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Charters and traditional public schools can co-exist, leaders say

In Education

9:55 pm on Thu, 09.13.12

Bring together the superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools and the head of one of the city’s highest profile charter schools, and it’s not surprising you’ll come away from their presentation learning a new word:

Coop-etition.

That’s the way Kelly Garrett, executive director of KIPP St. Louis, described the peaceful co-existence that he sees between charter schools in the city and the public school system run by Superintendent Kelvin Adams. In a 90-minute session Thursday night, both men repeatedly stressed that they want to work together to offer the best educational options for the children of St. Louis.

“I want high-quality choices for families,” Adams said. “It’s really about having the best opportunities for families to choose.”

The entities run by the two educators could not be more different. Adams has been superintendent since 2008 of a school district with 27,000 students, one whose enrollment rose this year for the first time in a long time, largely because of about 3,000 students who transferred from the now-closed Imagine charter schools.

Garrett’s organization has one school, KIPP Inspire Academy in south St. Louis, established in 2009 and now serving 340 students in grades 5 through 8. It is one of 17 charters in the city and what Garrett says will eventually be one of five KIPP schools in St. Louis.

But sitting side by side, they talked not about whether charters are stealing students or teachers from the city system or whether competition is hurting the city schools. Instead, as Garrett put it, the issue is this:

“Are we serving the kids who need us the most? Are we creating schools that we would send our own children to?”

Asked whether KIPP was creaming students from the city schools – enrolling good students who otherwise might be helping the unaccredited system post higher achievement scores – Garrett cited statistics that he said prove the opposite. He said most students come in far below grade level in reading and math, and while they make great strides while they are at KIPP, there is no evidence to show they were at the top of the schools they are coming from.

“If we are creaming,” he said, “we are really bad at creaming.”

Instead, he said, KIPP is creating a great opportunity for the St. Louis Public Schools to recruit talented eighth graders who will be leaving KIPP at the end of the school year.

“I’m excited about that kind of partnership.” Garrett said.

Asked whether KIPP is selective in a different kind of way – attracting students who are willing to attend 10-hour days five times a week plus a half-day on Saturdays plus more school time in the summer – Garrett acknowledged that KIPP families are asked to sign a contract to that effect after they enroll.

But, he said, the contract is non-binding, and its main effect is to let everyone involved know what the school expects of its students.

“We want to create a culture at KIPP that says we are all in this together – parents, teachers and students,” hes aid. “We’re a choice school. Charters are about choices.”

He said that an achievement gap between black and white students persists, and with KIPP Inspire’s student body being 98 percent African-American, it is an issue the school takes very seriously.

“That is why KIPP exists,” Garrett said, “to basically eradicate the achievement gap.

“What drives us every day is trying to make sure that the students that we serve get the best educational quality they can get.”

Garrett said that KIPP “doesn’t select students like a magnet school would select. We recruit in neighborhoods where we know that students are far behind.”

Adams repeated his contention that the progress the city schools have made academically, shows they deserve to regain the accreditation they lost in 2007. State officials have said that while test scores are up, they want to see sustained improvement before the city schools are granted provisional accreditation.

Meanwhile, Adams said the city system is operating traditional schools plus pilots, magnets and charters of its own to offer the widest possible array of options.

Asked whether the city schools have improved as a result of competition from charters, he hesitated long enough to bring smiles from the audience, then acknowledged that such improvement isn’t necessarily the case.

“I think positive competition is healthy competition,” Adams said, adding:
“I think the real answer going forward is creating healthy partnerships that support young people in the city of St. Louis, period…. I am not fighting charter schools. The real question is how do we work together to create the best schools for children.”

He said the city school system has held discussions with charters and with parochial schools to determine how all of them can co-exist and support each other. But he said that he doesn’t have the flexibility to operate the St. Louis Public Schools the way charters can be run.

“The rules are different,” Adams said, noting that every year charter schools close, and the students who attended them end up in the public schools.

The forum was sponsored by the group Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice.