Despite some mixed results, charter schools in the Oklahoma City school district generally are outperforming their traditional public school counterparts.
And that has district administrators taking notice.
Once perceived as a threat to other public schools because of their nontraditional methods, the success of the district's 13 charters, including five A's and three B's on the latest state-issued report cards, has prompted a desire for collaboration.
“There is a sense of common purpose between the district and the charters,” said Dave Lopez, the district's interim superintendent. “But I don't think we have fully exploited the best practices that we might be able to learn from charters.”
The district received an F from the state Education Department because of its poor overall showing — 39 F's, 20 D's, 14 C's, 10 B's and 10 A's — and is looking for answers.
Charter schools are public schools established by contract with sponsors and often promote a specific curriculum and learning style. Charters are privately run but publicly funded schools that emphasize small class sizes, extended hours, close student-teacher relationships and a strong sense of community.
Charter schools have greater flexibility, but still must remain accountable for their performance.
“You have a lot of autonomy with how you allocate resources, funding and curriculum,” said Lee Elementary School Principal Shelly Deas, a former charter schoolteacher at KIPP Academy in northeast Oklahoma City. “Sometimes that's good and sometimes that's bad.”
At least two charter schools in the Oklahoma City district have been accused of academic and financial misconduct. The school board closed Marcus Garvey Leadership in May, and Lopez has recommended terminating the contract of Harper Academy, a charter school for high-risk students.
“It's not so much about public versus charter, it's about what is going on at each school and who's running it,” Deas said.
No teacher evaluation
Charters are not required to evaluate teachers the same way the district's other schools do. Conversely, charter teachers are not protected by unions and can be fired at will for poor job performance.
“If you do a good job with our kids, we keep you on,” said Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South Schools. “If not, we will either terminate you or encourage you to seek employment elsewhere.”
Brewster is a former teacher at Capitol Hill High School who started Santa Fe South, a K-12 charter, in 2011. He turned down a chance to be a principal in the Oklahoma City district because he said had grown tired of a system he called “deeply, deeply broken.”
“We need to have systems in these buildings that support high-quality instruction, that compel it, that work to engage our families and communities at much greater levels of responsibility,” Brewster said of the district. “I never saw it. I know it is being done in certain places by certain administrators and teachers who find ways to make it happen, but systemically I don't see it happening.”