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Friday, April 27, 2012

Application process for charter schools in New Hampshire raises the bar

Michael Brindley

Looking at the application process for the Academy for Science and Design, Merrimack’s public charter school, one could easily mistake it for the steps one would find for gaining admission to a private school.

After attending the mandatory information session, students must get two letters of recommendation from their current school, one letter of recommendation from someone outside the school, fill out a 29-question academic interest survey, take part in an interview with school staff and, finally, take a skills assessment.

Director David Chauvette admitted it is intensive and is “almost like a college, private school process,” but he also believes it’s necessary. Not to protect the school, he said, but to protect the parents and the children.

“Our process is on the longer side because we try to expose the student and parent to the reality of the school. We have to make sure the students are capable of doing the work,” he said. “We don’t want to put any student on academic probation. The issue we run into with students we accept who are marginal, the reality is they struggle.”

Tonight, the charter school is hosting an open house for parents of fifth-grade students, who are interested in sending their child to the school. There is likely to be a large turnout with the school, which focuses heavily on math, science and technology, deciding to add sixth grade next year.

But while the state Department of Education makes the claim that charter schools are open to all New Hampshire students, it would seem that isn’t the case. According to its website, only students who “qualify for admission” are eligible to attend the Academy for Science and Design.

In all other public school systems in the state, the only qualifier for admission is that they live in the district. When students show up to a Nashua school, they can’t be turned away because they don’t qualify for admission or can’t get letters of recommendation. It doesn’t matter if students have struggled in the past with grades or attendance. They are legally required to educate all students.

Charter schools, while receiving public funding, are allowed to self-select their student population by putting in such requirements for admission. “Chartered public schools may select pupils on the basis of aptitude, academic achievement, or need, provided that such selection is directly related to the academic goals of the school,” state law reads.

But what if a student can’t get three letters of recommendation, one of which has to be from a math or science teacher? They don’t get to reap the benefits of the Merrimack charter school.

If charter schools truly are the panacea for the nation’s education crisis that many advocates would have you believe, shouldn’t it be the other way around? It would seem students who have struggled in the traditional classroom setting – those who would be least likely to be able to get those letters of recommendation – could benefit most from the charter school.

In addition to receiving $5,450 per student from the state, the Merrimack charter school sustains itself through fundraising. Charter schools are not responsible for paying for special education costs. As required by law, if more students apply than there are spaces, the school must hold a lottery. Chauvette said the school has not had to hold a lottery since it opened in 2007.

Chauvette said that during the application process, school staff will counsel parents if they think their children will struggle with the school’s advanced curriculum. He pointed out they don’t have the resources to pay for remedial courses to get students caught up.

“We’ll tell them we think your child will have issues here,” Chauvette said. “It’s a reality check.”

The question is why Chauvette and other principals believe it’s their job to protect parents. The school gives this rationale: “Schools of choice depend on parents and students making an informed choice. For this reason, students and parents are required to attend an informational session and all students are required to have an interview.”

However, it would seem the thorough process is more a way for the school to protect its charter, which requires students to meet certain performance benchmarks on standardized tests. Last year, 97 percent of students scored proficient or better in math and 89 were proficient or better in science. At the same time, the school doesn’t have a single student living in poverty or who can’t speak English, according to state data.

If the school let anyone through without a screening process, those test scores would certainly drop. But wouldn’t that also be the true test of whether the school’s approach is truly innovative? Chauvette said it’s not about protecting the charter, but “realizing the charter.”

The local charter school is not alone in its application requirements. The Cocheco Arts and Technology Academy in Dover also requires a letter of recommendation as part of its application. There are others that don’t, particularly those intended to reach struggling learners.

Great Bay eLearning Charter School in Exeter outlines the types of students it is looking for, and more importantly, the types of students it isn’t. The school states on its website it is looking for students with few disciplinary issues. Not only that, but “students having tendencies toward violence, severe emotional issues or being unable to work independently, with peers, or with staff would not be considered appropriate candidates,” according to the school.

If only all public schools could reject such burdensome students, then we could really solve the education crisis.

Roberta Tenney, who oversees charter schools for the state Department of Education, said there are no guidelines as far as application requirements for charter schools.

“These are mission-driven schools,” she said. “Parents and students need to know what they’re going to be required to do. They can’t exclude somebody, but you can make sure they know the mission.”

Tenney dismissed the idea that students with emotional problems are turned away at the Exeter school, claiming students with such issues are flourishing there. But yet there it is, written clearly on the site for potential applicants to see as a barrier to their attendance. Tenney said it might need to be taken down.

Charter school principals will often say the most common misconception they hear from parents is that they are private schools. Maybe that’s because, in some cases, they function like one, at least when it comes to admitting students.

No one can debate creating learning options for students and families is a good thing, and the Academy for Science and Design helps fill that need. But other than a simple application form, there should be no other requirements for students who want to enroll in a charter school. It’s not the school’s job to decide which students should be receiving an education the public pays for.

Students and their families would be better served if charter schools didn’t try so hard to protect them from getting in over their heads but focused more on making themselves as open to all students as possible, with as few barriers to attendance as needed.

Then we would really know whether it’s an innovative approach that leads to such high test scores, not just the winnowing out of the weaker students who don’t make the cut.

The Learning Curve appears Thursdays in The Telegraph. Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or