Are Children “Left Behind” in Charter Schools Where Some Test Scores are Rising?

There are three schools less than 1 mile west of the Columbia Heights Metrorail station in Washington, D.C.

Bell Multicultural High School, Lincoln Middle School and Capital City Public Charter School all share the same short stretch of land in this small community.

The physical features of each are very similar; brown brick structures with cement porches and steps. However, a quick glance through the windows of Capital City reveals something quite contrary.

Color is splashed everywhere, from the bright red, blue and yellow rugs to the bright oranges and reds of the students’ sweaters.

The atmosphere is different as well. Children ranging in height from 3 feet to well over 5 feet literally race around the building, stopping to talk with a favorite front desk administrator or teacher, before resuming their frantic pace.

Capital City is a charter school, an autonomous unit within the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, and relatively free from many of the restraints imposed on Bell and Lincoln.

The website for Capital City boasts that the institution is a “small, award-winning public school of choice for children Pre-K through eighth grade,” but, under the educational legislation known as No Child Left Behind, Capital City is failing.

The legislation binds every public school to certain academic standards as measured by a statewide standardized test.

Capital City’s pupils, bright-eyed and eager as they are, cannot seem to pass the tests that Washington administers, collectively known as the DC Comprehensive Assessment System.

According to No Child Left Behind’s online “report card” of the school, its scores did not meet annual progress benchmarks in math or reading for the 2005-06 school year. If the school falls short again this year, it will be labeled “In Need of Improvement.” Missing the benchmarks a third time will make the school a target for “Corrective Action” and then finally, “Restructuring,” the mark of death for low-achieving schools. “Corrective Action” and “Restructuring” mean less federal funding and the possible closing of a public school.

Capital City is just one of many schools in the DC Public Charter School Board that failed to meet No Child Left Behind’s standards. In fact, only 4 of the 39 schools that are chartered through the board met the benchmarks for average yearly progress in both Math and Reading; a handful more met the target in either subject.

If the schools or the way they are judged is not changed, the school lives of 26 percent of public school children in the city is going to be subject to extraordinary disruption in the next few years. And the number of children likely to be affected is growing. The number of students attending public charter schools is increasing by about 12-15% each year, says Ms. Nona Richardson, a representative for the DC Public Charter School Board.

Yet, administrators like Richardson and Ms. Kathy Byrd, Academic Programs Director for another secondary charter school, Paul Public believe that neither the students nor the schools are actually failing, but improving.

Paul Public, Capital City and other charter schools routinely fail to produce a student population with skills that match their grade level, though the students have significantly improved their scores. For them, this is an almost impossible task given that most of their students enter the charter school system considerably behind.

“The initial assessment [at Paul Public] typically reveals about 55 percent of students below grade level, 25 percent on grade level, and 20 percent above grade level,” explains Ms. Byrd.

With No Child Left Behind reauthorization scheduled to go before Congress soon, the fates of Capital City, Paul Public and every other public charter school in DC hang in the balance. In their corner sits the National Education Association, a lobbying and support group for educators, that is furiously attempting to change the current No Child Left Behind standards. President Reg Weaver announced Wednesday that,

“We need to make sure struggling schools have the resources they need to improve. And we need to make sure the law is flexible enough to take a school’s improvement into consideration before leveling heavy-handed sanctions.”