s, let’s-have-separate-but-equal.”
Added CUSD Superintendent Kelly Staley: “But not equal.”
In a recent interview, Feaster and Staley discussed the inequities in the 1992 charter-school legislation that make it tough for traditional schools to compete with charters. Charter schools can disregard much of the state education code, sidestep union contracts and spend more of their funding any way they wish.
Most Chico charters promote a mission or philosophy attracting a particular demographic. A sophisticated parent can shop for a school that specializes in Montessori or Waldorf or sustainability. And it takes know-how; you won’t find any local agency offering a complete list of public-school options. You hear about them from newspaper, radio, television and movie theatre ads as if schools were breakfast cereal.
For children of parents who don’t own a good car (for transportation), who don’t have the skill and knowledge to shop for a school, or who don’t have the will to cross cultural barriers, school choice is a myth. The parent-volunteer requirements that have been adopted by many charter schools around the country are also a barrier to low-income families, said Siegel-Hawley.
Chico Country Day School (CCDS), the city’s largest charter, provides themed, interdisciplinary education. But it also expects parents to volunteer 50 hours a year at the school.
Teacher Susie Bower is Chico Country’s “Integrated Thematic Instruction” guru. She said she designed the Time magazine assignment to tie in with a class theme of “citizen responsibilities.” But the assignment also provided her students an opportunity to imagine themselves as leaders in a field of their choice.
Fourth-grader Regan paused to consider a reporter’s question. “I’ve learned that really, if you want, you can be whatever… you can open a big orphanage…,” she said. Then, smiling coyly as if she knew she was about to utter a cliché, Regan added, “The sky’s the limit.”
Perception or Problem
Like most successful charter schools, Chico Country has mythic qualities. The school doles out available slots in a lottery that inevitably drives some parents to elation or tears. Its test scores reflect a strong curriculum and contribute to its reputation for academic rigor – even though it’s out-performed on standardized testing by a traditional public school, Shasta Elementary.
Chico Country parents chafe at the perception that their sky-is-the-limit school is exclusive. “I get a little defensive when I hear us called ‘privileged,'” said Shayne Law, president of the parent-teachers organization. “Everyone has the same option. You don’t see Mercedes in the parking lot.”
All Chico parents have the same option Law had – if they know how to enter the lottery and can volunteer. Preference is given to children of staff and siblings of students for the 542 slots. Then, for about 28 remaining kindergarten slots, CCDS runs a lottery on a day that is the hardest of his year, said Principal Paul Weber. About 200 kids end up on the waiting list.
But while parents may not see themselves as privileged, many outside the school do. The charter school’s 15-member board of directors includes prominent Chicoans – a former police chief, business owners, professors, attorneys.
Chico’s Angela Lopez stumbled upon Chico Country while searching for a new school for her son, who until the middle of the last school year was a Chapman fifth-grader. But the boy was having trouble with another student, and eventually came home with a minor knife wound to his arm.
She had often walked by Chico Country, which is four blocks from her house. “I always thought, ‘That looks like a nice school,'” she said. She asked about transferring her son there. There was a mid-year opening and the boy was admitted.
At first her son complained there were only a couple of other Hispanic kids at the school, Lopez said, but then he adjusted. She said he’s with “rich kids” who seem nice. A single parent of eight children, she hasn’t yet been able to fulfill the volunteer requirement, but considers herself fortunate.
Latino parents are largely unaware of charter-school options, she said. “They live by a school and want their children to go there because it’s close. I’m really happy I found out about that school.”
The earliest charter proponents wanted to give parents like Lopez a choice in schools. Charters, they thought, could help close the achievement gap, particularly in large cities where inner-city schools were failing impoverished communities. In the 1980s, the charter movement gained traction as conservatives saw a chance to weaken powerful teachers unions and bring deregulation to public education.
The result is a charter law that states there should be “expanded learning experiences” for the “academically low-achieving,” but doesn’t provide an enforcement mechanism to the school districts that authorize charters. State law says charter schools should plan to reflect the diversity of the district authorizing their charters.
Last winter, Chico Unified asked Chico Country for a “stronger commitment” to increasing diversity after the charter school petitioned to renew its charter and open a high school, according to a CUSD report. Chico Country re-submitted its charter petition with several new measures aimed at diversifying its lottery pool. The charter school said that within the next two years, it will hire a bilingual outreach coordinator.
The ability of charter schools to limit their size and control their make-up – while public schools must accept everyone who walks in the door — is one of the wedges that divide communities like Chico. Weber dismissed rumors that charter schools sometimes screen out difficult-to-serve students by re-directing them, and described the selection process parents themselves go through.
“We tend to get parents who are a little more active,” Weber said. “Everybody looks at a school in terms of whether it’s a good fit for them. Someone who comes in and says, ‘I want diversity’ might feel they can’t get what they’re looking for here, whereas someone who values art and music might like [the school].”
