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Uncommon school: A successful new Columbus charter is as extraordinary as it is rare

Students in class at Columbus Collegiate
Students in class at Columbus Collegiate
Buildingexcellentschools.org

Wearing khaki pants and matching blue polo shirts, the line of sixth and seventh graders stood remarkably, almost eerily still. John Dues, co-director of Columbus Collegiate Academy, faced the students with an expression that a visitor might find threatening. The kids seemed unbothered.

A few minutes earlier, during lunch, Dues had sat on a table at the front of the makeshift cafeteria facing several rows of children, some reading or solving problems on worksheets, milk cartons in one hand and pencils in the other, some children talking, but in subdued, library-level voices.

Without warning Dues stood and began counting. With each number (“one…two…three”) students performed a discreet action (stand…push in chair…discard trash and get in line). These three numbers were the only instructions that Dues, the lone adult in the room, needed to give. Suddenly, magically, they were silent and in line, waiting for a few students who, without provocation, were collecting the handful of wrappers and baggies left on the tables. The cafeteria spotless, the students soundless, Dues directed the children back to their classrooms.

Columbus Collegiate Academy, a small charter middle school squeezed inside the Seventh Avenue Community Baptist Church in Weinland Park near downtown Columbus, taught its first cohort of sixth-grade students in 2008. This just happened to be the same school year that KIPP, a network of charter schools that enjoys an intense, cult-like reverence by many education reformers for its extraordinary success in preparing inner city students for high school and college, was launching its first Ohio school not far from CCA. Not surprisingly, it was the KIPP school that received the bulk of the media’s attention and Columbus bigwigs’ patronage during its opening year. Thus, it came as a surprise to many observers when, at the end of that year, KIPP Journey received the equivalent of a failing grade from the Ohio Department of Education, while CCA students left the majority of their Columbus City Schools peers in the dust.

Since 1992, when the first charter school opened in Minnesota, the advantages and disadvantages of these schools, indeed, their very existence, has been the topic of heated debates nationwide, as all the while the actual number of charters has expanded steadily, to about 5,000 today. Charters are taxpayer funded public schools that are run by independent operators, who make decisions about school structure, hiring, and curriculum outside of the authority of the local public school boards (they have their own individual school boards instead). Any child who enrolls at these schools must be admitted, unless more students apply than there are spots available, in which case a lottery system is implemented. 

Support for charters initially flowed from the political right, who saw in these schools a chance to apply free market principles of competition and consumer choice to the world of education. But before long the charter movement acquired strong backing from many centrist and even progressive reformers, not to mention billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and WalMart’s Walton Family, as well as Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama himself.

That isn’t to say, though, that charters have become any less controversial. Nowhere is this more evident than in Ohio. After taking office in January 2007, Ohio’s Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, proposed a moratorium on new charters. Justifying his move, Governor Strickland told the New York Times that the way charters have been implemented in Ohio has been “shameful,” and that they have been “harmful, very harmful, to Ohio students.” While his effort was blocked by the Republican legislature, the Democratic attorney general, Marc Dann, did sue several failing charters and the legislature did, eventually, pass a bill that restricts new charter schools to the state’s eight largest urban districts or any district that is in academic watch or emergency.

Most dramatically, Ohio has what the National Association for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) calls “the toughest automatic school closure laws in the country.” The rules mandate that any charter elementary or high school that is in academic emergency for three consecutive years be closed; charter middle schools that receive failing grades for just two years in a row must be shut down.

If Columbus Collegiate Academy closes, it won’t be on account of poor performance. The school’s inaugural class did better on the math portion of the Ohio Achievement Assessment than any other Columbus City middle school, and was ranked fourth on the reading portion. But the school attained its stellar results in the face of daunting challenges. Chief among these difficulties has been inadequate funding for the school’s operating and facilities expenses, which Bill Sims, president of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS) says are like an anchor weighing down the school. Funding for Ohio’s charters is based exclusively on enrollment: they receive a set amount of money for each pupil they enroll. However, they don’t have access to funds brought in by local levies or property taxes, nor are they eligible for state facilities funding. As a result, according to some charter school advocates, Ohio’s charters receive up to a third less funding than its traditional public schools. For Columbus Collegiate, this has meant laying off some effective, but unaffordable teachers, seeking private grants (including one from the Walton Family Foundation), and even borrowing $80,000 from the father of CCA founder and co-director, Andy Boy.

