School Talk

A Charter’s Bad Actions and the Awful Truth That We Have 8th Graders Who Can’t Read

We learned this week that Beacon Charter High School for the Arts in Woonsocket violated state policy and broke the school admission lottery rule by screening out students who hadn’t passed 8th grade math and English. They are guilty of what is commonly known as “creaming,” and they are the first charter school in my state that I’ve seen engage in the practice.

The policy, adopted by Beacon’s board of directors in November 2013, says that “students must, at the minimum, pass math and English in their current grade to be accepted in our schools …”

But Department of Education policy says that charter schools must accept applicants regardless of background, need or “prior performance.” When the number of applicants exceeds the number of openings, which is typical, charters must hold a blind lottery. (Providence Journal)

What Beacon’s board of directors did—and subsequently its leaders—was wrong. Heads should absolutely roll. Not only was the policy change an egregious and deliberate violation of state policy, but it has cast an unwarranted shadow on all the charter schools who have not and would not exclude students because of past academic failings. In addition, it flies in the face of the mission of serving all students and meeting them where they are. 

But despite the school’s wrongful action, we should listen carefully and pay attention to the reason they gave for doing it. While it doesn’t in any way justify their actions, the statement on its face is absolutely true.

The school said, “To simply pass a student along to the next grade without them understanding or succeeding in their core subjects is a failure of our responsibility as teachers to the children and should be troubling to all educators. Our prior admissions policy was based on this simple concept and nothing more.”

We should condemn the school’s action and also be outraged over what drove them to do it.  It is undeniable that countless Rhode Island students are promoted from one grade to the next, often repeatedly, without showing even a shred of evidence that they have mastered the skills required to move up to the next grade. This is not a rare phenomenon; it is pervasive. And since Rhode Island is a state that does not require a high school exit exam, we have knowingly and deliberately left open the possibility of graduating students who quite literally can’t read, write, or do basic math.

It haunts me to think of the number of times I’ve sat with educators—and students—and listened to them tell me stories of the lies their schools told them by way of passing grades, social promotion, and even diplomas. Each story is heartbreaking—and maddening—because it speaks to a system more concerned with moving kids along and posting high graduation rates than with the actual level of preparation and readiness of the kids sitting in its classrooms.

I saw it firsthand during my teaching days. I remember two students, both African American boys, who came to my school as 9th graders  Both had attended the same district middle school across town prior to enrolling with us. While it was clear out of the gate that both young men were struggling in their freshmen classes, it wasn’t clear at first what was wrong. One was acting out a lot in class, the other was quiet. But both were failing.

According to their prior school’s records, both were on track academically. But it was a flat out lie.  

When one of our special educators tested the boys we discovered that both were reading and doing math at a 3rd grade level. No wonder they couldn’t do 9th grade work. And yes, we had them repeat a grade. But we didn’t get them til high school. What were the adults doing when they were in grades K-8?

There is another story, however, that left me even more rattled and disturbs me to this day. It is the story of a student whose transcript from Woonsocket High School said she had passed tenth grade English. After switching to a new school, a charter school in this case, it was obvious to the school staff from day one that she struggled to read. When the director of the school tested her reading level, she scored below a 1st grade reading level.

This young lady, with her whole future ahead of her, had been passed through ten grades of school without the ability to pass a first grade reading test. And it happened in our public schools here in Rhode Island.

I sat in on her one-on-one reading time as she worked to make up for a decade of lost learning, a decade in which her assigned school system had failed her.

From the Field

Jessica Waters

Jessica Waters knows firsthand the damage that comes from a system that is afraid to hold kids back until they are truly prepared with the skills they need and deserve to have. She was the 2013 RI Teacher of the Year (and actually taught at Beacon Charter prior to this admissions lottery scandal) and is currently the Principal at Nowell Leadership Academy. Nowell Academy serves pregnant and parenting teens and young adults from all over the state who are off track, over-age, and under-credited. She describes students who arrive with high school transcripts that tell one story of a student being on grade level and prepared for the next year of classes when the real story is that they’re reading and doing math at the elementary level. But instead of saying “we’re not going to take you”, as Beacon did, Waters and her team are committed to doing the hard work of figuring out how to fill those gaps as well as how to have brutally honest conversations with the kids about where they really are academically.

When I asked Waters about her experience, she had this to say:

We are working in a system where kids are receiving credit for classes when they shouldn’t, for the simple reason that the system—and the adults—are too afraid to hold them to appropriately high expectations in reading, writing, and basic math. It would be much better for us to keep them with us as in a place that has supports and protections in place until they’re truly ready to move on. After the age of 18 (or 21 for students with special needs), there is no protection left and there’s nothing we, as educators, can do to help them.

As it stands now, we are sending kids we care about—kids we love—out into the world, telling them that they are ready and far too often, it’s real high stakes when the boss or college professor breaks the news that in fact, they are not. At that point, it’s too late.

Hard Conversations Ahead

We have to be honest about our results and the inconvenient truth for us in Rhode Island is that our student outcomes, whether measured in proficiency rates in reading and math or remediation rates in higher education, tell a sad tale.

While our graduation rates continue to climb, our student proficiency is reason for alarm and while the Governor, community leaders, and the business community have expressed concern and frustration for years, the reality on the ground just isn’t improving at a pace that we can accept. And despite our proximity to the highest performing state in the country, we continue to only hesitantly dip our toe into Massachusetts’ way of doing things without having the political courage to adopt their state policies around reform. Unsurprisingly, our results pale in comparison to theirs despite very similar funding levels.

Dan McGowan of WPRI summarized the Massachusetts phenomenon this way last year:

If Rhode Island wants to improve educational outcomes, it should follow Massachusetts’ lead by increasing state-level influence over large-sale school policies, make standardized testing part of its high school graduation requirements and give principals more power over everyday classroom decisions, according to a new study from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC).

Obviously we can’t hold half of our students back a grade. Nor should we, especially not in the higher grades where we know that retention often increases the risk that students will drop out. But we also can’t continue to push kids through, year after year, who aren’t even coming close to meeting academic benchmarks.

Let’s ask ourselves 

Are we comfortable with having zero kid accountability built into the system? And if so, what does that mean for our economy and our state when large numbers of high school graduates lack actual high school skills?

Do we need a longer school day or school year for all kids? Some kids?

Do we even have the talent pool of educators needed to make dramatic improvements?

Are we prepared to identify and support our students who are victims of trauma?

Are lawmakers simply too entangled with special interest groups to do right by Rhode Island students?

We ignore these hard truths and hard questions at our own peril. And it’s too late when the student whose diploma is beautifully framed on the wall can’t pass their freshmen year of college or find a job.

So, yes. Let’s be outraged over a charter school that was in blatant violation of the rules around school admission lotteries. But let’s be more outraged over the insidious and ubiquitous practice of passing students along through the grades without an intervention plan and leaving far too many of our students hung out to dry the first time the stakes really are high.

What do you think?

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