Results of this spring's student assessment test provided something of a reality check for the charter school movement. Although three of the four charter schools operating in Wilmington did not turn in scores anywhere near what many people thought they would, knowledgeable observers believe they are still on course.

While Charter School of Wilmington 10th graders upheld its reputation as arguably the academically best public high school in the state in the reading, mathematics and writing tests, year-old Edison Charter and Marion T Academy ranked at the bottom among the state's 80 elementary and 52 intermediate schools and the slightly older East Side Charter performed only slightly better.

What does that tell you?

"Charter schools are not a panacea," said Nikki Castle, president of Edison Charter's independent board of directors. "A lot of people thought if their children came in here all their problems were going to be gone. They've found out that we're not a magic bullet."

"That doesn't mean that we haven't made a difference. We're offering a quality education where quality education hasn't been available," she added.

Principal Charles Hughes said that the state test results are not in any sense a disappointment nor a negation of what has been accomplished during the first year.

"No, we're not satisfied. We want to do better and we will do better. But it's going to take time." he said. "For our kids -- and for their parents too -- it has been a major cultural change. We will see over time where they will go."

Charter schools came about, Castle explained, largely because of dissatisfaction in the local business community over the results of a public education as reflected in young employees they hired. "That's what they told us in a survey in 1992. If the same survey were taken today, I don't think you would see a lot of improvement. They're still not satisfied," Castle said.

A charter school is a public school governed to a large extent in the manner of a private school. It is financed indirectly by taxes in that both the state and conventional school districts provide 'tuition' equivalent to the average cost of educating the student in a conventional school.

Its autonomy allows the school to adjust quickly to actual circumstances. "Last year, we started out as theory and assumptions. Now we can identify what is working and what is not working and make changes," she said.

Opening in a completely refurbished George Gray school building in northeast Wilmington, Edison Charter, an affiliate of Edison Schools Corp., a national for-profit company, officially enrolled 834 youngsters in kindergarten through seventh grade last year. By June, that number had fallen to 765 but, with the addition of an eighth grade in the coming academic year, it is looking for about 915.

About two-thirds of last year's enrollment came from city neighborhoods. The others came from throughout New Castle County with several commuting from the Newark and Bear areas.

Except for those with siblings already enrolled, who receive a priority under the state's public school choice law, acceptance for the coming year will be on a first-come basis.

Hughes said that one measure of the school's acceptance in its first year is the fact that more than 85% of the faculty will be returning in September. "That's well below the turnover rate in urban schools nationally," he said. Unlike their colleagues in the conventional districts from which most of them came, Edison teachers are not represented by a union.

Hughes said he is professionally satisfied by his experience during the past year. He formerly worked in the Christina district.

Castle said a further measure of satisfaction is the fact that the Edison building itself has been totally spared any graffiti or vandalism.

While some officials in the conventional public school districts from which the students came considered  the returning students as an indication that the charter movement isn't all it was cracked up to be, Hughes said the exodus was to be expected. There were almost as many reasons for withdrawing as there were youngsters withdrawing. "Discipline, the longer school day, the longer school year, uniforms, the higher expectations we had for them -- that all figured in," he said.

Discipline, he acknowledged, has been a problem. "We have a number of kids who have not embraced our core values yet," he said. Suspensions -- both in and out of school -- were rather numerous, but "we haven't expelled anybody yet," he said.

In large measure, the reason there have been no expulsions is that charter schools do not have access to existing alternative-school placement, but each is legally considered its own school district and students expelled from one district cannot be placed in conventional classes in another district. Anyone expelled from charter school, therefore, is literally out on the street regardless of age. Hughes said an effort will be made to have the General Assembly change that.

Hughes agreed with the state Department of Education that school-by-school comparisons to test scores are not a valid measure of the schools' performance. What counts for more, he said, is measuring improvement both individually and as a group.

It should not be surprising, he explained, to find that only 35% of Edison third graders met or exceeded state reading standards. Using a standardized test last November, the school found 43% came up to that level. Results of an end-of-year test are not yet available.

"Those who came here in the first place were those who were having problems where they were. If you were in a school you like and were doing well, why would you want to transfer?" he said. Moreover, Edison's student population has the state's largest concentration of students identified as being in lower socio-economic straits with some 90% eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

"We take our kids as we find them. Our goal is to bring them to a higher level. That's not going to work for every one," he said. "The important thing is that we offer an option. There are a lot of options in education. They have not generally been available to people who are poor or in the innercity. Our kids have the same rights in education that other kids do. Now they, too, have an option."

Posted on July 9,  2001

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