If 17-year-old Ayanna Thomas is at all representative of the student body at Raines, the school should be in excellent standing when FCAT scores are released. Thomas is a high-academic achiever who participates in Raines’ rigorous Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) program, which is similar to the very demanding International Baccalaureate (IB) Program. She’s a motivated student whose initiative earned her a spot on the Superintendent’s Leadership Academy, a county-wide student board, this year.
But the reality is that Thomas’ school may not collectively ace the FCAT this year. Raines is one of four schools on the state’s “failure” list, and all four face conversion to semi-private status if they don’t make the grade.
The Duval County School Board voted recently to turn an advisory board initially created to aid the schools, Duval Partners for Excellent Education, into an “education management organization,” or EMO. That transformation sparked a protest march last month led by Thomas and her fellow student leader from Raines, Darius Masline (bit.ly/Raines_stu_protest). The students are to be commended for speaking out on behalf of their school, and education advocates (myself included) share their concerns about an EMO takeover of the school.
But there aren’t good alternatives. Schools earning an “F” four out of six years are subject to a menu of state-mandated changes. None of the state options appealed to the communities surrounding the four schools, or, for that matter, to the Duval County School Board. But the law said “choose one.” The options were: close the schools and disperse the students, bring in charter organizations to run them, or bring in EMOs.
Duval weighed closing and reopening the schools in order to satisfy the community’s desire to retain them, but would have lost critical government grant monies under that scenario. Instead, the School Board chose to transform a well-formed nonprofit advisory board into a well-formed nonprofit EMO. And it chose wisely. By putting a local EMO in place, rather than hire an outside for-profit EMO like CharterSchoolsUSA, or some other national profiteering franchise, the School Board helps ensure some measure of local control will prevail. The “advisory committee” that the board selected as its EMO includes some of the biggest names in education in Jacksonville, eminent leaders from the Northside community, and business giants willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work (bit.ly/Duval_Partn_Ppl). Every EMO has to start somewhere, and the board selected one with deep roots in the community, with members who care about Northside students, with professional educators, and local business leaders. These are folks who understand Jacksonville’s history, who are unlikely to pull up stakes and leave when the going gets tough.
This publication has dedicated lots of ink to deconstructing the “choice-and-competition” movement. If vouchers and charters were worlds better for our children, that would be reported first here — but generally speaking, they’re not. Of the dozens that have opened over the years in Jacksonville, many have closed. Of those remaining open, only two seem to hold any promise, and only one of them has earned an “A” on the state’s FCAT-based grading system. According to that metric, charter schools in Jacksonville are mediocre, and one charter could even be found on the county’s failing list. (See “Game Changers,” in Folio Weekly, bit.ly/charterpiece)
There are myriad reasons to dislike privatization: Many reporters have documented that charter schools tend to re-segregate children racially. Also, because charter schools use per-pupil funds allotted by the state, they drain dollars from public schools, which retain their fixed costs.
Just as troubling, however, is the profit motive. Many charter schools are run by Education Management Organizations, and many of these EMOs, in turn, are for-profit corporations. CharterSchoolsUSA, which will open its Baymeadows location this fall in Jacksonville, is a for-profit company run nationally by former conservative think tank guru John Hage. Think tanks like Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future (Hage’s former employer) have worked hard to replace rigorous, peer-reviewed academic research with paid “reports” that service charter school ideology. Profit, not student progress, is the primary motive.
Recently, the St. Petersburg Times reported that only 37 percent of CharterSchoolsUSA’s operations achieved adequate yearly progress, compared to 67 percent of public schools. Despite very mixed research results (see Stanford University’s CREDO study) the Florida Department of Education continues to peddle on charter schools as a panacea for children who attend schools that fall short of the FCAT-based goalposts.
Enter the dilemma of the Duval County School Board – Andrew Jackson High School, Raines, Ribault and Northshore K-8 have been on the state’s radar and the county’s intensive care list for years. The factors in Duval County that compound those schools’ challenges are too numerous and complex to address here. But the students who attend those schools need to be served, regardless of how the schools got to this point. This year’s FCAT results will determine whether or not they stay open as they are, or whether they undergo the state-mandated transformation.
Duval was backed into a corner: Northside community stakeholders, families and alumni brought pressure on school board members — the community clearly wants these neighborhood institutions to remain open. Meanwhile, the state Department of Education was breathing down the board’s neck, requiring it to pick on of the (insufficient) three choices. The creation of the advisory board was forged in the spirit of compromise and includes all the right ingredients for leading the schools to success — should any of those schools fail to make the grade this year. But holding on to the advisory board structure risked legal failure, and risked diverting attention from away from serving kids to protracted litigation.
The school board was right to take it to the next step: they gave discretionary hiring power to a group of qualified local citizens instead of to a predatory national EMO with a questionable record of success. Opponents of the move — including our esteemed student leaders — should be afforded a seat at the table with the Duval Partners in order to hash out exactly how the contingency-EMO would work, if needed. Here’s hoping the schools make the grade — and that the plan remains only a theoretical contingency. – Julie Delegal
(Courtesy of Folio Weekly)
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