Renewal and optimism: Five years as an Ohio charter authorizer

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation has been authorizing (aka sponsoring) charter schools in Ohio since 2005, and we’ve learned a ton these past five years. Sharing these lessons is important – one of the reasons we devote time, energy, and money on our annual sponsorship report. Through it, we hope to help readers understand the complexities of charter schools and better appreciate the hard work of teachers, school leaders, and board members who are serving not only in the schools we sponsor but in schools around the state and nation to make a difference in the lives of children who desperately need it. We also believe public education benefits significantly from transparency and accountability. For those reasons, we annually share a detailed accounting of our sponsorship activities as well as report on the overall performance of the charter schools we authorize.

Charter contract renewals

The 2009-10 school year marked a milestone in our sponsorship efforts because it was the first time we had to make contract renewal decisions for our sponsored schools. In June 2005 we issued five-year sponsorship agreements to the following charter schools:

  • The Dayton Academy (now called Dayton Leadership Academies: Dayton Liberty Campus);
  • The Dayton View Academy (now called Dayton Leadership Academies: Dayton View Campus);
  • Phoenix Community Learning Center; and
  • Springfield Academy of Excellence.

In each contract we shared expected achievement targets for each school over the term of their five-year agreements; all of which expired on June 30, 2010. The key academic requirements for contract renewal included that a school must:

1)      Have a state academic rating of Continuous Improvement or higher;

2)      Make  Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) in reading and mathematics and overall; and

3)      Meet or exceed at least one year of expected gains on the state’s value added metrics in reading and mathematics.

We look at other academic growth factors in making our renewal decisions, and take into consideration school performance in comparison to the schools children would attend if they were not in a Fordham-sponsored charter school.

Table I shows state academic ratings for our schools during the period 2005-06 to 2009-10. The state provides six ratings for schools: Excellent with Distinction, Excellent, Effective, Continuous Improvement, Academic Watch, and Academic Emergency.

Table I: Fordham-sponsored School Results over Time by State Rating

Table II shows how the four sponsored schools did in terms of meeting AYP goals and value-added targets over the five-year term of their contracts.

Table II: Fordham-sponsored Schools’ AYP and Value-Added Results over Time

The performance data show that all four original Fordham-sponsored schools struggled to comply fully with the basic achievement goals set for them in their contracts. As such, in autumn 2009 members of the Ohio Policy and Sponsorship Committee of Fordham’s board of trustees met individually with the board leadership of each school to discuss their weak academic performance and to learn how each school planned to improve their performance in the coming school year. 

After these conversations the committee members agreed to one-year renewals for each of the four schools. It was clear to committee members that each school was operating in a hostile and uncertain political and fiscal environment. Despite these challenges and academic shortcomings, their results were equal to or even better than the local district schools with which they competed. And, all four schools had actually showed more than a year’s worth of academic growth on the state’s value-added indicators in reading and math for 2009. Even so, issuing one-year contract renewals presented us with a dilemma that was summed up in a note to the full Fordham board by Ohio Policy and Sponsorship Committee Chair David Driscoll:

While there are reasons to be very dissatisfied with many of the schools we sponsor, there are so many challenges they have faced that have not been of their making. Down deep we know we should not be accepting poor or even mediocre performance but we should also not worship at the altar of rubrics that do not tell the whole story. I am comfortable renewing all of our current schools for one year this February with the idea that next February we will have done all we can to help them and we can pull the plug on the ones that just do not step up. Hopefully, we will see enough improvement by February 2011 to again renew all if not most BUT at that point we must establish definitive benchmarks and stick to them. The largest reason for being flexible this year is that I am convinced the students will be harmed by any of our schools closing.

After much internal debate and deliberation the Fordham board issued all four schools one-year renewal agreements for the 2010-11 school year with the understanding that if they didn’t meet the basic academic goals of being rated at least Continuous Improvement, making AYP, and showing gains on the state’s value-added metric the schools would likely face non-renewal in 2011.

We are happy to report that three of the schools – Dayton View Academy, the Phoenix Community Learning Center, and the Springfield Academy of Excellence – showed positive gains in 2009-10. Further, these schools seem well-positioned to make further gains and improvements in 2010-11 and beyond. We expect to issue these three schools two-year contracts in early 2011 that will extend our relationship with each through the 2012-13 school year.  

One school, the Dayton Liberty Campus, failed to make any academic gains in 2009-10, and in fact has struggled to deliver academically for four consecutive years. Our challenge, and that of the school’s governing authority, for the 2010-11 school year is dealing fairly and effectively with this school’s future. Moreover, the school was recently placed on the state’s potential academic “death penalty” list, and could well face automatic closure under state law at the end of the 2010-11 school year if it is again rated Academic Emergency and fails to make growth on the state’s value-added metrics in reading and math. Next year’s Fordham sponsorship report is sure to have a lot to say about the lessons learned from dealing with this school and its challenges.  

Columbus Collegiate Academy and KIPP: Journey Academy

The 2009-10 school year represented the second year of operation for both the Columbus Collegiate Academy and the KIPP: Journey Academy in Columbus. The first year or two are always tough for start-up charter schools and this has been the case for these two schools as well. As we observed in last year’s annual charter report, “A charter start-up, like any new business venture, is fragile. Such a school depends totally on student numbers for its operating revenue yet it has no track record to use for recruitment purposes. It can offer little more to prospective students and their parents than a promise to deliver.”