Perhaps because they’ve slashed salary costs, charters often offer electives, smaller classes and teacher training. Chico Country says its pay scale mirrors that of Chico Unified, but the cost of a teacher, in salary and benefits, is on average $20,000 less. CUSD — either because it has many older teachers and/or a superior benefits package — spends an average $85,000 per teacher.
As the school district works to stave off insolvency, it’s increasing class size, cutting electives and laying off teachers. It’s lost more than 1,900 students in the past 12 years, costing it millions in state funding. CUSD wants its 586 teachers to take a pay cut, but negotiations with the union are stalled.
Parents like mom Jeanne Greene face the kind of stark choice — diversity or electives — described by Weber. Greene chose a non-charter school for her daughter, Rosedale Elementary, because it offers Spanish Two-Way Immersion, and with that program, a second language and diversity. Some of her friends send their children to Chico Country.
“They have great programs, great test scores, and all the extras, like music and art,” Greene said of the charter. “And when you get your kid in through the lottery, it really is like winning the lottery; that’s how they perceive it. But it’s white-, white-, white-bread America. It’s so skewed ethnically and racially it doesn’t represent the population, not even of this city.”
For years, Chico Country distributed fliers in Spanish and Hmong, and recently began setting aside some lottery preferences for the diverse Barber Neighborhood where it’s located. Weber pointed out that by law, the school can’t give preferences based on race or ethnicity.
Research on charters has shown mixed results, that some are great and some are terrible. Yet both the Obama Administration and the state are under the charter-school spell. An indication is the amount of money poured into charter-school planning grants. The California Department of Education awarded more than $48.5 million in federal funds to 101 new schools during the last fiscal year, according to its website.
With four new charter schools opening this month in Chico, competition amongst schools for the students who bring in per-pupil state funding is fierce. The new Chico Green School promised each student who enrolled an Apple iPad reader, and said it would be one of only five schools in the nation to base its curriculum on digital materials.
By segregating students, whether or not it’s intentional, charter schools can more easily adapt their curriculums to student needs.
Principal Weber has been working on a petition for a new charter school based at Chico’s Boys & Girls Club called PACE — Partnership to Advance Community Education. The plan is to take strategies that have been successful at Chico Country, but tweak the program for students who may have different academic needs and parents who work long hours.
The club, Weber said, offers a chance to develop a program that has “more emphasis on basic skills and tutoring during an extended school day. The way we work with parents would be different, too.”
Weber responded to critics who say that school segregation by academic level is disadvantageous, particularly to students who are struggling.
“You can’t teach everybody the same way,” Weber said. “I don’t know the answer, but I do know that it doesn’t do anybody any good to have Jimmy and Sally — who have really different needs — in the same room. Wouldn’t it make sense that you’d develop different programs?”
Chico Unified teacher Ron Pope, who has co-founded an internal charter school that is opening this week, might disagree. He recalled a class he taught at Chico High School in which students were asked to present personal history projects. A Hmong student told how her family had spent years in a refugee camp awaiting the American help that had been promised during the Vietnam War.
Pope said: “Not one of these [white] kids knew any of that history. Can you imagine the difference in the way they looked at Hmong students after that? They had just seen them as a bunch of Asian kids. I don’t want to be part of tiered education; I believe we need to make public education work, but I’ve been frustrated that we find change so difficult.”
The district’s charter high school, Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, will have some of the freedom that independent charter schools enjoy without competing directly with CUSD for students and funding. Pope has promoted the school on Spanish and Hmong-language programs on community radio in an effort to recruit a diverse student body.
Pope said that enrolling a large number of students from families that don’t have access to much information about charter schools will require time and work.
All the new charter schools have pledged to recruit students from minority communities, and Sherwood Montessori said it was reaching out to disabled students. But civil rights advocates like Siegel-Hawley are calling for more leadership at both the state and federal levels. She says that perhaps charter schools should be required to provide transportation, and that because they’re not neighborhood based, they could in fact become an instrument of integration.
“There’s been no guidance from the federal government since the Clinton Administration,” Siegel-Hawley said. “There’s a lack of leadership at all levels. We see charters as a possible tool for promoting diversity.”
Charter schools have helped bring innovation to a segment of Chico’s public-school students. But the free-market competition that would make all schools better is turning out to be a piece of the charter-school fairy tale; competition doesn’t breed collaboration, and schools are chasing a shrinking pot of money.
Pope’s story of his student’s presentation brings to mind the lessons of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. In striking down race-based segregation, the court said separate schools don’t provide equal access to opportunity. Fifty-six years later, instead of ensuring that all children have environmental education, electives and diversity, we ask parents to choose.
This story was made possible by an education beat fellowship from New America Media, and produced in partnership with the Chico News & Review.