Ever since Charisse Glass moved her daughter Jamaica from Roberts School to the Syracuse Academy of Science Charter School, she’s noticed a difference.
Not an academic difference, but a social one. “She was kind of introverted but now she’s a social butterfly,” she said. “I’ve seen her mature.”
The small class sizes, individual attention and zero-tolerance policy against bullying of the charter school have all helped Jamaica, who is now in the ninth grade, said Glass.
Jamaica Glass is one of the 576 Syracuse students in charter school in the city. And after two decades, charter schools still remain controversial about their effects on students and on traditional public schools.
“People argue public schools have a monopoly on a certain area and without competition they don’t need to improve, they can become complacent, they don’t need to listen to their customers,” said George Theoharis, an education expert at Syracuse University..
Charter schools are independent public schools, funded with public money but run separately from the other schools in the district. New York state has almost 200 charter schools, according to the State University of New York Charter Schools Institute, which can create new charter schools. Syracuse has only two charter schools, the Academy of Science and Southside Academy Charter School.
Charter schools first popped up in Minnesota in 1991. In Syracuse, the Southside Academy opened in 2002 and the Academy of Science opened in 2003.
Charter schools come out of the idea that choice is one of the ways to improve schools, said education expert Theoharis of SU. Two other arguments for charter schools are that charter schools are laboratories for innovations and they provide competition for traditional public schools.
Charter schools can be labs for innovating new ideas since they are freed from certain regulations that limit traditional public schools, including teacher contracts.
But charter schools haven’t necessarily done all of these things, Theoharis said. Charter schools can even hurt traditional public schools. “One of the things we know is that kids with significant disabilities or learning issues are not overly served by charter schools,” he said.
Syracuse is unusual for having only two charter schools. The Syracuse City School District has performed lower on state testing than other areas, which is usually attracts charter schools, Theoharis said.
What makes charter schools different, say education experts, are the way they choose students and the terms under which they operate. Charter school sizes are determined by the charter, or contract. Charter schools are free to students in the district but when charter schools fill up, administrators use a lottery to fill empty seats. In contrast, the traditional public schools must admit all students who live in the district.
At the Academy of Science charter school for example, the wait list has almost as many students as the school already has enrolled, said Linda Spencer, dean of academics at the school.
The Academy of Science is has a seven-inch thick charter, Spencer said. Its charter, like those of other charter schools, outlines what it should do above and beyond requirements of traditional public schools. At the Academy of Science, for example, the school day is 90 minutes longer than at traditional public schools, Spencer said. The academy also offers daily after-school tutoring, participation in international competitions and extra teachers in classrooms.
But doubters suggest that charter schools don’t live up to all their promises. Sometimes, their new techniques turn out to be ineffective, said Bob Tate, a charter specialist at the National Education Association. It is one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions and is based in Washington, D.C.
Charter schools market their innovative techniques. But, said Tate, “We shouldn’t mistake innovation for improvement. They are not necessarily the same thing.” He cites a 2009 study conducted by Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University that found students achievements did not always improve in charter schools.
“The study also found for every charter school with better results, there were two where the results were actually worse,” Tate said.
For her part, as the mother of a Syracuse Academy of Science student, Charisse Glass, acknowledges Jamaica’s grades have not changed since moving to the academy. Jamaica was already an honors student in the Syracuse City School District. At the charter school now, Glass said, Jamaica is taking advanced-placement courses.
“She’s been on the Dean’s List since she started,” she said. “I’m so proud of her.”
(Meghin Delaney is a junior with double majors in magazine journalism and political science.)