Achievement Gap a Problem at Some Michigan Charter Schools

Charter schools operating in Michigan have slightly better results on this year's state report cards than traditional public schools — with one glaring omission. In some of the charters managed by the National Heritage Academies the achievement gap between low-achievers and high-achievers is higher than average, and growing, which is raising concerns among the state's academic leaders.

The achievement gap is a concern at nearly all charters, where the learning environment seems uniquely suited to encourage the achievement of driven students but leaving low-achievers behind. Still, universities that oversee charter schools in the state have maintained their commitment to close the gap by adjusting the curriculum to help underachievers catch up with their peers rather than by limiting enrollment to those students who score well on standardized tests. One of the conditions for the charter schools to continue to operate is to maintain an open enrollment policies like traditional public schools, so changing admissions to take into account test results could mean that a school would lose the license to operate in Michigan.

The state Education Department last week ranked every school in the state and cast 146 in a new "priority" category for persistently poor performance and 358 in a "focus" category because of significant gaps between the highest- and lowest-scoring students.

About 3.5 percent of the state's 255 charter schools were placed in the priority category, compared to 5.2 percent of traditional schools. And 9 percent of the charters are in the focus category, compared to 12.6 of the traditional schools.

More than half of the charters in the "focus" category are managed by National Heritage Academies based in Grand Rapids. Of the remaining focus schools, five are independently managed and the rest have different operators. Timothy Wood, the director of Grand Valley State University's Charter School Office, complimented National Heritage for the job they are doing with high achievers and reconfirmed the university's commitment to working with the company leaders to improve the academic outcomes of those students who might be falling behind.

All five Grand Valley authorized schools on the focus list are operated by National Heritage, and Wood said the university intends to take a hands-on approach.

Wood said research shows that students who are at grade level in reading do better in other subjects, and the university has reading specialists who will be assigned to helping Heritage teachers.

David Polumbo, the chief academic officer of NHA, in a response to the state's report card, said that company takes the concerns raised by state officials seriously. He reiterated that student achievement isn't something that the NHA takes for granted; however, he said that since the school's curriculum is designed to challenge each child, it might be uniquely prone to creating these kinds of achievement gaps since it doesn't limit the potential of its most ambitious and hard-working students. Still, the company is taking a look at the latest state data and is going to work on improving the achievement level of all the children enrolled in its schools, thus narrowing the gap.

The report card wasn't all bad news for NHA. Two of the 46 schools it operates in Michigan have ended up in the highest achievement category.

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