Last night, Philadelphia’s Channel 6 Action News, a local ABC affiliate, featured a story on Camden’s LEAP Academy University Charter School–since “for a decade straight, 100 percent of their students have earned their diploma and 100 percent are heading to college.” The story, which is linked on 6abc’s Facebook page, sparked a lively discussion about the merits of and problems with charters in Camden and beyond. And while I certainly don’t have a problem acknowledging the successes of students and teachers anywhere, the anti-teacher, anti-public school comments–and the charters-are-far-superior claims that stem from this LEAP story (and, more largely, are part of charter school rhetoric in general)–need to stop.
So let me preface this post with a sincere congratulatory message to the students and teachers at LEAP, as their accomplishments certainly should be recognized and celebrated.
With that said, though, it’s important to point out that while LEAP might seem like another “miracle” charter school on the surface (from the LEAP website: “LEAP Academy’s success has been nothing short of miraculous“)–and Action News’s reporting certainly perpetuates that myth–one need only look superficially at the demographics of the students LEAP attracts, the school’s involved admissions process (which includes an extensive parent contract agreement), and its performance data to understand the differences between it and traditional public schools.
Who, exactly, LEAPs into LEAP? Charter School Admissions:
Most charter defenders argue that such schools admit anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, special needs, etc.—and that all students are given equal opportunities to enroll because admission is determined through a blind lottery system. Here’s the school’s founder, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago (more on her in the links below):
“They [LEAP students] are children from the city, they come from the same neighborhood everybody comes and it really shows we can break a cycle of poverty every time you graduate a child and send them to college.”
However, the lottery process alone serves to segregate the population before children even walk through a charter school’s doors–and anyone who has paid attention to the ways charters work (or anyone who has even the slightest bit of common sense)–should know that. As Mother Crusader notes here, “Charters like LEAP with a lottery system, attract only the most motivated parents, who must fill out packets of information and sign Parent Partnership Agreements. The children of these parents are therefore more motivated, successful students.”
And since everyone knows the profound role parents play in students’ academic success, it goes without saying that students whose parents take an interest in their children’s education have an advantage over their peers who might have absentee parents, sick parents, abusive parents, parents who are too crippled by the effects of poverty to have the wherewithal to even be aware of the charter lottery process, etc. This, obviously, is a generalization, and there are certainly exceptions; yet any teacher in any school (or anyone who knows anything about education, for that matter) will likely attest to as much.
Another issue: I certainly can’t speak to individual students’ intentions, but I think it’s safe to say that children who have no interest in or intention of going to college probably wouldn’t go out of their way to enroll in a school that touts its “college-preparatory curriculum” and its “breakthrough model that guarantees students a successful transition to higher education.” So simply because it’s a college-preparatory school, LEAP serves a different population than the diverse populations in the Camden public school system. (That’s certainly not to say that students in traditional public schools don’t have college aspirations, because that’s obviously not true. But as we all know, public schools are responsible for educating all children, regardless of whether they plan to attend college or not–and we should always be cognizant of just how much our society depends on services that don’t require workers to have a college degree. Such services–and the people who provide them–are supremely important.)
Demographics are also important to consider. While LEAP does serve a high percentage of economically-disadvantaged students, it serves very few special education and LEP (limited English proficiency) students: LEAP’s special education students make up only 6.2% of the school’s population (for frame of reference, Camden High has a 38% special education population), and only 3.6% of LEAP students are LEP.
And what about the 100% college acceptance rate?
It’s very exciting that all of LEAP’s graduates are headed to college, and even better that many of them received scholarship money to help defray the rapidly-rising cost of higher education. But what, specifically, weighs most heavily in a college’s decision to admit or reject an applicant? Certainly admissions officers consider various measures, but as more and more experts question the validity of standardized test scores–state tests, the SATs and ACTs, for instance–more and more universities are relying more heavily on a student’s grades in high school to guide admissions decisions.
And that must be a relief for the folks at LEAP, which boasts a 100% college acceptance rate, because LEAP students produce SAT scores that are significantly lower than state-average (and even peer-average) scores. According to the New Jersey School Performance Report (the data published here is from 2011-2012), the composite SAT score for LEAP students was 1,137, which is much lower than the state’s average of 1,504, and no students scored above the state average of 1550–yet every LEAP graduate was accepted to college.
It is certainly admirable that 98% of LEAP students take the SATs. But are these results “miraculous”–and to the extent that we can use them to claim that charters outperform their public counterparts?
Also worth noting is that LEAP, a school that touts its ability to prepare students for “college and career,” only offers two Advanced Placement courses: AP Biology and AP English Language (not Literature, the more commonly-offered of the two) and Composition. And of the students who took the test for one of these courses, says this chart on the NJ DOE website, none scored a 3 or better (a 3 is considered “passing”) on those AP exams:
So if LEAP students–on the whole–struggle to perform well on the SATs and what limited AP exams they’ve taken, on what basis are they all admitted to colleges?
