No Small Feat | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

No Small Feat

Photo by Salgu Wissmath

The students in John Bennetts' second-grade class are being perfect sponges. Bennetts, a teacher at KIPP Delta Elementary Literacy Academy, a charter school in Helena, Ark., is drilling the class on the difference between "explicit information" and "implicit information." His students sit straight up in their chairs, heads forward, forearms crossed on their desks in front of them. KIPP, an acronym for the Knowledge Is Power Program, calls the position "sponge," and students learn it when they first enter kindergarten. Bennetts is reviewing how to draw conclusions, or find implicit information, from a story.

"Explicit information is information that is—" he prompts.

"Right there!" his students chant back, bringing their hands up to pantomime quotation marks, then dropping them back into "sponge."

"When we draw a conclusion, it is information that is—"

"Not right there!" they respond, crossing their arms in an X, drawing the air quotes, then returning their hands to their desks.

Every student wears the KIPP uniform: khaki pants, and either a gray sweatshirt—with the slogan, "Work hard. Be nice!" on the back—or a blue T-shirt, bearing a quote from Richard Steele: "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body." One wall in the room displays vocabulary words with accompanying definitions and illustrations done by the students: "deviate," "anticipate," "abandon," "transport." A pennant from Bennetts' alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus College, hangs by the door.

KIPP is a national network of charter schools, all sharing the same cheery, hard-work and sloganeering style evident in Bennetts' classroom. Its approach pairs high expectations with greater time commitments from teachers and students—in the length of the school day and the school calendar. Founded in 1994, the organization has been remarkably successful in replicating its approach in 20 regions around the country.

In Mississippi, however, what KIPP is doing would be illegal. Mississippi has no law allowing for the creation of charter schools like KIPP, which open by securing a "charter," or agreement with a school district or state educational authority to operate.

What's In A Charter?
Put simply, a charter school is a privately operated school that uses public funds to serve public-school students. Authorities like state departments of education, local school boards or mayors grant a "charter" to a private operator—often, but not always a nonprofit organization—that requires the operator to produce certain results in exchange for a greater degree of autonomy than that given to a traditional public school.

Charter schools often have complete hiring and firing authority over principals and teachers; they can often tweak the school day and calendar; and they usually have broad freedom to innovate curriculum and teaching methods.

KIPP has opened 99 charter schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, all conforming to a strict standard approach. In doing so, the organization has become the gold standard for charter schools because of its replicability—perhaps the most tenacious obstacle to widespread charter-school adoption.

Under KIPP's approach, teachers must commit to an extended school day and nearly round-the-clock accessibility. Teachers give students their cell-phone numbers and encourage evening calls for help with homework assignments. KIPP teachers explicitly instruct students in how to behave during class: how to sit, how to listen, how to ask questions.

Other charter schools take different tacks, however. Some specialize in science and technology; other organize curriculum around ethnic or cultural studies.

The charter-school concept began in the late 1980s as a proposal for allowing teams of teachers to create small, reform-minded schools that would serve as laboratories, devising best practices that traditional public schools could adopt. As education historian Diane Ravitch explained in her 2010 book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," however, that original intent became tangled up with other reform movements based on the principles of school choice, accountability and privatization.

"Charter schools had an undeniable appeal across the political spectrum," Ravitch wrote. "Liberals embraced them as a firewall to stop vouchers (giving students public funds to attend private schools). Conservatives saw them as a means to deregulate public education and create competition for the public education system."

That complex history helps explain why charter schools can have such diverse supporters as President Barack Obama and Mississippi Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant.

What the Studies Say
In addition to the emotional and political arguments that surround charter schools, there's the troubling question of results to contend with. Several recent studies in particular have weighed heavily on the charter debate.

In February of last year, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a study showing that charter schools are more racially segregated than traditional public schools. The report was deliberately provocative: It bore the title "Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards" and referred to schools with 0 to 1 percent white students as "apartheid schools."

The UCLA study compared the racial demographics of charter schools and traditional public schools in six states: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Michigan and North Carolina. It found that minority students who attended charter schools in those states were more likely to be in highly segregated environments than their traditional public-school peers.

The study ignited a round of press coverage but also received substantial pushback from charter proponents who pointed out the study's blind spots. For one, they argued, the study used an imbalanced comparison. The UCLA study compared the public-school demographics of entire states and metropolitan areas to the populations of charter schools—which tend to cluster in urban areas with larger minority populations. The traditional public schools that most charter schools operate alongside are almost equally segregated and minority-heavy.

