Twin Cities charter schools more segregated and underperforming, report says

Harvest Prep
Teacher Loretta Hall teaches language arts to fifth grade students at Harvest Preparatory School in Minneapolis. Test scores for students at Harvest Prep are better than statewide averages in reading and math. A new report from the University of Minnesota however shows that overall, Twin Cities metro area charter schools are underperforming in comparison to traditional public schools.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Charter schools in the Twin Cities metro area underperform academically in comparison to their traditional public counterparts, shows a report released today by University of Minnesota researchers.

The Twin Cities area's 30,000 charter school students score 7.5 percentage points lower on math testing and 4.4 percent lower on reading tests than students at traditional public schools, according to the report from the University of Minnesota Law School's Institute on Race and Poverty.

"If you look at the total group, they're underperforming the public schools significantly and a lot of the ones who are serving the poorest kids are not only doing very badly, but not lasting very long," said Myron Orfield, the institute's director.

But the data doesn't faze charter school advocates who believe their schools provide an important education alternative.

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Many parents see charter schools as an attractive alternative to sending their children to a more traditional school. Charter school officials say parents come to them seeking a quality education, or to get away from other failing schools.

That's what attracts parents to a school like Harvest Prep, a charter school in north Minneapolis. The school and its partner, Seed Academy, have about 1,000 students enrolled in preschool, elementary and middle school. They're predominately poor and African American.

The students there routinely outperform others from across the state, said Eric Mahmoud, the school's CEO and president. He cites Harvest Prep's longer school day and longer school year, combined with a focused and intense curriculum.

"Our students, 77 percent of them last year, were proficient in reading, which beats the state average," Mahmoud said.

He said 82 percent of the school's students were proficient last year in math, which substantially beat the state average of 58 percent.

But Harvest Prep is one of the exceptions to charter school performance in the Twin Cities Metro area, Orfield said.

The report from the Institute on Race and Poverty is an update to one in 2008 which turned up similar results. Titled "Failed Promises," it was critical of charter schools' performance, segregation and financial management.

Eric Mahmoud
Eric Mahmoud is CEO and president of Seed Academy - Harvest Preparatory School in Minneapolis. Mahmoud opened the school in 1985 with 10 students. The school now has over 1,000 students.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said she is concerned when a charter school, or any public school, shows poor performance.

"We have to ensure that students have the highest quality education, and when a school is underperforming, we must intervene," she said.

Cassellius said under Minnesota's recent waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the state Department of Education will be able to more effectively intervene when schools, including charter schools, are underperforming.

Charter schools that underperform academically often have a high number of English language learners in their classrooms, said Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools.

"If English is a second language to you, it's hard to score well if you don't understand the language yet," he said.

University researchers dispute that point, and say even charter schools with very few English as a Learning Language students are underperforming.

Pioccolo would like to see more emphasis on studying the progress individual students make as they navigate their way through a charter school education.

The U of M's report also shows charter schools are becoming more segregated.

"There's a continual rapid growth of charter schools and the single-race white charter schools are growing fast but they're all continuing to grow very fast," Orfield said.

That doesn't worry Mahmoud of Harvest Prep, where 90 percent of students are African American.

"That certainly isn't a problem because we have a high concentration of African American students," he said. "Our data speaks for itself."

The U of M's findings for Twin Cities charter schools are similar to what's happening nationally. A recent report from UCLA showed that charter schools across the nation are becoming more segregated, and they are not performing as well as other public schools.