Well, that brings us back to the issue of grades. One supremely important component (and certainly, college consider extracurricular activities, demographics, volunteerism, etc.) in college admissions decisions is a student’s GPA. Interestingly, according to reports from several ex-LEAP teachers with whom I’ve spoken, “nobody is allowed to fail” at LEAP–primarily so the school can retain its 1000% graduation rate. That’s right, folks: one teacher I spoke with reported that teachers are routinely directed by administrators to change students’ grades–even for students who had done virtually no work–to ensure that no students “fail.” The same teacher also decried the high rate of teacher turnover at LEAP, which creates great instability for the students and prevents teachers from getting the experience they need to perfect their crafts. See Mother Crusader and Jersey Jazzman links below for information on LEAP teachers’ salaries, their experience (and how readily GB-S dismisses teachers), their merit pay contract, etc.
One reason graduation rates are poor measures of school effectiveness is that virtually any school that wants to can graduate all of its students simply by assigning each a passing grade for every subject–and poof: 100% graduation rates! (While there’s obviously no public documentation of this practice at LEAP, it’s is an issue I’ll address more specifically in another post. Again, I’m not minimizing the dedication or collective efforts of LEAP students–but reports from different sources of compulsory grade inflation are certainly troubling and should be investigated.)
For anyone paying attention, none of this should come as a surprise, as LEAP, led by Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, has a long-documented history of questionable practices. In July of 2012, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that LEAP Academy failed to make AYP for the previous two years. When did such failures become characteristic of “miracle schools”? (As an aside: Camden’s City Invincible charter, a locally-run school, was forced to close–seemingly arbitrarily–in just its second year of operation and without any chance to improve its scores. Read more here from Rutgers professor Stephen Danley.)
So there are a few fundamental questions we should consider here:
- What accounts for LEAP’s “miraculous success”? Is it test scores? (Clearly not.) Or is it high graduation/college acceptance rates in spite of comparatively low test scores? (Interestingly, charter cheerleaders most frequently cite low test scores as the very reason we need charters–because traditional public schools are “failing.”)
- If we establish schools whose primary goal is to send students to college (“LEAP Academy offers a college preparation curriculum for all students”), is it fair to acknowledge that such a school has little or no interest in educating students who might choose, say, a vocational or military career?
- If the answer to the above question is YES, then is such a school effectively devaluing the ambitions of students who pursue paths other than college? (And how can such a school claim to be “miraculous” and more successful than traditional public schools who must accept and accommodate all students?)
- And if the answer to that same question is YES, then isn’t the inherent implication here that students who choose not to go to college hinder the academic progress–or the educational opportunities–of those who do in a heterogeneous setting?
- How much of a school’s success depends on parent involvement? (In other words, for example–absent the commitment from parents as per the LEAP Parents Academy Partnership Contract, what would the school’s results look like? And could traditional public schools enforce such a contract?)
- Finally, is the best way to claim “success” to separate the kids who want to learn and go to college from those who don’t?
Again, I wish nothing but the best for the students and teachers at LEAP. Indeed–we should celebrate their accomplishments. But until we can have an honest discussion about the segregation, motives, and ultimate purpose of charter schools like LEAP, can we please stop with the misleading (at best) “miracle school” rhetoric? PLEASE? Because the bottom line is this: students, teachers, and schools of all kinds have great successes every day and in all different ways. That charters throw around the term “miracle school” recklessly, and for the sake of undermining true public education, is underhanded, disingenuous, and divisive–especially when their “miracle school” labels are born from deceptive and questionable practices and come at the expense of public schools and the children they serve.
For further reading: here are some links to more information on LEAP and Gloria Bonilla-Santiago. Many thanks to NJ bloggers Jersey Jazzman–whose extensive coverage of LEAP has consistently called the “miracle school” label into question–and Mother Crusader, whose post is linked above and again here. There’s some overlap in content here, but, well, that should tell us something: that lots of people are on to LEAP’s supposed miraculous miracles.
- LEAP founder Gloria Bonilla-Santiago pays her boyfriend $95k to serve as chef at LEAP–after paying a penalty of $151k to end a contract with the school’s former food service company. (For realsies. Taxpayer money, folks.)
- Lawsuit is another blow to Camden’s LEAP Academy (allegations that Gloria Bonilla-Santiago “routinely demanded that [A LEAP employee] perform work on her home while on LEAP Academy time and using LEAP Academy, tools, equipment and supplies.”)
- Charter School “Success”: There’s ALWAYS a Catch
- Hypocrisy Runs Wild in NJ (more on that pesky AYP and LEAP’s failure to meet it for two years)
- File Under: “Shameless” (a stunning compilation of LEAP/Bonilla-Santiago offenses)
- The Real Charter Agenda: Union Busting? (remember that charter cheerleaders claim their schools are successful because many charter teachers aren’t unionized)
- LEAPing to Conclusions; Are Charters Our Only Hope, Or Only Hype? (Mother Crusader’s look at demographics; performance; and teacher (in)experience, pay, and turnover at LEAP)
- NJ Charter School Circus: LEAPin’ Lizards!
- CHARTER SCHOOL SCANDALS: LEAP Academy University Charter School
- Charter School Scandal in NJ (Diane Ravitch links to Jersey Jazzman)
- LEAP Update (re: IRS revoking LEAP’s tax-exempt status)
- LEAP Academy ends basketball episode (“LEAP violated laws that govern charter programs by giving admissions preference to out-of-state athletes over Camden students.”)