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Thursday, Oct 02, 2014
Commentary

School choice: Works for students and parents, and will work for MacDill


Published:   |   Updated: July 17, 2014 at 06:41 AM

The Florida Department of Education just released its annual grades for the state’s elementary and secondary schools. There will be enough headlines about failing schools, but let me point to real areas of progress in hopes of generating more options for families — especially military families.

As a member of the team at Charter Schools USA, I have been extremely active in Hillsborough County trying to open new schools and monitoring progress of our existing charters.

Last year MacDill Air Force Base submitted plans for an on-base charter school to help improve the quality of life for military members and their children. In fact, a poll of military parents at MacDill found that over 90 percent supported the plan for a charter school. MacDill’s desire for more on-base options stems from the unique nature of military life and the desire to help reduce the burden of frequent moves and stress placed on the children of service members.

Single-parent homes are the norm when a parent is deployed. But MacDill has only one school on base, so children who live on the base are spread across nine district schools, making a convenience as simple as carpooling impossible. If you look at active-duty military in total — not living on the base — they are spread out across 74 schools in Hillsborough County.

Officials at MacDill wanted more school options, and CSUSA worked with them to submit a plan for a charter school that would educate nearly 1,000 students. Unfortunately, the Hillsborough County school district essentially blocked the application, citing CSUSA’s performance at newly managed charter schools and the state scores that were recently updated.

CSUSA operates three charter schools in Hillsborough, including Winthrop Charter School (A), Henderson Hammock (B) and Woodmont (C). Each of these three schools have made strong progress since opening, and all improved their letter grades this year.

Woodmont opened in 2011 with 600 students from some of the county’s worst-performing schools. Woodmont’s grade from the state last year was a F. District officials cited this grade to bolster their case, disregarding the fact that the students enrolled at Woodmont fell behind while under district supervision. But the grades don’t tell the whole story.

We knew change would take some time — it usually takes four years to pull scores up from failing grades — but this week it was announced that Woodmont is now a C. This may have been news to some in the district, but this progress was anticipated by the hard-working teachers and the 95 percent of parents who re-enrolled their children. Woodmont students increased their average math proficiency by 18 points, science proficiency by 14 points and reading proficiency by 9 percentage points

In comparison, the Hillsborough school district received 23 D’s and 7 F’s.

There’s always more work to do, but Winthrop, Woodmont and Henderson Hammock charter schools are clearly moving in the right direction in Tampa.

Unfortunately, the school district has blocked additional efforts of ours to incorporate change in Hillsborough County.

I’d like to say the MacDill application was the first time education reformers have encountered school officials who’ve disguised politics in bureaucratic minutiae. But it’s not, and in most instances we’ve been able to break through. By August, CSUSA will manage 70 schools in seven states. Every school has increased its academic performance over time and closed the achievement gap, especially for low-income students.

The CSUSA model is to go into the toughest districts or markets where unique issues — such as the fluidity and variability of military life — pose unique challenges for families. Like many in the education reform and choice movement, it’s our mission — no, our duty and privilege — to try to solve the hardest problems.

Florida represents our most fertile ground for change, and it’s where our company was founded. CSUSA manages 41 Florida public charters. This year CSUSA’s net proficiency growth in reading, math, writing and science is almost 10 times higher than the state.

By the end of July, MacDill Charter Academy plans to resubmit its application for an on-base charter school. If the school board’s opposition stands, it would send a message to all seeking choice that they shouldn’t bother trying to change the schools or students who need it the most — they should stick with the easy stuff or be penalized.

We can’t let politics or adult interests stand in the way. It’s my hope that the progress shown and the CSUSA track record will move the district to change its mind and let the MacDill Air Force Base charter school move forward — at the least to fulfill the requests of military families who have called for this school since 2010.

Richard Page is executive vice president of development for Charter Schools USA.

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