A more significant report appeared in 2009, when Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes released its National Charter School Study.

A longitudinal study of outcomes for more than 70 percent of the nation's charter school students, the CREDO study essentially found that most charter schools are nothing special.

While 17 percent of charters give their students a better education than they would receive from local public schools—as measured by performance on reading and math tests—almost half of charter schools do not outperform their traditional public school peers, and 37 percent actually perform worse.

Despite the "sobering" big-picture findings, the study found some important trends within those groups. Charter performance varied widely by state. In five states—Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana and Missouri—charter schools significantly outperformed public schools, while in six others, charters performed worse.

Even more dramatically, the CREDO study found that, overall, black and Hispanic students in charters fare worse than in their public-school counterparts. Yet the study also found that for students in poverty and non-native English speakers, charter schools outperformed traditional public schools.

"This is no small feat," the report's authors wrote.

"These populations, then, have been clearly well served by the introduction of charters into the education landscape. These findings are particularly heartening for the charter advocates who target the most challenging educational populations or strive to improve education options in the most difficult communities. Charter schools that are organized around a mission to teach the most economically disadvantaged students in particular seem to have developed expertise in serving these communities."

The Charterless State
Mississippi has yet to grant a single charter. For years, state law had no provision allowing the Mississippi Department of Education to grant charters. Bills in the state Legislature to authorize charter schools meet with stiff opposition from many Democrats. Many African American legislators, especially, have opposed charter legislation, arguing that a challenge to traditional public schools—and the hard-won state dollars that fund them—raises the specter of segregation and the private "segregation" academies that many white students fled to following integration.

State NAACP President Derrick Johnson finds charter schools eerily reminiscent of the white flight from public schools that followed Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

"Dating back as far as 1954, the state has established tuition programs for private academies and has sought ways to divert public funds to support private, segregated academies," Johnson says. "We see the attempt by advocates for charter schools as a means to maintain segregated settings."

Moreover, he says, the messengers trumpeting charter schools are, in some cases, conservatives who are ideologically inclined to support anything that diminishes the power of government and hands over more control to private interests.

Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, who has introduced charter-school legislation in each of the last three years, has also proposed bills attacking federal health-care reform, criminalizing abortion and requiring school districts to spend at least 75 percent of their budgets "for instructional purposes."

While the House remains intransigently opposed to full-bore charter school legislation, the more conservative Senate managed to pass a version of Watson's charter legislation last year. The bill, SB 2293, created two paths for making a charter school.

The first, an "open-enrollment public charter school," was a conventional charter process, with the added option that the state Board of Education could require a petition from interested parents. The second, a "conversion charter school," would require approval from the local school board, a majority of teachers and a majority of parents from a traditional public school.

After going through the wringer of the House Education Committee and a conference committee between the two chambers, however, the bill's final incarnation no longer provided for new, open-enrollment charter schools. Instead, the bill provided for the creation of up to 12 conversion charters in the state from schools that have received the state's "Failing" or "At Risk of Failing" label for three straight years.

House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, has said that he does not plan to approve any major new reform legislation this year. Nevertheless, Brown faces yet another Senate charter-school proposal this year. The Senate passed SB 2774, a repeat of Watson's original bill from last year, on Feb. 8.

The state's conversion charter-school law only went into effect in July 2010, and no school has petitioned the state Board of Education for conversion charter status yet. There are four schools in the state, though, that could provide a glimpse of what a conversion charter could do.

Closing the Gap
At the city limits of tiny Lambert, Miss., a weathered sign reads "Welcome to Lambert: A City of Hope." Signs across the Delta provide a similar optimism, inspirational words that have become increasingly ironic as jobs and people have fled the region over the decades.

Just yards from Lambert's sign, another streaky billboard declares "Quitman County Elementary School: Where Hope Begins and Dreams Come True." Last year, the school was a sobering reminder that slogans cannot do the hard work of education. QCES earned an "At Risk of Failing" designation from the state for its low test scores.

The state grades schools on their annual standardized test performance and on the year-over-year growth in their test scores. By both measures, QCES has struggled. Last year, the school had a Quality Distribution Index—the state's technical term for test scores—of 104, only slightly up from 102 two years ago.

This year, however, the school may be bearing out the promise on its sign.