No doubt these two schools still struggled with new school issues in year two of their operations. Specifically, to varying degrees they struggled with enrollment issues and tight funding. Moreover, they had to navigate politically fraught relationships with the Columbus City School district around things like busing, and had to build and sustain talented teams of teachers and administrators. Despite these challenges, however, the academic results were solid for KIPP, and downright remarkable for the Columbus Collegiate Academy (CCA). 

After just two years, the Columbus Collegiate Academy is the top-performing middle school in Columbus and the second-highest performing urban charter middle school in Ohio’s “Big 8” cities. In its second year the school received a state academic rating of Effective (a B). Further, among schools that serve a high number of disadvantaged students (75 percent or more eligible for free or reduced-price lunch), CCA ranks in the top 10 performing of all such schools statewide and is the top performing high-poverty middle school in Ohio. Last school year, 73 percent of CCA’s sixth graders and 93 percent of its seventh graders were proficient in reading; in math, 80 percent of sixth graders and a full 100 percent of seventh graders attained proficiency.

This outstanding performance was recognized by New Leaders for New Schools via the 2010 silver EPIC award (Effective Practice Incentive Community). This award identifies principals, assistant principals, and instructional staff who drive significant student achievement gains, and also grants financial bonuses and enables other EPIC-participating schools to learn from winning schools’ successes through a robust professional development community. CCA was one of only 22 charter schools in the nation, and the only one in Ohio, to win this prestigious award. Further, the school’s founder and director, Andrew Boy, received the Columbus Business First’s prestigious “40 under 40” award. The award recognizes outstanding Columbus-area leaders under the age of 40 who have demonstrated strong leadership and professional success and are making a positive contribution to the community.

KIPP: Journey Academy made significant academic gains from 2008-09 to 2009-10, and received a state academic rating of Continuous Improvement (a C). While 79 percent of the school’s students were economically disadvantaged, it met AYP in both reading and math and exceeded value-added expectations in both reading and math. More importantly, the school is solidifying the academic team it needs to continue its improvement in 2010-11 and beyond. 

New school for 2010-11

In September 2010, Fordham added a new school to its sponsorship portfolio -- Learning Without Limits Academy (LWL). LWL is a pilot effort with the Tri-Rivers Educational Computer Association (TRECA), an association of more than 40 school districts and charter schools. Fordham issued a one-year contract for the school, which is a blended-learning model that will comprise a combination of online learning, dual credit for college, reciprocity with existing district schools, and a new Ohio initiative, credit flexibility. The school expects to serve up to 50 14-22 year-olds, and we are working with the school’s leadership to determine how to quantify student learning in such an innovative environment. Done well, this school could become the first of its kind in Ohio and serve as a model for the state as districts work to blend traditional classroom-based instruction with online distance-learning opportunities.  

Second generation authorizing in Ohio

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio (ESCCO) are engaged in an effort to establish a new high-performing large scale charter school authorizer in Ohio. Both Fordham and ESCCO support the voluntary consolidation of their sponsoring activities with those of others that will subscribe fully to the National Association of Charter Schools Authorizers’ (NACSA) Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing. In May 2010, NACSA provided a $50,000 planning grant to support this effort.

Ohio has about 80 charter school sponsors and many of them lack the resources and expertise to do their jobs well. Others lack the motivation because they must make ends meet by selling services such as financial management and special education services to their schools. In those situations, authorizers may put more value on continuing to sell those services than on making certain children in the schools are actually learning. 

Charter school supporters and experts have argued for multiple charter school authorizers since the first charters opened in the early 1990s. The Center for Education Reform, for example, writes that “charter schools grow and flourish in environments that provide multiple ways for groups to obtain charters to open.” There is, however, such a thing as too much of a good thing. When it comes to authorizing in Ohio there are simply more sponsors than the state needs or can effectively support, especially if school quality is the primary goal.

Quality sponsorship costs money to deliver. For example, authorizers need the resources to pay the legal bills associated with closing a school, which can become costly fast. Under Ohio law, charter sponsors can charge schools sponsorship fees of up to three percent of their per-pupil funding. It is not a stretch to say that for most authorizers in Ohio (52 of the state’s authorizers sponsor two or fewer schools) quality sponsorship costs more than the school fees they generate.

To improve quality across the state’s sponsorship landscape through economy of scale and shared expertise, ESCCO and Fordham are working together to launch a new statewide charter school authorizer that:

  • Becomes the premier authorizer in Ohio;
  • Helps current quality school models expand their efforts;
  • Recruits proven high-quality school developers to Ohio’s neediest communities;
  • Works with partner districts to help turn around persistently troubled schools;
  • Contributes to the development of best practices in charter authorizing;
  • Becomes a model of quality authorizing for others;
  • Helps other authorizers in Ohio improve; and
  • Serves as the sponsor of last resort for quality schools orphaned by sponsors leaving the sponsorship arena.

At the start of the 2010-11 school year Fordham and ESCCO collectively sponsored 15 schools serving about 3,400 students. As of October 2010, five school districts and two additional county educational service centers were seriously interested in committing to a next-generation authorizer model. Taken together these nine authorizers represent 7.5 percent of Ohio’s authorizers and slightly more than 5 percent of all students in Ohio charters.

Despite the obvious need and the goodwill of our various partners, there is considerable work to be done before Fordham would commit itself and its schools to a new authorizing entity. But, if all the pieces can be brought together for a successful effort—and we are doing all we can to help—we’d begin work to integrate our current authorizing operation into a new unified authorizer during the 2011-12 school year.

See the entire Fordham Sponsorship Accountability report for 2009-10 here.

By Terry Ryan and Kathryn Mullen Upton

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