Are charter schools becoming the wave of the future?

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by Steve Kastenbaum

(CNN)—More students are attending class at charter schools across the U.S. than ever before, and the number is expected to continue growing in the coming years.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently released a report saying that more than 2 million children are enrolled in public charter schools this year. The nonprofit resource for charter schools said that more than 500 charter schools opened their doors across the country in the 2011-12 school year.

In speech after speech, President Obama has said the charter schools play an important role in his education policy. His administration hopes to double the number of charters that were existence when he took office.

“We’ll encourage states to take a better approach when it comes to charter schools and other innovative public schools,” Obama said in a recent speech on education reform.

Coney Island Prep opened in Brooklyn, New York, in 2009. But it took founder Jacob Mnookin two years to get to that point. Mnookin said a tremendous amount of information is required for the application. “Everything from daily schedules and annual calendars to five-year budget projections and personnel policies, curriculum, assessments, etc.

He also had to put together a board of trustees that would oversee the school, find a location for the school and hire a staff. Most charter schools go through a similar process, but the details can differ greatly from state to state and city to city.

While Coney Island Prep is housed in a traditional school building, the similarities between the middle school and other public schools end at the door.

“We have a commitment to excellence that families sign, scholars sign and staff sign. And it just lays forth kind of the basic expectations that we have,” said Mnookin.

Students at Coney Island Prep wear uniforms and follow a strict code of conduct. Their school day and school year are both much longer than those of a traditional public school. Teachers are also required to devote more time to students than their counterparts at traditional public schools.

“Last year, we had over 350 applications for the 90 seats available. It’s a random lottery. We know nothing about the students when they apply.”

Students enter most charter schools across the country through a lottery system. Charters often wind up with a higher percentage of students with special needs, and they have to accept everyone.

In a short period of time, students’ reading and math scores have risen at Coney Island Prep. The New York City Department of Education placed Coney Island Prep’s performance in the top 1 percent of middle schools in the city. After being in existence for just two years, it was rated the third best charter school in New York based on reading and math test scores. In every area, the city’s Education Department said, students at Coney Island Prep outperformed a majority of their peers at both charter and traditional public schools.

It is success stories like Coney Island Prep’s that the Obama administration hopes to mimic with the creation of more charter schools across the country.

“What the charters are is the mechanism for trying things outside of the larger system free of some of the red tape that is in these systems for good reasons,” said Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. “When we’re most successful, we learn from those examples, and then we’re able to learn how they can be adapted and taken up to scale inside our large school systems.”

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University studied charter school performance in 16 states. Researchers concluded that 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools. But 37 percent of charter schools performed at rates below their public school counterparts. The remaining 46 percent showed no significant difference.

The Rand Corp., a nonprofit research foundation, looked at charter schools in eight states and found that, on average, charter schools as a whole aren’t producing results that differ substantially from traditional public school systems. However, the study showed that students at charter high schools are between 7 percent and 15 percent more likely to graduate than their traditional public school counterparts.

Everyone interviewed for this story said education officials have to do a better job of closing down charter schools that aren’t making the grade and implement on a wider scale the practices that are producing positive results.

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