The type of budget shortfall that Boy’s school is facing is not particular to CCA, nor is it an act of nature. Across the country, despite the movement’s newfound momentum, there has been a corresponding backlash against charter schools which, on the whole, have varied enormously in quality, with many underperforming or failing outright. In a widely cited study published last year by researchers at Stanford University, it was found that less than a fifth of charter schools performed better than their traditional school counterparts, 46 percent made equivalent academic gains, and a full 37 percent were “significantly worse” than comparable local schools. Ohio’s charter schools have an even worse rate of success than most in the country, with about 60 percent of charters in the urban areas where they’re concentrated receiving failing grades from the state. Hence Governor Strickland and others’ skepticism about charters and the harsh rules they’ve enacted, severely restricting how charters can be opened and funded.

That charter schools could be anything but highly effective is a fact easily forgotten inside Columbus Collegiate. On a recent morning in the classroom of Ben Pacht, who splits his time teaching reading to special needs and general education students, half of the kids in the room hunched over laptops doing individual work, while the other half read aloud from a play, “The Journey to America.” Pacht stopped the reading for a moment to pose a question to the group. As soon as he did, a wave of hands began to flutter in the air. A young man gave an earnest answer, to which Pacht replied, “I’m actually going to disagree.” But instead of calling on someone else to provide the right response, Pacht referred the student to a world map mounted on the wall. Pacht then went on to make a connection to his own ancestors, some of whom had made their own journey to America from Italy. Now the boy got it. After this, I turned around briefly to observe the kids on laptops. By the time I looked back to the front of the room, the group was in the midst of a silent, seamless transition to grammar review (“you have thirty seconds to clear off your desks and turn to page fifty-five.”)

Many in the education field contend that individual teachers, and even schools, are practically incapable of reaching students like those enrolled at CCA, the vast majority of whom are African-American and eligible for free or reduced priced lunch and who entered the school several grade levels behind. Inside CCA’s subdued, office-like classrooms, this notion too is hard to maintain.

So what is the secret of Columbus Collegiate’s swift and extraordinary success? First, it’s a laser-like focus on academics. Enthusiastic adults, uniforms for students, pep rallies, classrooms named for teachers’ alma maters, all of this matters—a lot. But it’s all in service of the real reason that staff and students alike choose to be a part of CCA: to close the crippling academic “achievement gap” that separates inner city, usually minority students like these from their wealthier, usually white peers in the suburbs.  In Ben Pacht’s words, the “feel good, touchy feely fluffy stuff” of false positivity and, ultimately, lowered expectations encountered at many schools is rejected by staff here who “don’t settle for less than the best.” In other words, Pacht continues, CCA has academics “under wraps.”

Practically, this means that students here spend more time in the classroom than kids do in traditional schools. The combined effect of longer school days and an extended school year is that CCA students attend the equivalent of 64 more days of school than their Columbus City Schools peers do. Columbus Collegiate students also take in double class blocks of reading and math each day, receive before and after school tutoring from their instructors, and complete daily homework assignments (which students will tell you is not the norm throughout the city’s public schools). 

Kids here also take a lot of tests. In some buildings, teachers find plenty of reasons to gripe about this: testing takes away from instructional time, it puts unwanted pressure on everybody, the results don’t mean much. But at CCA, like most effective schools, regular assessment combined with focused analysis is a centerpiece of instruction. During their annual four-week summer workshop, teachers and administrators collaborate to turn the state standards—a long list of the specific skills and information that students must master each year—into assessments that will test whether students really got the crucial info. Then, they design a curriculum that will cultivate the required abilities in the students. This system of “backwards planning” not only ensures that students’ energy is applied exclusively to the essentials, but also it guarantees that the assessments teachers give are tied directly to the material that the kids need to know. In an environment like that, tests become teachers’ best friends: they clearly state who knows what, what’s working in class (and what isn’t), and who needs more help in order to stay on track.

One of the other major sources of CCA’s success is palpable from the moment you step into the school’s dim, tranquil lobby. It extends into each classroom, where identical signs illustrate the hand signals students should use for common requests like tissues, pencils, or questions, and where teachers give out individual and class merits and demerits for good or bad behavior. The school’s culture is one of personal and group restraint, with all available energy and attention trained on the urgent task of getting each student prepared, ultimately, for college. Social studies, science, and history teacher Kathryn Anstaett explains that “an aura of professionalism” pervades the school. She and Ben Pacht both agree that the school’s established structure—its clear guidelines for student behavior, instructional practices, and discipline—frees the kids and grownups alike to focus on learning. According to Bill Sims of OAPCS, parents cite a safe, controlled environment as the top attraction of charter schools. Parents, like the teachers at CCA, seem to understand that student learning hinges on classroom order.

