Well, ok, the Achievement School District’s (ASD) conversion process is neither simple nor painless. But, you wouldn’t know that if you watched the ASD’s latest video promoting the process of conversion taking place right now.
I’m going to break the two-minute video down into four claims it makes and then analyze each. The four key claims are: The ASD is an intervention designed to provide the best for kids in persistently low-performing schools, the community gets a school back after an ASD charter conversion, the conversion is good for kids, and those who are skeptical should give charter operators a chance.
1) Intervention provides an improved opportunity for kids
It might be more accurate to say that the intervention provides a different opportunity for kids. As analysis noted here suggests, the schools under ASD control the longest still rank among the lowest-performing of all schools in the state.
Earlier this year, I wondered what might have happened if the ASD had stuck to its original design and focused on short-term, intensive support and intervention at the most persistently struggling schools.
Instead, the ASD can now say it provides a different name on the building, that’s the opportunity they offer kids.
2) Following a Charter Conversion, the community gets a school back
Except they don’t. Originally, the ASD plan was to intervene in schools, manage them in cooperation with the local district, and then turn them back over to the district within five years. By using the state’s charter law, the ASD now turns schools over to charter operators, who have a 10-year charter. Then, the district decides after 10 years whether or not to renew the charter. At that point, the schools is not the same — it’s now a charter school, likely with a new name and new management, and quite possibly, with frustrating results for kids. Ask the community at Neely’s Bend in Nashville if they feel like the result of the Thunderdome-style school matching process is a school that belongs to them. How will they feel in 10 years, when three groups of 5th-graders have completed their journey through 8th grade at a school changing to a charter grade-by-grade?
And how do they feel knowing that before the conversion happened, Neely’s Bend was already outperforming ASD schools?
3) ASD Conversions are Good for Kids
This may be true … if you believe that adding additional disruption to the lives of children who already face disruption on a regular basis is a good thing. As a charter conversion proceeds, the teachers at the school being converted are “invited” to reapply for their jobs. At ASD charter conversions, less than one in five teachers remain through the conversion process. No matter the reason, this initial turnover damages the stability of a school and the community that calls it home. Building names change. School leaders change. Approaches to learning change. And, while these schools were struggling before, as noted above, it is difficult to see new forward progress post-conversion.
4) Give Charter Conversions a Chance
The data about lack of improvement notwithstanding, outgoing ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic’s own words may be the best counter to this claim:
“As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”
Admittedly, the mission of the ASD is inspiring. Work diligently with the most persistently struggling schools and get them on track. By contrast, the ASD, as currently operating, isn’t doing much of that. Instead, building names change, conversions take place, and schools and lives are disrupted. The shiny, happy video makes some strong claims amid little substance. Digging deeper reveals a reality that is much different.
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