QCES is one of four schools participating in a novel program initiated by the Barksdale Reading Institute. The institute, which has the financial backing of former Netscape CEO and native Mississippian Jim Barksdale, worked for years to improve literacy and reading instruction in schools around Mississippi. BRI promoted a literacy curriculum and later began providing literacy coaches in schools to help teachers teach reading. Last school year, eight different school districts around the state received some help from BRI, through materials, literacy coaches or other resources.

The institute has shifted tactics, though. Last winter it negotiated agreements with three school districts that allow BRI to hire an elementary school principal and give that principal greater freedom to innovate in curriculum, scheduling and personnel.

In Quitman County, BRI hired Michael Cormack, a first-time principal originally from Portland, Ore. Cormack taught fourth grade for two years in Indianola, through Teach for America, the teacher-training program that places highly motivated, non-education major college graduates in struggling schools.

After two years at Carver Upper Elementary, Cormack worked for Teach for America supervising participants, then moved to Helena and taught at KIPP Delta.

Cormack's TFA and KIPP pedigree is evident on a Wednesday afternoon in January when the school dismissed students early to run a professional development session for teachers.

In schools both thriving and failing, "professional development"—or "P.D." or "in-service"—can inspire dread in teachers, conjuring up endless hypoglycemic afternoons listening to a consultant drone on about topics that have little to do with the harried everyday reality of the classroom.

Cormack uses the time like a halftime pep talk, pivoting from an assessment of the school's progress to a plan for the second half. "We come from further behind, because of where we are, because of where our students come from," he tells teachers. "But our students are bright and capable, our teachers are bright and capable, and we exceed the average performance of teachers."

The principal reminds teachers of their four goals for the year: increasing literacy; finding funding for the school's pre-K program; increasing parents' involvement; and pursuing a "shared vision."

Students should be able to recite the school's shared vision—"We are readers, writers and problem-solvers"—if an adult pulls them out of class and asks them, he says.

Under Cormack, the school has seen impressive progress in only a few months. In basic reading skills, the school's first, second, third and fourth-grade students are all on target to exceed their end-of-year goals. By the middle of the school year, students in first through third grade had already met or exceeded the beginning-of-year reading scores of students one grade above them.

"If you look at the national trend line, in terms of rate of improvement, you see a little bar graph and it goes like this," Cormack tells teachers, holding his forearm out at an angle. "But our rate of improvement has a steeper incline, because we're doing it faster. We're trying to go from behind and get to where the national norm is—to arrive, and to accelerate."

By mid-year, 88 percent of the school's first-graders were at or above grade level in their oral reading fluency.

"Second-grade teachers, you ought to be shouting and dancing," Cormack says. "The group that you're going to get is going to be further along the continuum."

Third-graders went from 40 percent at or above grade level at the beginning of the year to 60 percent by mid-year, he notes.

To keep students on that upward trajectory after the school year ends, Cormack is pushing summer school, hard.

"Summer school is open to everyone," he tells teachers. "I'll repeat that: Summer school is open to everyone. It's very important that you, as members of our faculty, that we all have the same understanding of what summer school looks like."

His hand-picked assistant principal, Patrick Doyle, chimes in, "I would go a step farther than that. I would say that you all are our best marketers for summer school."

Another Teach for America alum, Doyle's official title is "Dean of Students," which Cormack picked because he thinks it better defines the job and its focus on students. Doyle was part of the same TFA class as Cormack and taught at QCES for three years. He shares Cormack's data-heavy approach and TFA vocabulary, with its talismans ("close the gap") and corporate phrases ("marketing").

Cormack says that being able to pick his own deputy to handle logistics was a crucial part of the Barksdale program's appeal.

"He and I are friends, and we share the same mindset and passion for our kids, for closing the achievement gap," Cormack says. "There are some things that are just assumed."

Lighting a Fire
Cormack's arrival—and the data-heavy, relentlessly upbeat culture he brought with him—appears to have transformed the school. Inside the low-slung brick building on the next morning, you can feel a palpable sense of possibility.

In a kindergarten classroom, a cluster of four students is tracing shapes on lined paper.

"What are you working on?" Cormack asks them, his bass voice hushed and several octaves higher.

"Our names. And our ‘Y's."

"And can you tell me some things that start with the letter Y?"

"Yellow!" "Yolk." "You."

Like many schools, Quitman County Elementary starts every day with a "literacy block"—intensive, small-group reading practice for all of its students. The school is able to use federal Title I funds to hire teaching assistants for every class from pre-K to third grade. It also has an in-house BRI literacy coach, and a full-time reading specialist to work with struggling students.

