Charter Schools Look to Address Educational Woes

Charter schools are an increasingly popular alternative to traditional public schools. Ted Hamory, co-founder of New City Public Schools, and Jennifer Stern, a partner in the Charter School Growth Fund, talk to Farai Chideya about whether these schools are living up to their hype.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And our last headline brings us to a classroom near you. Yesterday, New City Public Schools, or NCPS, was awarded a grant for $1.4 million. NCPS is a young group dedicated to building vibrant charter schools. So far, they've got just one school up and running in Long Beach, California. But with this new money, they hope to expand very soon. The grant was given by the two-year-old Charter School Growth Fund.

Nationwide, there are more than 3,000 charter schools in nearly 40 states. In big cities especially, charters offer an alternative to traditional struggling public schools. So with us we have Ted Hamory, the co-founder of New City Public Schools, and Jennifer Stern, a partner in the Charter School Growth Fund. Welcome to you both.

Ms. JENNIFER STERN (Partner, Charter School Growth Fund): Thank you.

Mr. TED HAMORY (Co-Founder, New City Public Schools): Thank you. Good morning.

CHIDEYA: So Ted, why don't you tell us just very briefly what is a charter school, because there's an interesting mix of public and independents in that whole mix?

Mr. HAMORY: Well, I think the first thing to know about charter schools is that they are public schools and we are a part of the public school system. We're independently operated, we're not part of a traditional school district. We're independently operated public schools. And in California, the way it works is the, you know, a school district will approve a charter application to a group of people to run a school, and we're run by a nonprofit corporation. And then the money flows from the state federal government directly to us. And we're accountable to our school district and to the state and to the federal government, but our management is much more, autonomous and we have a lot more flexibility.

CHIDEYA: You have a lot more independence. I'm thinking here of - there are these other franchises like KIPP academies and then there are some for-profit companies that went into charter schools. Jen, tell me why charter schools are building momentum and how you guys see yourselves as funders fitting into the whole picture.

Ms. STERN: Sure. Charter schools, I think, are building a lot of momentum because they do offer an alternative to the districts. A lot of districts are working on district reform, but that can be a very slow process with mixed results, and charters offer an excellent choice and alternative to that type of reform of schools that are failing our children today.

So we have a lot of excellent charter schools out there that are looking to replicate and expand in a tremendous variety of models. You have KIPP, which has schools all across the country in many different markets, to schools like New City Public Schools, which is focused in the Southern California area and very much focused on a single community.

CHIDEYA: Ted, you are, from what I can tell, white. Am I accurate in that? You are sitting right across from me. You must be dealing with a population of students that's largely black and Latino.

Mr. HAMORY: Correct.

CHIDEYA: Tell me about the kinds of students that you serve - economically, socio-economically, in terms of maybe their parents' education.

Mr. HAMORY: Well, I mean, I think that's what's really interesting about the New City School and the city public schools, is that we serve a pretty diverse population. We're doing language immersion bilingual programs, so we're majority Latino. But the remaining population is very mixed, as is the - Long Beach is one of the most diverse places in the country. So we have probably about, maybe, 15 percent of our population is white, and the rest would be a mix of African-American, Asian and mixed-race families. So we're very, very diverse racially but also socio-economically.

Sixty-five percent of our kids qualify for federal reduced-price lunch, which basically means they're living at or near the poverty level. But then the rest, 35 percent, are above that. So it's, you know, and that's uncommon in most public schools these days, is that it's usually one or the other. You know, it's usually all - you know, our schools are very segregated, so our schools are sort of a different exception to that these days.

CHIDEYA: And Jennifer, in general, we've seen a lot of support among African-American families for vouchers, for charter schools. Those are two different approaches, I should make it clear - the voucher and the charter school. A lot of black parents and a lot of parents, period, are just really fed up with some of the tragedies of public education. What kind of interaction do you get or feedback do you get from African-American families or Latino families, for example?

Ms. STERN: The Charter School Growth Fund is focused on helping charter schools expand that are serving underserved communities, so they are primarily low-income or minority communities. And so what we've seen is with the schools that we've worked with, the high-quality charter schools, there are tremendous wait-lists. There is a lot of demand from the community for those options.

I think charter schools, though, do range the gamut, so there are some that are very strong and then there are some that are less strong. So they sort of - those that are stronger, there's a tremendous demand from the families and really long waiting lists looking for them to expand and grow.

CHIDEYA: Ted, do you find that's true for your school?

