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Charter schools for ‘at-risk’ kids: What are fair standards?

Many of these schools face the same system of assessment as a traditional public charter school — standards virtually impossible to meet.

English teacher Dan Frey and students during language arts class in one of the recording studios at the High School for the Recording Arts.
MinnPost photo by Sarah Rose Miller

English teacher Dan Frey sat in a dimly lit recording studio with a group of students at the High School for Recording Arts. Seventeen-year-old James Demo, facing him, was rapping the lyrics of a song he was working on.

It was one of several language arts classes happening that Thursday at the St. Paul high school.

Frey pressed Demo to focus his lyrics. Was the song about struggle? Or loneliness? “With humans, we live and strive for connection,” Demo said. When you lack that connection, it can be lonely, he explained.

For students at Recording Arts, loneliness and struggle are often not abstract principles but key components of their lives.

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The school is one of about 25 charter high schools in Minnesota that serve academically at-risk students. This can mean students who are behind in credits, perform well below their grade level, have dropped out of or been expelled from school, are pregnant, have mental health problems or — an increasing problem since the recession — are homeless.

Quartney Fore, 21, had been expelled from her previous high school. “I was with the wrong crowd, so to speak,” Fore said.

She graduated from Recording Arts in 2009, but has since come back to work there while she completes her associate degree in communications at Normandale Community College.

Fore said that Recording Arts’ project-style learning helped her succeed academically. “I’m an ‘A’ student in college,” Fore said. “Maybe it’s just that I wasn’t focused enough when I was in a traditional setting. When I came here, I excelled.”

While Recording Arts is tasked with helping students who, like Fore, have been unable to succeed in a traditional school setting, it is held to the same system of assessment as a traditional public charter school — a standard that is virtually impossible for it to maintain, according to the school’s education director, Paula Anderson.

Now, some are hoping to change that. Since Minnesota received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind mandate in early 2012, it now has more flexibility in how it evaluates schools. State Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, introduced a bill that would create alternate measures for evaluating charter schools that serve academically “at risk” students.

The need

The Minnesota Legislature laid the groundwork for alternative education programs more than two decades ago, leading to the establishment of district alternative schools known as area learning centers or ALCs. These have been evaluated differently than traditional public schools based on the understanding that the student populations they serve face significant academic challenges.

“These kids, because they’re making up many more credits, and they’ve come back into the system at age 17 or 18 — they can’t graduate on time,” said veteran educator Wayne Jennings.

So-called credit-recovery charter schools like Recording Arts, that serve a similarly at-risk population, do not benefit from the same exceptions.

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While ALCs do not receive a graduation rating, credit-recovery charters do, said Keith Hovis, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education.

That is not the only way in which ALCs are treated differently. “Here’s been the rub: some of these… ALC-like charter schools by law have to take the traditional tests, because there is currently no designated ALC for the charter world,” said Brian Sweeney, director of business excellence at Charter School Partners.

Anderson at Recording Arts said that the way credit-recovery charters are currently assessed does not provide an accurate picture of what each school is achieving.

“You just can’t differentiate between good and bad drop-out recovery charters if you don’t develop measurement tools that are specifically designed to measure those programs,” Anderson said. “It’s frustrating, because what’s in the paper is a snapshot of what this year’s tenth graders are doing on the reading test. What it doesn’t show is the story of how you really got someone from…a third grade up to a seventh grade level…. It doesn’t show the story of growth and the tremendous effort that our teachers have put in.”

Torrie Bingham, 18, Jerald Little, 20, and Jameil Cobb, 18, collaborate during l
MinnPost photo by Sarah Rose Miller
Torrie Bingham, 18, Jerald Little, 20, and Jameil Cobb, 18, collaborate during language arts class in one of the recording studios at the High School for the Recording Arts.

Under No Child Left Behind, the federal education law intended to raise student achievement, Recording Arts was frequently unable to make “adequate yearly progress” and underwent the first three stages of punitive action (out of five) associated with the mandate.

Instituting severe punitive action when schools are unable to meet academic goals creates “a massive disincentive for anybody to want to engage this population that needs to be engaged in an innovative way more than any other population in our state,” Anderson said.

Anderson and other advocates hope that credit-recovery charters will be granted the same flexibility that ALCs currently have. The state may in some ways be heading in the opposite direction, however.

“There is pressure from the feds to say that ALCs, or that these alternative learning programs, that they should be given a grad rate, and that they should be held accountable for the graduation of their students,” Hovis said.

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Minnesota’s current evaluation system does measure four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates though, Hovis said, instead of counting only four-year graduations. This should help ease the pressure on alternative schools where four-year or “on-time” graduation is essentially impossible.

Different ways to demonstrate success

Rep. David Bly
Rep. David Bly

Bly, who taught at the district alternative school in Northfield for 25 years, said he knows that a lot of at-risk children do poorly on tests but that “in many cases these students could demonstrate in other ways that they have learned a lot and that they can carry their learning over to other experiences in life.”

A new school assessment system known as Multiple Measurements Rating (MMR) was put into place following Minnesota’s No Child Left Behind waiver last February. This new system evaluates schools in four areas: proficiency, growth, graduation rate, and achievement gap reduction.

While MMR does attempt to shift the focus from pure “proficiency,” Jennings said school performance is still essentially based on tests and graduation rates.

“What’s been proposed is to say, ‘Yes, collect that data, but let’s take a look at some other ways of measuring progress.’ That’s where the alternative assessments come in,” Jennings said.  

While there may be some nit-picking over the details, advocates say, they don’t expect outright opposition to Bly’s bill within the Legislature.

There has been opposition to such measures in the past, with people “saying… ‘if you really have an effective program then these kids will graduate,’ and ‘you’re just making excuses,’…. But I think people realize that’s not very logical so I don’t hear that anymore,” Jennings said.

It is uncertain whether the state Department of Education will support Bly’s charter school bill or other bills that may come up relating to alternate measures of assessment. Hovis wouldn’t comment on specific bills. “Those discussions are really just happening,” Hovis said.

‘They did so much for me’

Perreon Cobbins with education director Paula Anderson
MinnPost photo by Sarah Rose Miller
Perreon Cobbins with education director
Paula Anderson

Now 20 years old, Perreon Cobbins came to Recording Arts when he was 17. “Most of the times, when I wasn’t at this school, I was worried about what person is after me, who I gotta fight,” Cobbins said. Cobbins said he spent two days in the hospital after receiving a stab wound that collapsed one of his lungs.

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“When I came here, what was my grade point average in reading?” Cobbins asked Anderson, who was seated behind her desk doing computer work. “It was hilariously depressing,” he said.

Anderson looked up Cobbins’ records. “Your reading score went up two and a half grade levels in one year,” she told him.

“Are you serious?” Cobbins answered. “That’s cool. Very cool.”

Cobbins will graduate in March. He plans to get a job so he can help support his four younger siblings and be around to “keep their heads inside of school.” Ultimately, he intends to enroll at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul.

“It’s incredible the things these people have to offer and I can’t thank them no more,” Cobbins said, reflecting on his time at Recording Arts. “So if I do make it somewhere, I’m definitely coming back here to show them how much I appreciate them and how much I love them, ‘cause they did so much for me.”

Sarah Rose Miller is a MinnPost intern.