Barksdale has also paid for physical renovations at the school, but the building is far from new. The walls of the dimly lit third-grade hallway are dingy with yellowed, peeling paint. In a remnant of 1970s-style open-plan schools, most classrooms at QCES have cinder block walls that stop at seven feet. The gap between wall and ceiling is filled with a window, but sound carries easily from one classroom to another.

Still, Barksdale's involvement makes Cormack's job—and the job of every teacher there—easier. With Barksdale's help, the school hires retired teachers to administer periodic reading and math skills tests in the hallways, allowing classroom teachers to continue teaching uninterrupted as their students take brief diagnostic tests one by one. In Cormack's words, "it becomes less about the process of assessment and more about what we can we learn from it."

Cormack stops a teacher passing in the hallway and hands her a printout from the school's data tracking system. The report identifies students who made significant progress but didn't meet the school's mid-year targets and who could especially benefit from extra practice.

"I didn't know it did all that!" she says in amazement.

"One thing about the data and transparency that we have is that it's lit a fire in the teachers, who want to provide the best they can for their kids," Cormack says later.

"But at the same time, I think the data is very public about, ‘OK, here's the gap.' No one wants to be the grade level that doesn't bring it."

Cormack took advantage of his Barksdale-negotiated hiring authority to bring in two Teach for America alumni as veteran teachers. In addition to Cormack and Doyle, nearly one-third of the school's teachers are current participants or alumni of the program. Cormack also adopted the program's rubric for evaluating and further training teachers: Teaching as Leadership.

He's optimistic that his ties with TFA and KIPP could help recruit even more highly motivated teachers.

"I think it's a really valuable pipeline, to (be able) to say, ‘You've had some good experience. Would you like to work in a school where we're really trying to turn things around?'" he says. "I think a lot of folks could be compelled to stay on and make teaching—at least do it an additional two or three years, if not consider it a life option."

‘It Was Chaos'
The principal's secretary at Williams-Sullivan, in Holmes County, answers the phones with a standard greeting: "Williams-Sullivan Elementary School, preparing students for college—How can I help you?"

It's another bold claim, given the school's history. Based on its test scores from last year, Williams-Sullivan Elementary is the seventh-worst performing school in the state.

The school's Barksdale-hired principal, MenSa Ankh Maa, knows he has a tough job ahead of him. He visited Williams-Sullivan over the course of two days last year.

"It was chaos," he says. "The principal couldn't show me a schedule. Kids were kind of all over the place."

Also a Teach for America alum, Maa taught in the Washington D.C., school system for five years and served as a principal there for another three. He made his first task organizing the school's schedule and enforcing it to give students more time to learn. Tall, with dreadlocks that reach the middle of his back, Maa cuts a distinctive figure. He's a bit like a celebrity in his own school. As he walks through the series of doublewide trailers that house grades one through six, students rush up and hand him letters they've just finished writing. ("Dear Mr. Maa, I like your hair.")

"Everybody just hold your letters, and I'll be sure to read every single one of them just as soon as you turn them in," he says.

When he passes students in the hall, Maa peppers them with multiplication tables.

That sense of urgency, to use every minute of the school day, is what Barksdale Reading Institute CEO Claiborne Barksdale says he was looking for in applicants to the principals program. BRI's own sense of urgency drove the principals initiative.

"We felt that, yeah, we were able to affect the reading programs in the schools," Barksdale says. "But we also saw a lot of things that weren't happening, and we had no ability to deal with it."

He cites one incident, from 2009, in which the institute delivered nearly 500 books to one of its participating schools. The books, which had been selected specifically for that school's needs, languished in opened boxes for months.

"Instances like that confirm ... if you're going to really change the school, you've got to put that leader in there," Barksdale says. "If you look at schools that have really changed and gotten on the right path, two things have happened: They've gotten that new leader, and secondly, they have disentangled themselves from the district."

Maa is unapologetic about rejecting some of his district's standard policies and programs. He banned corporal punishment, which Holmes County Schools still allow despite a concurrent court order to implement Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, a discipline system completely at odds with paddling.

"I think it's the most ridiculous thing in the world," Maa says.

He also runs his own professional-development sessions for teachers, instead of using the district-provided sessions with consultants and motivational speakers. He made the decision after attending the district-wide orientation at the beginning of the school year.

"It was low-quality," he says. "It's just not professional development."

Maa also hopes to take advantage of BRI's agreement with the district by tinkering with extended school hours or a longer school calendar. Those decisions will have to come, next year, though.

