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Study: Charter schools promote segregation, perform worse than traditional schools

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Kindergartners reading with their teacher
Kindergartners at Higher Ground Academy read along with their teacher.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

At Ramsey Fine Arts Center in south Minneapolis, sixth graders have been putting the finishing touches on a new mural this week.  The artwork depicts students of different colors and backgrounds joining hands under the Minneapolis and St. Paul skylines.

Students work on a mural
Students at Ramsey International Arts Center in Minneapolis put the finishing touches on a new mural that's called "Understanding and Expressing Identity."
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"This was my idea, this flag right here," noted one student, pointing to a Jamaican flag.  "My dad and his family are from Jamaica.  So I am mixed with Jamaican."

But if the conclusions of the Institute on Race and Poverty's new report are any indicator, scenes like the one in the mural might be getting rarer in Twin Cities schools.

Looking over a chart on his computer in his crowded office at the U, institute director Myron Orfield points out we've probably heard some of these conclusions before.

"It's all been said before, it's never been said so thoroughly," he says.

Myron Orfield and his research team
Myron Orfield, center, holds a copy of his new report "Failed Promises: Assessing Charter Schools in Twin Cities." His research team includes Baris Gumus-Dawes, left, and Tom Luce, right.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Orfield's research team gathered test scores and other data from all traditional public and charter schools in the Twin Cities.  That other data included poverty measurements, as a way of lining up schools in similar economic situations.

What they found was charter schools performed worse than traditional public schools.

To read the entire report, click here.

The report also looks at schools' racial make-up, and includes a map that plots all metro area charter schools.  It shows segregated schools far outnumber integrated - and in some cases, predominately white schools are surrounded by predominately non-white schools.

To see a map of Twin Cities charter schools, click here.

This is the result of charters locating in poor neighborhoods where kids are having bad experiences in the public schools, Orfield says.

"Parents that have had a bad experience with the public schools will take almost any choice, and they will move to the charter school.  This will pull enrollment out of the public school, so you have two schools racing towards more segregated schools - and both types of schools are doing badly," he says.

That's not to say there shouldn't be a challenge to public schools to force them to do better, there should, says Orfield.  The problem is the current roster of charter schools isn't it.

One of the schools that Orfield's report would probably consider as 'doing badly' is the Community School of Excellence in St. Paul.

Students practice a song forthe Hmong New Year
Students at Community School of Excellence gather to practice a song for the Hmong New Year, which is next month.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Sixth and 7th graders at the school have been learning a song this week for the Hmong New Year, which is next month.  The Community School is high-poverty, almost entirely Hmong, and its students scored poorly on last year's standardized tests.  But the kids love the school, according to principal Mo Chang.

"[They] don't want to leave here on Friday, they want to be here," she added.  Chang used to work for the St. Paul school district before founding this school, which opened last year.   

She shares last year's low test scores with parents, and the parents accept them, Chang says.

After all, many of these children came to the U.S. less than four years ago, so they're naturally behind.  Parents are more taken with the Hmong art that hangs on the walls, the front office receptionist who can speak Hmong, and the fact that Chang gives all parents her personal cell phone number.

"With the number of parents I talk to, they put the issues of 'welcoming' and 'comfort' ahead of education.  And you would think it the other way, but I can understand because if your kids don't feel comfortable in a setting, how do you expect them to learn?  And we just hope that we can do that very well."

It's also crucial to note a key difference between historic segregation and the perception that schools like hers are segregated: Parents choose to send their kids to Chang's school.  Enrollment doubled after last year to more than 300, even with parents who were fully aware of the low test scores.

Just one mile to the south, kindergartners at Higher Ground Academy were reading from a book with their teacher.

Bill Wilson, principal at Higher Ground Academy
Bill Wilson, principal at Higher Ground Academy.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The school is in an old printing factory and, like the Hmong school, is very high poverty and predominately non-white.

But principal Bill Wilson cautions against calling this a segregated setting, even though all the kids are students of color.

"We have a diverse group of children here - predominately Somali and Oromo children," Wilson said, in his office.  "We also have African-American children but they all appear to be of one color.  But even within color there's a range of colors."

Wilson wonders why schools like his are perceived to be bad while there are plenty of all-white schools in rural Minnesota that don't carry the same stigma.  In some cases, Wilson says, he's holding his students to higher standards.  No one at Higher Ground can graduate 12th grade unless they've been accepted to a college or university.

"I hold the diploma in one hand, and they have a letter of acceptance in the other, and we do an exchange at the graduation ceremony - it's that simple."

As for whether segregated charters make traditional public schools more segregated, Yusef Mgeni isn't so sure.

He's the director of Educational Equity at St. Paul Public Schools, as well as the district's charter school liason.  He says there are definitely more single-focused programs and schools. St. Paul has a French immersion school, an American Indian immersion program and its own Hmong Magnet School.  But there's a difference between integrated and inclusive, Mgeni says.

"It's a little bit more than simply having two students sit across the aisle from each other in desks and assume that, somehow through osmosis, integration would occur and the kids will link arms and sing 'We Shall Overcome,' he said, in an interview.

"We're trying to promote a greater appreciation of the culture of all students."

That means, among other things, making sure the books in a class weren't all written by white guys.

It's those immeasurables that charter school supporters say aren't included when research tries to determine success.  But they aren't used to measure the success of public schools, either, and in an era of standards and rankings from the No Child Left Behind law, there has to be some scientific model to get close.  Orfield says his is as thorough an attempt to do that.  

Even Myron Orfield and his researchers admit a better way to study would be to follow individual students from year to year, but those kinds of data aren't available widespread.