The final secret of CCA’s success isn’t really a secret. Well-publicized research, not to mention advocacy by education reform groups like Teach For America and New Leaders for New Schools, have turned what was once just a hunch into an established fact: the people in the main office and at the front of the classroom make all the difference when it comes to student achievement. When asked about the cause of CCA’s remarkable results, Andy Boy instantly replied, “Really awesome teachers.” Then he added, “And I could say that three more times.” 

The quality of his teachers is not something Boy leaves up to chance. During the school’s two years in operation, 750 individuals have applied to teach at CCA. But after the initial screening, only 15 potential instructors have been invited to teach a sample lesson. Once hired, teachers here are expected to, and do, work long hours—sometimes up to seventy a week. They tutor kids outside of class and answer their cell phones when students (and parents) have pressing concerns. In Boy’s words, there is a complete “mission fit” among teachers here: they put in the hours and endure the inevitable ups and downs because they believe whole-heartedly in the project of the school.

Andy Boy himself—aided greatly by the impressive John Dues, who’s in charge of curriculum, instruction, and assessment—is perhaps the single “it-factor” that has contributed most to the success of Columbus Collegiate. Boy was once an award-winning teacher at a prominent Cincinnati charter. But, in an interview with Columbus Monthly, he admitted to almost abandoning education completely after watching the leaders of that school succumb to greed and laziness, depriving many students there of what had been their best chance for a better life. 

However, instead of walking away, Boy decided to create a school of his own. He enrolled in a rigorous training program for aspiring charter school founders, the Boston-based Building Excellent Schools fellowship, studied effective schools from around the country, and designed a school plan of his own. At each stage of the startup process, he has encountered snags: from recruiting donors and students to securing financing and a building. But, so far, Boy has risen to the occasion every time, drawing high praise from observers in the local community, the education and political worlds, and in his own school.


Nevertheless, student enrollment (on which funding is dependent) remains an issue. In addition, it seems clear that the school will soon outgrow the very limited space that the church has to offer. Unbelievably, there is still a chance, according to Bill Sims, that despite a track record that many struggling traditional schools would kill for, CCA may one day have to shut its doors simply due to a lack of funding. 

But for now at least, CCA’s future looks bright. A more pressing question, especially in light of the new consideration being paid to charters, is whether successful schools like Columbus Collegiate can be replicated around the state and around the country. With the four billion dollars of federal education grant money available to states through the Race to the Top competition partially contingent on charter-friendly climates, many states are rushing to remove caps on new charters and beef up oversight on ones that already exist. But exactly how states will ensure that their charters, whether new or old, are good ones, is not so obvious.

Much of the success of high-performing charters like CCA can be attributed to the schools’ small scale; more precisely, to the flexibility that their small size affords them. This sort of nimbleness, which is vital to innovation, can be jeopardized when charters expand along a corporate model. Frederick M. Hess and Monica Higgins, researchers at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, claim that the best charters exhibit a “clan model,” in which highly committed staff members collaborate within a rigidly structured work environment—a la Columbus Collegiate. But, they go on to state, schools like these “are produced by intensely selective hiring and ‘true believer’ cultures that make expansion slow and difficult.” In other words, if you can establish a school like CCA, that school’s likely to do great things. But creating clone schools that work just as well is a different matter entirely.

When it comes to replicating Columbus Collegiate Academy throughout Ohio and beyond, teacher Ben Pacht says he’s not holding his breath. As he sees it, “A lot of people talk. Few people do.” What he, the other teachers at Columbus Collegiate, and Andy Boy and John Dues have done is construct a living model of what’s possible at any school, in any neighborhood. What’s yet to be seen is whether CCA will serve as a blueprint for a new generation of high-flying charters, or if it will remain an exception to the rule.

Comments

  • Katie Fuller 4 years ago

    Excellent article- informative and well written-

  • Craigen 4 years ago

    Very interesting, Patrick. You covered several subjects I care about-- the percentage of Charter Schools that are getting better (or worse) results than public schools in the same area, the "backwards curriculum design" based on constructing quizzes that assess learning particular objectives and then creating lessons to meet those objectives as shown by the quiz. I thought the article has a strong ending with your point that extraordinary success results from extremely strong efforts made by very gifted teachers and leaders, tough to replicate.
    Thanks for giving me the link to your articles.