by Chris Young
"Charter schools are the best thing since sliced bread!"
"No! They're evil!"
In the last couple of years, this has been the rhetoric as the debate over charter schools has revved up in the state legislature. So which side is right?
Probably neither. Just as there are good and bad traditional public schools, there are good and bad charter schools. And there's no better way to illustrate that point than to take a look at the Pittsburgh Public Schools' recent recommendations on renewal applications filed by two local high schools the district charters.
On Tuesday, the city district recommended that the school board renew City Charter High, located Downtown. Yet they also advised the board to reject the renewal application for Career Connections Charter High School, in Lawrenceville.
To reach those recommendations, the district's charter review teams conducted site visits, examined financial reports and reviewed student performance data to determine whether each school has been living up to the terms of its charter agreement with the district. Judging by the review teams' findings, it's easy to see that one has and one hasn't.
City High boasts test scores well above district averages in reading and math. For example, 78.6 percent of the school's 11th-graders scored proficient or better in reading in 2011. Just 59 percent of the district's 11th-grade students, by comparison, scored the same. In math, the gap between City High and the district average was closer, but the charter's scores were still better by about three percentage points.
In addition to City High's positive test scores, the review team highlighted the educational opportunities offered at the school, most notably its senior internship program, which includes an "extensive list of business partners," according to the district. The report also praised the school's "innovative instructional strategies."
The same couldn't be said for Career Connections.
"A failure of the school to meet the conditions, standards and procedures contained in the original charter agreement prompted the District's charter review team to recommend the Board not renew the charter of Career Connections Charter High School," a press release from the district states. "The team found very few students were participating in authentic internships, a key component of the charter's mission.
"In many cases student internships were achieved by students continuing to work at previously held jobs," the release continues. A majority of students were not in internships at all, but instead pursuing dual enrollment."
Test scores didn't help the school's chances of renewal, either.
In 2011, just 18.5 percent of Career Connections' 11th-graders scored at least proficient in math, a 32.5 percentage-point drop from the previous year ... and well below the district high school average of 47.5 percent.
"The lack of a true internship program, academic rigor, and any evident of innovative teaching led the team to conclude the charter did not provide the district with expanded choices or educational opportunities," the district states in the press release.
This isn't the first time the district recommended not to renew Career Connections' charter. In 2007, the district's review team advised the board to reject the school's renewal application because of "substantial violations of the law and consistent low performance." After the recommendation, however, the charter resolved some of the issues and planned to address other concerns, prompting the board to approve the renewal application.
The Pittsburgh school board is expected to vote on the review teams' recommendations on March 21.