Charter school’s rapid rise raises questions

Springfield Prep’s scores soared as it tripled number of students with disabilities.Charter’s leader says smaller classes, more instruction time are keys to improvement.

A Springfield charter school rapidly transformed from a failing grade on its Ohio report card to a top performer, with 100 percent of students passing some state tests.

The results have led some local and state experts to question how Springfield Preparatory and Fitness Academy — with about 180 students tucked in the Southern Village Shopping Center on Selma Road — could have improved so much so fast.

A Springfield News-Sun investigation found that, from 2005-06 to 2010-11, Springfield Prep:

• improved from 54.5 percent to 100 percent proficiency on third-grade reading;

• improved from 59 percent to 100 percent proficiency on third-grade math;

• moved from the lowest ranking of “academic emergency” to the second-highest of “excellent” on state report cards;

• increased its students with disabilities from 14.7 percent to 42 percent, nearly three times the state and local averages.

Springfield Prep officials said the increase in students with disabilities is the result of the school’s academic success and from serving that student population. And a state expert said charter schools often serve fewer students, making statistical comparisons with larger public schools district difficult.

In September 2011, Dave Estrop, Springfield City Schools superintendent, sent an email to Thomas Lather, associate director of the Office for Exceptional Children at the Ohio Department of Education. The Springfield News-Sun recently obtained the email through a public records request.

“I wanted to call your attention to the performance of the Springfield Prep and Fitness Academy,” Estrop wrote.

He questioned how the school achieved its success despite that in the 2010-2011 school year more than 90 percent of the charter’s students were listed as economically disadvantaged and more than 42 percent were listed as having a disability.

“I suspect that no other school in Ohio has results like this, and I would hope that the Ohio Department of Education would investigate how this school is having such success so that you can share this information with the Springfield City School District and the rest of the state,” Estrop wrote.

Estrop declined to comment further about the email.

Myrra Satow is CEO of Edvantages, a nonprofit onrganization that operates eight charter schools in Ohio and three in Florida. She said staff at the K-8 Springfield Prep were surprised as the percentage of students with disabilities began to rise. However, Satow argued it is the result of parents who are pleased with the school and who found out about its success through word of mouth.

“It surprised us,” Satow said. “We wrote the charter to become a general education charter.”

Springfield Prep also pointed to smaller class sizes, longer instructional hours compared to state minimums, and close involvement with parents as reasons for student success. Officials at both Springfield Prep and the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools also said other factors, ranging from the school’s relatively small enrollment, to school choice, need to be taken into consideration.

Records hard to track

The numbers are unusual, but it’s not clear why, according to Terry Ryan, Ohio program director for the Dayton-based charter school think tank Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

“It’s definitely an anomaly when you look at it in comparison to the district schools in the neighborhood, if you look at the charter schools in the neighborhood, the state average … ” Ryan said. “It definitely looks like the growth hasn’t been coincidental in terms of the numbers of kids with special needs. I mean if you look at 2005-06, 2010-11, you basically saw a school that was right about the average in terms of special needs go to a school that almost half the kids are there.”

Increasing the number of students listed with a disability would not have a direct effect on state test scores, said Wendy Stoica, assistant director for the Office for Exceptional Children with the Ohio Department of Education. However, schools do receive additional state funding to help serve those students.

Students who qualify can receive some assistance while taking tests such as the Ohio Achievement Assessment, which measures students in grades three through eight. For example, a student with a visual disability may be allowed to have a teacher read the test out loud. A student also may receive additional time to take a test or be allowed to take the test in a one-on-one setting.

Students who are listed as having a disability are provided with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. The IEP is developed between the school and parents based on a student’s strengths and needs. There are 13 federal disability categories, including hearing or visual impairments, autism and learning disabilities.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Act requires education agencies to seek out and identify children with disabilities.

The state has little role in identifying those students or testing them. But the state does distribute federal funds for the program to ensure schools have the proper resources, and it monitors the program for compliance. The rules are the same for both public school districts and charter schools, Stoica said. The office for exceptional children reviews evaluation forms for IEPs, can talk to teachers and can check that IEPs are being correctly evaluated. For example, state staff might review an eye report from a physician for a student who has a visual disability.

The ODE keeps a record of any complaints about the IEP process, but a search from 2007 to January this year showed no record of complaints, said John Charlton, a spokesman for the ODE.

Charlton said ODE has not conducted an on-site inspection of Springfield Prep. He said ODE reviews schools for compliance each year, but the charter’s results did not require a follow-up review or a corrective action plan.

To know why the percent of students on disability is increasing so dramatically, the important question is whether students come to Springfield Prep with IEPs or if they’re getting those plans after they enroll, Ryan said.

Satow said that about half the students come to Springfield Prep with an IEP, while the other half are placed on an IEP after they arrive.

Records that would show when a student was placed on an IEP are not available due to federal privacy laws.

Marianne Lombardo, vice president for school performance and accountability for the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said parents must attend the meetings and sign off on the IEP.

