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Four low-performing state charter schools turn to APS


Health Leadership High School is one of four charter schools that face closure if APS decides not to reauthorize them. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Four low-performing state charter schools are seeking reauthorization from Albuquerque Public Schools after learning that the New Mexico Public Education Department “would likely be recommending non-renewal” – essentially advising they be shut down – according to PED documents.

Architecture Construction and Engineering Leadership High School, Health Leadership High School, Technology Leadership High School and Academy of Trades & Technology – all in Albuquerque – have earned a string of D and F grades from the PED.

Fewer than 5 percent of their students are proficient in reading or math, and they have made “little or no progress in addressing academic performance concerns,” PED documents say.

PED Secretary-designate Chris Ruszkowski said the schools are “jumping ship” because they believe APS will go easier on them.

“If you don’t like Mom, you go to Dad,” he said.

The APS Board of Education is scheduled to vote on whether to accept the four schools in mid-December.

Joseph Escobedo, APS charter school director, said his staff has not completed its reviews, so there is not yet a recommendation for the board.

APS already authorizes Siembra Leadership High School, which is part of the Leadership High School Network that includes the state-chartered ACE Leadership High, Health Leadership High and Technology Leadership High.

Ruszkowski said low-performing charter schools, like the Leadership Network and Academy of Trades & Technology, should not be allowed to remain open because they “weaken” the entire charter school sector and add fuel to the argument that charters are no better than their traditional counterparts and are failing the students they serve.

But the four schools’ leaders disagree with that characterization.

Dick Winterbottom, vice president of the Academy of Trades & Technology governing board, said his high school serves kids who have failed in mainstream classrooms and need another option.

Many of the 81 students who are currently enrolled entered ninth or 10th grade with reading proficiency levels between third and fifth grades.

They probably would drop out altogether without the Academy of Trades & Technology, Winterbottom said.

“We are serving the lowest-performing students in the state that is 49th in the nation for education,” he said. “We want to give them a second chance, perhaps a last chance, to succeed.”

Rigorous reviews

Under New Mexico law, school districts and the state Public Education Commission have the authority to grant school charters. The schools decide where they want to apply.

The PED makes recommendations regarding those that apply for state charters, and the state commission – a body of 10 elected officials from across the state – can vote to follow the PED’s recommendations or not.

Similarly, APS’ charter school experts conduct reviews of their applications and make recommendations to the school board, which has the final say on charter schools.

Unlike traditional schools, charters manage their own day-to-day operations, though they can have their charters revoked if they fail to meet performance targets stipulated by the chartering organization.

Escobedo said APS supports high-quality charters and puts all applicants through a rigorous review process that adheres to national best practices, including site visits by a six-member team.

“I feel strongly that we are improving our authorizing practices to be in line with those national standards, and I really look forward to working with the PED and the Public Education Commission in the future, so we all have similar thoughts,” he said.

Tori Stephens-Shauger, ACE Leadership High School executive director and principal, said she would like her school to be authorized by APS because the district would provide more support than she has seen from the state.

“We need to collaborate on telling the story of how our kids are successful, instead of penalizing and making threats about licensure or closure or what have you,” she said. “That doesn’t get you anywhere.”

Stephens-Shauger argued that the PED emphasizes test scores and school grades, while neglecting other measures of success.

ACE Leadership students certainly should push themselves to reach proficiency in reading, writing and math, Stephens-Shauger said, but they also need to work on social-emotional learning and basic life skills.

Despite the school’s poor grades and test scores, Stephens-Shauger said she has received positive feedback about her students from employers and the community.

The Leadership Network serves roughly 900 students who generally have struggled with traditional coursework. The schools offer project-based learning focused on career fields like nursing, construction and technology.

Like Winterbottom, New Mexico Center for School Leadership executive director Tony Monfiletto believes his schools fill a valuable niche.

“The city can’t afford to have those kids out of school,” he said. “You see it every day as you walk around the city – kids that have nowhere to go.”

Kids aren’t re-engaged

But Katie Poulos, director of the PED’s charter school division, said the sad fact is that low-performing charter schools simply aren’t serving their students.

And even when they are compared to other schools with similar high-risk populations, the four charter high schools seeking APS reauthorization are falling short, Poulos said.

“That’s how they are identified as failing the students that they are serving – it’s in comparison to similarly situated students,” she said. “It’s clear to me that they are not doing what they said, which is change the trajectory for these students.”

Besides the low test scores, the Leadership Network schools have a variety of struggles, Poulos said.

They typically lose 30 percent to 40 percent of their students during the school year and 60 percent between school years. And when Technology Leadership High first opened, about 60 percent of its students were absent on any given day. The absence rate improved to 12  percent at the end of the school’s second year in operation in spring 2016.

These schools also have poor supports for high-needs groups like English language learners and special education students, according to PED reviews.

“That school report card really does reflect what we see in the schools,” Poulos said. “When we dig into the data … that data shows us that these kids aren’t getting re-engaged. That environment is kind of failing them in the same way as every other school that failed them.”

Ruszkowski argues that students enrolled in the Leadership Network schools and Academy of Trades & Technology deserve a better education that will give them a stronger start in college or careers.

Should APS choose not to accept the schools, they will have to return to the commission for charter reauthorization. Without the commission’s backing, they would all by shuttered at the end of the academic year.

“Our site visits to these schools are pretty strong indictments of their poor culture and poor rigor,” Ruszkowski said. “We are serious about accountability, whether it be academic or operational or financial.”