Are charter schools improving student performance? YES

Charters take more difficult students, improve faster than public schools

Are charter schools improving student performance? As principal of Mid-Michigan Public School Academy, I have to answer with an enthusiastic "Yes, we are!" Charter schools like mine across the state of Michigan are taking a tougher cohort of students and meeting state achievement standards at a much quicker rate than traditional public schools.

Mid-Michigan Public School Academy (MMPSA) is an urban, inner-city school located on the North side of Lansing, Mich. The student body is drawn from the surrounding neighborhood and other impoverished neighborhoods around the city. Our school, one of the first charter schools established in Michigan, has been operating for six years. Its mission is to be the model of academic and personal success for the students we serve. We have developed a reputation for providing a strong reading curriculum, a rich technological and fine arts environment, and a safe atmosphere. We require students to wear uniforms and have a strict but fair discipline policy aimed at encouraging our children to focus on learning. Our Positive Behavior Support approach provides us with counseling and guidance services, enabling our student body to avoid many of the behavioral problems that beset other public schools.

The demographics of the MMPSA student body are crucial in judging our success. It is comprised of transitory, economically challenged families, with a high percentage of parents who did not graduate from high school, and many with uncertain job status. Our families are predominantly low income, with 74 percent of our students qualifying for the free or reduced breakfast and lunch programs this year. Our families are racially diverse: 48 percent are African American, 23 percent are Caucasian, 15 percent are Hispanic, 12 percent are multi-racial, and 2 percent are of other ethnicities. Our demographic profile clearly differs from state and local district averages; a difference affecting expected academic achievement since low-income and minority students often have lower academic achievement.

Media coverage often portrays charter schools as having achievement test scores that are lower than surrounding public school districts. But in our case, as with most charter schools across the state, test scores are rising at a faster rate in reading, math and writing than those scores are rising in surrounding public schools. When comparing charter school achievement with that of other public schools, what should be examined is the increase in test performance over time, taking into consideration demographic differences that affect achievement expectations.

In fact, 2001 data from the Education Trust, U.S. Department of Education and Michigan Department of Education show 4th-grade charter student test scores meeting state reading standards at twice the rate of other public school students. Fourth-grade charter school students were meeting state math standards at more than 56-times the rate of students at other public schools. And 7th graders in charter schools were meeting state reading standards at nearly twice the rate of their traditional public school counterparts. (For more information, click here.)

Mid-Michigan Public School Academy has made a commitment to students and families to continue raising test scores and improving academic successes notwithstanding the socioeconomic obstacles we face.

Due to this commitment, our school was recently awarded a Governor's Golden Apple Award for marked improvement on Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) tests.

We reach out to many impoverished children who have not done well in traditional public school districts. Contrary to current media coverage, charter schools are causing the local public districts to sit up and take notice. The healthy competition that schools like ours create demands better performance from all schools. Much like an athlete whose spirited effort quickens the pace of the entire group, charters are having a positive impact on Michigan's education system. The competition is making us all stronger! In my 20 years of educational experience, I have never seen such teamwork and commitment in a school situation. Charter schools are improving the educational achievement not just for their own, but for all the children of our great state.

Kathy Larkey-Green is principal of Mid-Michigan Public School Academy in Lansing, Mich.