Charters still growing, still have naysayers

Charter schools are public schools, meaning they are funded by public money and cannot discriminate on the basis of race or religion.

The number of charter schools in Philadelphia has grown dramatically since the state first authorized them with the Pennsylvania Charter School Law in 1997. Almost a quarter (23.8 percent) of Philadelphia public-school students attended charter schools in the 2011-2012 school year. If present trends continue, that proportion could reach 40 percent in five years, according to a recently released study by Boston Consulting Group.

Not everyone is a fan of charter schools, which cost the School District of Philadelphia, on average, an additional $7,000 per seat. School Reform Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky, for instance, has said that there are more cost-effective strategies than expanding charter schools to help the district and SRC expand the number of “high-performing seats” in city schools.

The BSG study projects that charter expansion will cost the district $139 million over the next five years, including the $13 million already approved in the 2012-2013 budget. This number is part of the district’s projected $283 million budget shortfall for the upcoming year.

Although they are exempt from some of the state and local requirements that constrain traditional schools, they are still required to comply with federal laws like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Masters of the school turnaround

Mastery Charter Schools are unusual in the charter-school landscape in Philadelphia — they turn around struggling neighborhood schools, rather than create new magnet schools.

“Of the 11 schools we operate, nine are turnarounds,” said Leslie Hall, assistant director of development and communication. “We take the same buildings — and students — of schools that have been failing.” The turnaround starts with the school itself: Mastery invests $800,000 to $1.2 million in renovations in each school it takes on. The students come from the surrounding neighborhood. They must fill out a simple application form, but they’re admitted without judgment of their qualifications.

To provide the help that many of the students need, Mastery schools have both a longer school day (till 4:00 most days) and a longer school year (their first day was last Wednesday). Saturday sessions are available for students who need extra help: Since some are functioning at three to five grades behind level, this can be many of them.

In addition to academics, the schools offer extra-curricular activities, from music to art to football.

Each school has different activities, depending on what the students want and the resources available.

For more education news follow Judy Weightman on Twitter @JudyWEdu.

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