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Are charter students smarter?

Veronica Whitney

The 8-year-old school, a complex of seven modular buildings with second-hand lockers and a waiting list of 500 students, led the Eagle County School District in most of the last year’s Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, which evaluates how well schools and students meet state standards in writing, reading, math and science.

The charter academy in Edwards is one of 89 charter schools in the state topping the CSAP rankings at all grade levels, as reported by the Colorado Department of Education. The Eagle County Charter Academy, in fact, scored the highest 12 out of 15 scores in the “proficient level.”

CSAP tests are rated in five levels: “Meets or exceeds standard”; “Advanced; “Proficient”; “Partially proficient”; “Unsatisfactory.”



In 13 tests, the charter academy scored above 80 percent in the “meet or exceeds standard” level. Students at the academy also had the lowest number of scores in the “unsatisfactory” category, with not even one student scored in that category a dozen tests.

In seventh-grade math, for example, where all other local schools scored barely above 50 percent in the “proficient level,” the academy scored 75 percent. By comparison, the average scores at the regular public schools made local school district officials set a goal of having 80 percent of students scoring at the “proficient” and “advanced” levels in three years.



“We have a challenging academic program,” says Jay Cerny, the charter academy’s principal. “What we do is working.”

Eagle County School District Assistant Superintendent John Brendza says the achievement gap between regular schools and the charter academy is a product of having different student populations.

“Socioeconomic, language and mobility factors will create a gap in the results,” he says. “Poverty is a predictor of students’ performance in school.”



Regular schools in the district, for example, have a much higher rate of children whose parents have two jobs and can’t be involved in their children’s education, he says.

“One thing the academy does very well is the parental involvement,” Brendza says.

Parents at the Eagle County Charter Academy volunteer about a total of about 12,000 hours a year, the Colorado Department of Education reports.

“We have to think how we’re involving the parents in our regular schools,” Brendza says.

High mobility in the school district impacts students’ achievement as well, Brendza says.

“The more homogeneous the student population is, the more predictable the scores are,” he says. “There’s a 60 percent mobility factor in regular schools in the district compared to zero at the charter academy. When you have such high rates of mobility, there’s no consistency of instruction from one teacher.”

Language barriers among minority students also are presenting a problem, Brendza says.

Last school year, the district had 38 percent of Hispanic students – 16 percent of those, or 741 students, were in the schools’ English as a Second Language, or ESL, programs. The major concentration of Hispanic students is at Avon Elementary School – 53 percent – and Edwards Elementary School – 64 percent.

“The CSAP results helped us identify that our minority students are scoring less than our white students,” Brendza says. “There’s a huge discrepancy in scores between Hispanics and white students. There’s an achievement gap in the school district.”

Brendza says the school district will concentrate on five areas in order to better achievement:

– Reading

– Writing

– Math

– Special education

– ESL

“Right now, we’re working in the development of programs for special education and ESL students,” he says. “We need to ensure that teachers have the right tools to teach those children.”

Minority students at the charter academy – which represent only 5 percent of its 256 students – also didn’t do as well in the CSAP exams last. However, Cerny says, none of the scores of those students fell in the “unsatisfactory” category.

“This is also an area of growth for us,” Cerny says. “It’s a process where they get stronger every day.”

Cerny says the charter academy’s goal is to increase its Hispanic population.

“For many years we’ve put Hispanics on top of the waiting list,” Cerny says.

To make it more fair, Cerny says, the charter academy is changing its enrollment policy to an open lottery from the current “first come-first served.”

One of the reasons the charter academy doesn’t have so many Hispanic students is because it doesn’t provide transportation to the school, Cerny says.

To keep classes small – 16 students average – Cerny says school officials decided to forego a contract with the school district for transportation. The charter academy also goes with minimal janitorial services and no traditional lunch program. The school – which receives about the same amount of money per student from the state that other public schools do – pays $170,000 a year to lease the modular buildings.

“We have to fund-raise $160,000 last year,” Cerny says. “Our school is successful because we’re not paying for additional services. We haven’t considered transportation because it’s the most expensive part.”

“The charter academy is doing an awesome job, they have great results every year,” Brendza adds. “We need to look at their curriculum and instructional methods.”

Andy Wentzel, a sixth grader of Eagle who this year moved from Brush Creek Elementary to the charter academy says the academy is tougher.

“We have more classes and more homework,” he says.

Brendza says there aren’t excuses for last year’s average CSAP test results.

“This is about the students we have,” Brendza says. “And we have to meet their needs, no matter what their background is.”

What is a charter school?

– A charter school is a public school operated by a group of parents, teachers and community members as a semi-autonomous school of choice within a school district.

– It operates under a contract, or “charter,” between the members of the school’s community and the local board of education.

– Charter schools are required to participate in state-mandated Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP.

– A charter school is accountable to the families in the school, the local school district and the state.

– Charter schools are dependent upon recruiting enough students to make a school a financially viable organization.

– The Charter Schools Act outlines the details of funding, but generally a charter school receives 95 percent of the per pupil revenues from the state each year for operating expenses, capital reserve and risk insurance. A charter school may choose to purchase services from their school district or a third party.

– Most charter schools use either public transportation or carpools. When charter schools do have an agreement with their school district for route service, that arrangement is in the charter’s contract.

– The Charter Schools Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of need for special education services.

– The Charter Schools Act prohibits discrimination based on academic

ability. Diagnostic or placement exams may be given to students once they have been enrolled.

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.


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