Utah charter schools' grades no better than traditional schools

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 4 2013 6:35 p.m. MDT

Sixth-grader Jackson Holdaway writes a word as Diane Ballard reads words aloud during a spelling quiz to her sixth-grade class at John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Charter schools fared about the same as traditional schools under Utah's controversial new public school grading system.

Comparing the two shows similar percentages of A's, B's, C's, D's and F's. Like traditional schools, charter schools are good and not so good. And like traditional schools, demographics seem to play a role in how well charter schools scored.

Chris Bleak, president of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, isn't surprised and said charter schools have performed well.

"I'm not concerned that there are schools across the spectrum. In the same vein, I think we need to look and see what schools are doing well and what's not working," he said.

Bleak said if a charter school isn't executing its charter or isn't able to prove its model works over a couple of years, it should be discontinued.

Of the state's 82 charter schools to get grades, 15 percent received an A, 41 percent a B, 26 percent a C, 10 percent a D and 9 percent an F.

Grades are based on a point system that scores schools on the number of students proficient in English, math and science, as well as growth in proficiency and, in the the case of high schools, graduation rates.

Publicly funded and independently operated, charter schools launched in Utah 13 years ago with a notion to involve parents in education, focus money in the classroom, raise test scores and encourage innovation.

While some of the more than 80 schools educating 60,000 children are accomplishing that mission, others continue to be a work in progress. And like traditional schools, the letter grades released Tuesday reflect success, failure and everything in between.

"The purpose for charter schools was to provide different options within the public setting. We didn't necessarily say we were going to be better than the traditional elementary school or junior high or high school. We said we were going to meet the needs of students that didn't necessarily fit there," said Julie Adamic, principal of John Hancock Academy in Pleasant Grove, one of the state's first charter schools.

John Hancock received a B. Adamic said that was lower than she had hoped, but "it got me thinking. It got the juices flowing."

Each charter school has its own mission that may or may not include academic rigor or English, math and science as the top priority.

Spectrum Academy draws kids with autism. East Hollywood High attracts dropouts. Kairos Academy for teen mothers intends to open next fall.

If it's not an A school, it doesn't mean it isn't successful, Bleak said.

Former state lawmaker Brian Allen set Utah's charter school movement in motion 16 years ago and later became chairman of the state charter school board. He no longer holds that position but serves as a board member at Endeavor Hall in West Valley City. The school received a D grade.

Allen said he was "disappointed," but rather than wring its hands, the school needs figure out how to do better. He said the grade can't be blamed on demographics or being a new school.

"We want to compete head to head with every other school that's out there. Whatever measurement system they come up with, as long as it makes sense and I think is fair, then we'll live with it, deal with it and do whatever we can do to improve," Allen said.

American Preparatory Academy has schools in Draper and West Valley City. The Draper campus scored an A, while the West Valley schools, including one that caters to children new to the United States, received C's.

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