Mr. HAMORY: Absolutely, and I think, you know, for African-American families and Latino families, I mean, they've gotten the shorter end of the stick for a very long time, and I think this is an opportunity - charter schools are a real big opportunity for them to get educational equity. And we're seeing some really good examples of school operatives going into those, you know, communities and being very successful with those kids, and I think the enthusiasm is very warranted.

CHIDEYA: There are a lot of people trying to dissect what's going on with public education. You have groups like Teach For America that are focused on teacher training and principal training. You have charter school people. You have voucher people. Why do you think, Jennifer, that this approach that you have chosen, in terms of funding and developing charter schools, is important?

Ms. STERN: You know, I think all of those groups are working together, actually, to really improve the quality of public education for kids who aren't getting a good education today. For us, we're singularly focused on expanding high-quality charter schools and providing more seats at high-quality charter schools nationwide.

We took that approach because we did see that, you know, charter schools are like any school - you have some that are excellent and then you have some that are struggling a little bit more to provide high-quality option. And we felt that it was very important for the charter movement, for families that aren't accessing quality today and for public education in general to have access to high-quality education. And so we wanted to focus on expanding access to proven charter operators.

CHIDEYA: Ted, I want you to tell me a story about a parent or a child that has been, you know, whose life has been changed by the kind of work that you do.

Mr. HAMORY: Oh sure, absolutely. I mean, there's a lot of stories to tell. You know, I think what's interesting about our schools, a lot of families have changed their lives. They haven't moved or they've, you know, moved and then had to take the bus back to come to our school so they don't - once they're with us they very rarely leave and they are very satisfied.

I'm thinking of one family in particular who started commuting from Compton. You know, her mom worked across the street from our school and saw us when we were opening seven years ago, when we were opening. And she saw our school, she knew what the options were in Compton, and she brought her daughter every day to work with her and dropped her off at our school and stayed with us, you know, through eighth grade.

And then she didn't realize that at eighth grade it stopped. And when she found that her, you know, her daughter had to go, you know, back to Compton or wherever for high school she was devastated. She said, why can't you, you know, why can't you open a high school? Why can't you just keep her? And, you know, we're like, no, we can't. At this point we're only K-8, and now with the growth fund support, we will be able to open a high school pretty soon so we'll able to keep kids like that.

CHIDEYA: That's really exciting.

Mr. HAMORY: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: It's really exciting. What about things like testing and reading at grade point levels? That's something a lot of schools are struggling to have, their kids be able to read and do math at grade level. What's your success rate on that?

Mr. HAMORY: I mean, we're having very good student achievement results. We, you know, the growth fund sets pretty strong milestones for us to keep achieving. And we - our test scores, you know, our standardized test scores are above average for California. But what's interesting about us is we're also doing - our kids, by eighth grade, they're bilingual in English and Spanish.

CHIDEYA: That's the way to go in California.

Mr. HAMORY: And so, I mean, it's a lot of test scores, you know. So we're above average in English test scores but it doesn't reflect that our kids are also bilingual, which is, like, such an added benefit for the kids. And, you know, and our kids are, you know what we do with these kids is they just - there's so much reading and so many books that our kids, it's kind of like a discipline problems at schools that they won't put the books down. So, you know, we're having tremendous success with that.

CHIDEYA: That's fantastic. Jennifer, you get the last word. Just briefly, where does the money come from? And I'm assuming that your group is funded by individuals who are trying to transform more foundations. And how do you think that where you get your money impacts how the charter school movement will move forward?

Ms. STERN: We have a few anchor funders that - Don and Doris Fisher Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Bradley Foundation are sort of our anchor funders. And then we have several other funders coming in as well. There are a few very active national donors to the charter movement, but what's also very exciting is that there's a lot of localized funding support developing over time.

And so local funders are becoming connected to charters serving their communities, and I think that's really where charters going forward are going to feel a lot of additional support. So we can fund sort of developing systems and processes for these schools and helping them build some capacity. But they are also reaching into their local communities for support to develop to sustainability.

CHIDEYA: Well, Jennifer and Ted, thank you so much for talking to us about this.

Ms. STERN: Thank you.

Mr. HAMORY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Ted Hamory is co-founder of New City Public Schools, and Jennifer Stern is a partner in the Charter School Growth Fund. They both joined me here at the studios of NPR West.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Just ahead, do you want to blog? We teach you how. And actor Adam Beach of HBO's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."

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