Charter School Struggles To Find Students

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In continuation of the program's focus on education issues, guest host Jennifer Ludden checks in with Kavitha Cardoza, a reporter for NPR member station WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C., about enrollment problems at the National Preparatory Public Charter School, which is opening next month. More than a third of students in the nation's capitol are enrolled in charter schools — the largest percentage in the country. But National Prep is having trouble meeting its enrollment figures.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll hear about why some school vaccines are causing controversy among public health officials and parents.

But first, the latest story in our education series. This week, classes have begun for public school students in many communities across the country, including here in Washington, D.C. In many ways, this city's school system is a microcosm of urban education in America.

So over the course of the summer, we've been checking in with Kavitha Cardoza. She reports on education issues for member station WAMU here in Washington, and she joins us now. Welcome back.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: The first story we'd like to update is about charter schools here. You've been covering National Prep Charter in Washington. Tell me what is special about this school and what issues does it face now?

CARDOZA: Well, this is a high school in Ward 8, which is a very low-income area in D.C. and they want to take students from that area - where traditionally schools don't go - and show people that low income kids can achieve very high levels. I mean, they talk about not just the poverty the children face, but the poverty of thought in the area, where people don't believe that these children can accomplish things that students in other wards can. They have actually started a get-at-the-student effort…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARDOZA: …in order to recruit students.

LUDDEN: Because they're supposed to open for the first time now.

CARDOZA: Right, September 8th is opening day, and they still are about a fourth of the students short than what they projected. That might not seem like a lot. But in terms of charter schools, especially, it is a lot because each child brings in about $13,000. So while they say that the core curriculum will not be affected, that would affect a portion of their budget that goes for rent and things like that.

LUDDEN: So what are they doing to try and get students here at this very late date?

CARDOZA: Well, what is interesting is I spent an entire Saturday on the street corner in front of Safeway in Ward 8 where they had a professional recruiter handing out fliers. And it was pretty amazing to see people's reactions. Some of them wanted more information. Some of them said that charter schools are no better than D.C. public schools. Some of them were so happy that there was a high school that was another alternative for children in that ward.

LUDDEN: Does the fact that this charter school is still lagging in enrollment, is that a trend, at all, in D.C. or nationally?

CARDOZA: In D.C., it's hard to tell. Just last week, another charter school which is a bilingual Spanish-English charter school closed its doors because they did not meet enrollment. Having said that, that's not the case - Tom Nida, head of the Charter School Board, gave me an example of a charter school for its kindergarten program had 25 spots and they had more than 12,000 applications.

Across the nation, though, there is a trend where students are leaving urban public school districts and going to charter schools or to alternative education. And actually, that's one of the things that traditional D.C. public school system is trying to counteract.

LUDDEN: Well, right, D.C. schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, has been trying very hard to stem this flow from the public schools into charters and others. You have interviewed her recently. She's been a big national figure in the news. Her efforts to overhaul the schools here have landed her in Oprah's Top 20 Power List. Is she leading national trends on public education reform, do you think? Or following them?

CARDOZA: I think a lot of people would say, for better or worse, she's leading them. She has improved test scores for the second year in a row. She has closed the achievement gap among minority students and white students. I would say Chancellor Michelle Rhee's big push is that it all starts at the top. If you have a strong principal and strong teachers, you are going to have children learning.

LUDDEN: D.C. schools are also requiring more vaccines this year…

CARDOZA: Mm-hmm.

LUDDEN: …than before and here's what Chancellor Rhee told you about the decision to require the controversial HPV vaccine. This protects against strands of the human papillomavirus that can cause cervical cancer.

Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools): It's something that health officials have gone back and forth on quite a bit and our Department of Health highly recommended that we move in this direction. But I really do encourage all of our families to do the research, understand what the pros and cons are and make the decision that they think is right for their daughters.

LUDDEN: So girls in the sixth grade will be required to get their vaccine unless their parents object. Do you have any sense of how parents are reacting to this?

CARDOZA: Well, let me start with the reason for - they had said that D.C. has the highest rates of cervical cancer in the nation, 60 percent higher than the national average. And the council member who actually spearheaded this effort said that this was something an advisory committee of the CDC had recommended.

Parents, as you can imagine, have a range of opinions. Many think 10- or 12-year-old girls, they're just way too young, that they don't know enough about the vaccine. There had been some watchdog groups that have reported about 50 children have died from side effects. So they feel they don't have enough information.

I think the majority of parents, though, I'd have to say, Jennifer, didn't know that they could opt out. So what the council has done is it's an opt out program rather than an opt in. And some of the parents and council members are worried that parents will go to the clinic, and if they don't know that they can opt out, their children, their daughters would just go ahead and get the vaccine.

LUDDEN: Kavitha Cardoza is a reporter who covers education for NPR member station WAMU, and she joined us here in our Washington studio. Thank you so much.

CARDOZA: It's lovely to be here.

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