"I can't just snap my fingers and make it happen," he says. "There's buses, there's lunch duty, there's hiring. That's something I'm looking forward to possibly next year."

Derrick Johnson says that while he appreciates the urgency of Barksdale's approach, he considers the principals program another example of the continual, disruptive churn of school reform.

"One of the things that I have always been interested in figuring out is why every two to three years, we're always seeking to reform education, when in fact we have many best practices that have already been proven to be effective," Johnson says. "It's another example that children are being experimented with."

Barksdale maintains, however, that dramatic reform like installing new principals with greater autonomy is the only way to approach an intransigent situation.

"You can't nibble around the edges," Barksdale says. "If you've got a chronically low-performing school, you've got to do something pretty dramatic to change it, to turn it around. You can't tweak your way to success."

All Hands On Deck
Barksdale cites a number of examples and studies of "turnaround schools" that served as models for the principals' initiative. Among them is the Harlem Children's Zone, which boasts powerful leaders and freedom from traditional school-district policies but is also nothing like most other turnaround schools.

One of the better-publicized charter-school models, the Harlem Children's Zone is actually a network of charter schools and related programs that aim to reverse the effects of poverty on children in 100 blocks of Harlem in New York City.

Children's Zone programs reach nearly every facet of a child's life: counseling pregnant mothers to prepare them for parenthood, providing early childhood education and daycare and offering health care and social services to parents and children.

The comprehensive project has produced impressive results. In 2009, two Harvard economists, Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer, Jr., released a study finding that the Harlem Children's Zone could erase the statistical "achievement gap"—which puts its predominantly black students behind white students their age—in math by middle school and reduce the gap in English and language arts.

A July 2010 study by the Brookings Institution found, however, that HCZ middle and elementary-school students perform no better than the majority of students at other New York City charter schools. While the HCZ's performance is still impressive compared to traditional public schools, its panoply of social services does not appear to offer any educational advantage, study authors Grover Whitehurst and Michelle Croft argued.

President Barack Obama has signaled his support for the Children's Zone model with a national initiative he calls Promise Neighborhoods.

Jackson hasn't applied, but the city's Midtown neighborhood is actually already engaged in a similar approach.

Bordered by Woodrow Wilson Avenue and West, Mill and Fortification streets, Midtown has the relative density and strong borders that make a concerted, comprehensive effort to alleviate poverty more efficient. The neighborhood has two schools, Brown Elementary and Rowan Middle School, and both boast a surprising degree of community involvement and support from outside organizations.

At Brown, first-year principal Serenity Luckett has been bowled over by the variety of help other groups have offered.

Brown and Rowan both have full-service health clinics within their walls, giving students regular access to a nurse practitioner who teaches nursing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Beyond treating colds and offering physical exams, the clinic also serves to keep students in school. Rather than missing an entire day to wait in a hospital emergency room, a student leaves class for a few minutes to get checked for strep throat.

Members of 100 Black Men provide mentoring to a select group of students, eating lunch with them every Thursday and holding them accountable for their grades and behavior. Other community-service groups like Stewpot Ministries and Operation Shoestring have donated winter clothing and provided after-school tutoring to students.

But perhaps the most dramatic outside involvement comes from Midtown Partners, a nonprofit formed this year by the merger of Good Samaritan Midtown and the North Midtown Community Development Corp. Midtown Partners runs a Montessori preschool and child-care center, an after-school program for the neighborhood's fifth through eighth graders and supports other programs at Brown and Rowan. The organization also works with the area's parents and grandparents, however, offering career counseling for adults, administering welfare and food-stamp programs and providing food assistance to the elderly.

"What we do is try to support the families and provide them with services that create a less stressful home situation, which will allow a student to show up Monday morning ready to learn," says Midtown Partners Executive Director Kristi Hendrix.

This summer, Midtown Partners plans to operate an early childhood program for 20 of the neighborhood's 4-year-olds. Hendrix says that the goal was to target only the area's most vulnerable pre-kindergarteners—those not already enrolled in day care or Head Start.

Children in the summer program will get used to sitting in a classroom in the actual school they will attend in August, Hendrix says. The program will work on basic school skills, with the aim of having the children adequately prepared for kindergarten. Hendrix says that she hopes to use the same diagnostic tests on the program's children so that their files will be relevant and useful for Brown's kindergarten teachers.

Luckett welcomes Midtown Partners' help.

