Starting this year, Ohio is planning to toughen the way public schools are evaluated. Most schools are expected to drop a few grades under the new system.
All public schools are worried about getting downgraded, but the proposition is especially alarming to charter schools.
Ohio’s charter school closure law says if a charter is failing two out of three consecutive years, it automatically has to shut its doors.
Under the new school evaluation guidelines, ten percent of charter schools that get a C or higher today would get an F.
Combine those two ingredients and you’ve got a recipe for a panic attack.
Charter school representatives aren’t panicking yet but officials like Dave Cash are lobbying furiously for the state to reconsider their plight.
Cash is the director of the Ohio Association of Charter School Authorizers.
He says, “for a charter school it becomes much more than just a PR issue, it becomes a survival issue because it would potentially put many more schools that currently appear to be performing well into a category of not performing and doomed to close.”
Cash worries the combination of the new standards with the closure law could lead to many of Ohio’s 300 charter schools shutting their doors all at once.
Zanesville Community School in Southeast Ohio is a charter sponsored by the local public school district that targets students who have fallen behind. It got a C this past year, but according to estimates by the Ohio Department of Education it would have an F under the new system.
That’s bad news for students like Derek Humphrey.
Humphrey used to go to Zanesville High School, but a few months into this school year he left.
“My mom thought they were holding me back up there, and they kinda were,” he says. “And I was always getting picked on because of my height.”
At 16-years old, Humphrey’s is just under five feet tall. He has attention deficit disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
He was held back a year in the first grade, because he says that’s because he took too long to write his perfectly formed letters.
Humphrey says he’d have nowhere to go if Zanesville Community, the charter school, shut down. He’d turn to homeschooling, “and I don’t like homeschool,” he says.
In the new environment, he’s making academic progress. He switched to the charter school about three months into the school year and finished up his sophomore year within four months.
He plans to study art and metal welding after he graduates next year.
Seventeen -year-old Johnesha Allender also made impressive progress at the Community School after getting into trouble with some pills that weren’t prescribed for her.
“I had took in some medicine and thought it was pain killers but it wasn’t,” she says. “It messed me all up and I was in the hospital.”
Allender says she won’t be repeating that mistake.
She just graduated ahead of schedule and plans to start hair design school this fall.
But if it weren’t for the community school, “I would have still had a whole other year and probably summer school because when I was a sophomore I failed like three classes, so I would have had to retake them this year and all my senior classes next year,” she says.
Bill Sims, President of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says the new school performance standards do not reflect the progress of students like Humphrey and Allender, because they don’t put enough emphasis on value added – a score that measures how much a student has learned over the course of a year.
Sims says, “it is entirely possible that you will have these urban charter schools making great gains with kids, accomplishing more than a year’s worth of work in a year’s time. But they can never achieve an A grade.”
Charter advocates have started lobbying state officials to reconsider either the new evaluations or the closure law.
Matt Cohen with the Ohio Department of Education says the department is “perfectly willing to work with the charter schools and look at the legislation and if there’s particulars that need to be adjusted to be accommodating to this new system.”
Cohen goes on to add that the charter school closure law exists “because the general assembly and folks believe they need to be there, that’s not going to go away. But we also don’t want to make it such that charter schools are just dropping into a closure situation because of some artifacts of other parts of the law. That’s not our intent.”
Both the federal government and the state legislature have yet to sign off on the proposed new school grading system.
But Cohen says even if the new guidelines are approved, the prospect of hundreds of charters shutting down all at once is highly unlikely.