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In Houston, traditional public school shares ideas and a roof with charter schools

July 22, 2014 at 6:28 PM EDT
Charter schools have often been seen as a threat to traditional schools, diverting resources and students to these publicly funded but privately run institutions. In Houston, Texas, the superintendent of one school district has invited competing charter schools to set up shop alongside a regular middle school. Special correspondent John Merrow reports on their evolving partnership.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a U.S. education story with a twist.

Relations between charter schools and traditional public schools have often been hostile, and that’s become a more intense problem in recent years. About 4 percent of U.S. students attend about 5,000 charter schools.

Special correspondent for education John Merrow reports on one school district that is swimming against that tide.

PROTESTERS: I say charters, you say work. Charters!

PROTESTERS: Work!

PROTESTER: Charters!

PROTESTERS: Work!

PROTESTER: Charters!

PROTESTERS: Work!

PROTESTER: Charters!

PROTESTERS: Work!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JOHN MERROW: It would be difficult to overstate the battle royal going on between traditional public schools and charter schools.

PROTESTERS: Save our schools!  Save our schools!

JOHN MERROW: Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, were conceived of as testing grounds for traditional schools.

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER, R, Tenn.: To me, charter schools are schools that free teachers to do what teachers know best to do.

JOHN MERROW: Charter schools are free to hire uncertified teachers, set their own pay scales, and fire teachers they feel aren’t measuring up. From the beginning, many in education saw charter schools as a threat, robbing traditional schools of students and scarce education dollars.

DIANE RAVITCH, Education Historian and Blogger: We have seen constant promotion of charter, charter, charter. And what’s happening is that, in many cities today, we are on the verge of losing public education altogether.

JOHN MERROW: Charter school supporters promised academic success, but the results have been mixed. Take math, for example. According to a 2013 study, 29 percent of charters do better than traditional schools, 31 percent do worse, and 40 percent score about the same.

Some operators have used their charter schools as a license to steal. Today, the chasm between charter and traditional schools is greater than ever.

But here in Houston, Texas, in the Spring Branch School District, something astounding, even revolutionary, is taking place.

DUNCAN KLUSSMANN, Superintendent, Spring Branch Texas Schools: I don’t see charters as a threat to traditional schools. I see charter schools, particularly high-performing charter schools, as kind of incubators of innovation.

JOHN MERROW: Rather than go to battle, superintendent Duncan Klussmann stuck his neck out and invited two successful charter school networks into two of his schools, both of them facing declining enrollment.

The charter students are selected by a lottery. Eric Schmidt is the principal of KIPP Courage, one of 141 KIPP charter schools nationwide.

ERIC SCHMIDT, Principal, KIPP Courage: We have got 200 students in fifth and sixth grade right now. We will grow out to have 400 students in five through eight. And like all of our schools, we do our work in underserved communities where a majority of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

JOHN MERROW: Two years ago, KIPP Courage began sharing space with Landrum Middle School, a traditional public school.

PATRICIA THOMAS, Principal, Landrum Middle School: Good morning.

JOHN MERROW: Patricia Thomas is principal of Landrum Middle School.

PATRICIA THOMAS: Our school is a grade six through eight campus. We have about 750 students.

JOHN MERROW: How did Thomas feel about having a newcomer, a competitor, setting up shop in her building?

PATRICIA THOMAS: A little bit leery of the program and what was going to go on. Didn’t really know what the program was about, how it was going to work as a partnership.

JOHN MERROW: Knowing that bringing in charter schools would be controversial, Klussmann did his best to reassure teachers.

DUNCAN KLUSSMANN: When I met with the faculties early on, I guaranteed them that no one in Spring Branch would lose their job over this partnership.

JOHN MERROW: The president of the local union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, objected.

CRAIG ADAMS, President, Spring Branch American Federation of Teachers: Why is it, with the amount of leadership that we have and the amount of innovation that we have within the district, did we call in an outside source?

JOHN MERROW: But teacher unions in Texas have limited power, and so Klussmann’s experiment continued.

At Landrum, the union of charter and traditional means that KIPP math teacher Ryan Hambley has access to classroom technology he wouldn’t have at KIPP.

RYAN HAMBLEY, Teacher, KIPP Courage: because we’re at Landrum, we get provided for iPads. We get provided for netbooks and beautiful technology such as Promethean boards and pens.

JOHN MERROW: KIPP and Landrum hire their own teachers for core courses like math and reading. It’s here in the elective courses, band orchestra, choir, art, theater, and phys-ed, that the charter and traditional schools come together. On its own, KIPP could not afford to offer so many choices.

RYAN HAMBLEY: We are an envy of the town among the KIPP world because we offer so many electives.

JOHN MERROW: KIPP gets the additional courses and Landrum gets to send its teachers to KIPP’s training program.

ERIC SCHMIDT: All of the elective teachers came and participated in our summer professional development that we had at KIPP. And then we also opened it up to other teachers in Landrum, core-content teachers. And there was a team that came and said, we want to specifically learn about the character strengths.

JOHN MERROW: Building character is uppermost in KIPP’s list of educational goals.

ERIC SCHMIDT: KIPP is defined by the fact that we’re 51 percent character, 49 percent academics.

JOHN MERROW: KIPP’s impact on Landrum seems far greater than the reverse.

PATRICIA THOMAS: Spring Branch had a program called development assets, you know, character education. And so we kind of morphed ours to be more aligned with KIPP.

JOHN MERROW: In the cafeteria, the Landrum and KIPP students may choose to eat separately, but they all spend the first few moments quietly reading or doing homework.

PATRICIA THOMAS: This was a KIPP practice where they sit down first before the mass runs into the lunchroom and goes to the line.

JOHN MERROW: Two years into the partnership, Landrum and KIPP are still working out the kinks. One problem, finding time when KIPP teachers, who have a longer school day, can work together with Landrum teachers.

ERIC SCHMIDT: We’re working on aligning our schedules for our seventh grade team of teachers next year. So, we will be adding seventh grade and have that for the first time. And so allowing teachers to have similar off time during the day, so that math teachers can get together and collaborate on ideas.

JOHN MERROW: Teacher turnover is also a problem. YES Prep, the second charter school Klussmann invited in, replaced five of its eight teachers after the first year. Two were promoted. Three left, according to YES Prep’s principal, because it wasn’t the right fit.

So how is the two-year old partnership working out? The leaders seem pleased.

PATRICIA THOMAS: I like to bounce ideas off of Eric, him being the young guy, me being the old girl. You know, he might have a different idea and vice versa.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN MERROW: Teachers are also generally happy with this new arrangement, according to a survey. Academically, however, the results are mixed. Reading and math scores at Landrum are flat. Those at Northbrook have improved slightly. At both schools, the charter students are generally outperforming the traditional students.

And that actually benefits the traditional schools, because Klussmann combines the test scores when he reports them to the state.

DUNCAN KLUSSMANN: When we report scores from the campuses we report, the school overall, for accountability reasons, all the scores are Landrum Middle School, Northbrook Middle School, Spring Branch ISD scores. They just may be in a KIPP or YES-taught class.

JOHN MERROW: Could partnerships like this one in Spring Branch catch on?  Perhaps. So far, 19 school districts, including Milwaukee, Tulsa, and Denver, have come to take a look.