"What I really have come to know is that we, as the school, can absolutely not do it alone," Luckett says. "There are so many needs in the community, and of the kids, that we have to reach out to all these partners."

The network of supporters working for Brown's students is far from the fundraising juggernaut that supports the Harlem Children's Zone, however. Midtown Partners has occasionally leveraged its close relationship with the Walker Foundation to cover one-time expenses for Brown, but the neighborhood lacks the wealthy patronage available to HCZ.

More significantly, perhaps, Brown and Rowan are traditional public schools, governed by a central administration and school board.

But Luckett says that even a traditional public school can be innovative. After seeing a spate of discipline problems in the school's fifth grade classes early this year, Luckett decided to divide the grade by gender. The effect was dramatic and almost immediate, she says.

On a Monday morning earlier this month, the two classes were a study in the difference between fifth-grade boys and girls. The girls sat quietly at their desks but seemed uninhibited about raising their hands. Next door, Mr. Norman led their male peers in a vocabulary exercise. Each boy stood at his desk and spelled the words ("astrolabe," "technology," "settlement") out loud, punching the air for each shouted letter.

"I firmly believe that our public schools can offer so many experiences and opportunities that people typically think look like charter schools," Luckett says. "We just have to be able to know how to manage and bring in resources. And, number two, people have to be at the school that have the same mindset and vision for those kids. I know there's a lot of controversy over charter law, but public schools can look very different than they do today."

No Time to Lose
While change is possible within the public schools, it takes time, as Claiborne Barksdale has learned.

"When I came up with this idea ... I thought maybe we could be in 10 schools initially," he says. "Thank goodness we didn't do that, because the learning curve is very steep."

The Barksdale Reading Institute has no plans to expand its principals initiative next school year. It may try to expand in the 2012-2013 school year, Barksdale says. That delay will give the institute a chance to collect solid data on the first four schools' performance to use when trying to persuade districts. It will also give BRI time to assuage some fears.

"There has been and continues to be some suspicion about our motives," Barksdale says. "There was some concern: ‘Oh, you're going to come in and fire all the teachers.' ... That is something that is problematic. I would like to have more time to meet with community leaders and with school boards to say, ‘Look this is why we're doing what we're doing.' And if we do expand in future years, we'll have a track record to show for it. I think that will give those communities a bit more piece of mind about our motives."

Barksdale is adamant that the BRI's principals initiative is distinct from a charter school approach. If anything, it is reminiscent of a conversion charter that takes in an entire existing student body.

For Rachel Hicks, executive director of the public-policy nonprofit Mississippi First, Barksdale's approach is not enough.

"One of the most common critiques I hear from people is: ‘Why do we need charter schools? Can't regular public schools do all these things?'" Hicks says. "The fact is that our system is so ossified that these things are not easy for our system to do. When people say that to me, I say, ‘That would be great, but I'm not going to hold my breath.'"

Mississippi First supports a full-fledged charter-school law that would allow new, open-enrollment charters to open in low-performing districts.

The bill the House Education Committee is currently considered is a dangerous over-extension of the charter concept, though, Hicks says. Sen. Michael Watson's SB 2774 would allow any university or local school board to authorize new charter schools, in addition to the state Department of Education. The more entities there are issuing charters to school operators, the harder it is to maintain quality, she argues. Especially in the case of local school boards, the job of overseeing schools to ensure that they comply with the terms of their charter performance targets could be simply too large to do well.

"Unless you have the capacity to do that task well, what you will end up with is a lot of bad charter school getting to open and then not closing," Hicks says.

Regardless, with opposition to a new charter law from many House members and Brown, the committee chairman, Watson's latest proposal appears doomed. That means that charter advocates like Hicks will have to wait another year.

"Five years in the life of policy change is a pretty quick timeline," Hicks says. "Five years in the life of a child is very long. ... We can't wait around forever."

Previous Comments


Very Informative article. The Principal's initiative, The Harlem Children's Zone, the KIPP program, and the Midtown Partnership are great tools in education reform. All of them, though require extrodinary resources, both fiscal and human. The issue with Public education in MS is whether there are simply enough human and fiscal resources to create a sustainable model in rural areas. In all of the programs highlighted here, I don't see "scalability"- or how these things can be enacted over a larger scale of time, schools, and disricts, with resources that are renewable and readily available. While we thank God for every gain the programs produce, none of them can eliminate the effects of concentrated poverty, which is at the root of the education crisis in this state. I know that these programs are school based, but true ed reforms comes with community development reform.

Renaldo Bryant

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