In addition, Lombardo said charter schools each have contracts with a sponsor, which is responsible for monitoring a charter’s accountability. The sponsor for Springfield Prep is the Ohio Council of Community Schools, based in Toledo.

“It’s supposed to be open communication and an open process because, of course, parental involvement is key to any success,” Lombardo said.

Figures unusual

The number of Springfield Prep students listed as having a disability is well above the state average, according to Ryan of the Fordham Foundation.

Ryan said if the charter is marketing to parents of students with disabilities to encourage them to attend the school, it would be plausible, especially if Springfield City Schools was not doing a good job of serving those students.

“If that’s the case, then they’re serving an important need for families who feel like they’re not getting (help) elsewhere,” Ryan said of Springfield Prep. “If (students are) showing up and they’re just starting to identify kids, then that gets more concerning because the numbers kind of work against that.”

In addition to the third-grade math and reading scores, fifth-grade reading proficiency also improved from 75 percent in 2005-06 to 92 percent in 2010-11.

Meanwhile, the number of students listed as having a disability steadily increased from 14.7 percent in 2005-06 to 42 percent by the 2010-11 report card. Students listed as economically disadvantaged increased from about 78 percent in 2005-06 to 90.4 percent by 2010-11.

Statewide, the average number of students listed as having disabilities was 14.8 percent for the 2010-11 school year. In the Springfield City School District, the percentage of those students was about 16.8 percent.

It’s unusual for a charter school to see such dramatic gains in the number of students with disabilities unless they’re intentionally marketing to those students, Ryan said.

Typically, a district serves a higher population of students with disabilities because they have more resources to educate those students, Ryan said.

“If I’m a parent of a kid with a serious special need, I want to be in a district because they have more money they can spend on my kid than a charter school with 160 kids,” Ryan said.

Satow countered their small size benefits students with special needs because they can cater to each student. The district requires at least two hours of reading per day, along with 1.5 hours of math, an extended school day and daily fitness that includes martial arts, soccer or tennis.

The extended day means students get about 1,200 instructional hours annually, compared to the state minimum of 920 hours. Parents are also required to volunteer at the school periodically. The additional instructional time, combined with daily homework, helps Springfield Prep close gaps in education that might be harder to treat in a larger setting, Satow said.

“Ours is this back-to-basics approach that’s focused on reading, writing and arithmetic,” Satow said.

There are two possible explanations for the growth in serving students on IEPs, Ryan said.

“They are in effect marketing themselves as a school for kids with special needs, or they’re putting together a system that identifies kids with special needs that may or may nor have them to maybe gain the assessment or get more money,” Ryan said.

Springfield Prep’s scores fell slightly in 2011-12, when the state rated it “effective.” The district’s third-grade reading proficiency score was 85.7 percent and its third-grade math achievement was 90.5 percent. The number of students considered economically disadvantaged was 88.9 percent, while its percent of students with disabilities increased to 44.9 percent.

The Ohio Alliance for Public Schools’ Lombardo said it’s not unusual for a charter school to struggle early, then improve.

“That often is the case when a school first opens,” she said. “It takes them a couple years to kind of get their footing.”

Other possibilities

Whether a student needs to be placed on an IEP can be subjective, said Lombardo.

Unlike traditional public schools, parents of charter school students are choosing to send their children to a particular school. The fact that parents choose to send their children to a charter school, along with other variables, makes it hard to compare charters to more traditional districts, Lombardo said. For example, because charters often have only a small number of students, a small increase in the number of students on IEPs can have a significant effect on the percentage of those students overall.

In addition, she said determining why and when a student should be on an IEP is not an exact process. A 6-year-old student in a public school might not show signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. By the time that child is 10 and attending a charter, the symptoms may be more noticeable.

“And, in every case, it’s a kid and it is somewhat subjective,” Lombardo said. “It’s not like a blood test you can take. It’s more about how is that child coping in that learning environment.”

Parents whose children attended Springfield Prep in recent years described significantly different experiences.

Jennifer Lapp, a parent whose children attended Springfield Prep, said she would be suspicious of any significant educational gains at the school. She said her three children practiced repeatedly for state tests but saw little improvement in reading skills.

Lapp said she initially liked the idea of small class sizes, but because of a lack of progress, she said her children now attend public schools again and are seeing significant improvement.

But Sarah Jensen, who has three students who currently attend Springfield Prep, said her children have excelled. Her children are not on IEPs, but Jensen said teachers developed a program for her oldest son, who was growing bored with his lessons. It allowed him to remain in the same class as other students his age but take more advanced classes.

In addition, Jensen said the daily physical fitness included has helped her children stay focused on their school work.

Jensen said teachers are able to help tailor lessons to each child’s needs.

“I think the small class sizes has been huge because each of the teachers knows my kids very well,” Jensen said. “I think in bigger places, sometimes problems your children have go unnoticed, and that’s not a problem here.”

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