Richmond County 'conversion' charters fall short of success

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The Richmond County school system has shown an openness to charter schools that sets it apart from other districts in the Augusta metro area, as well as across Georgia.

Richmond County went so far as to convert two struggling district-run schools, Jenkins-White Elementary and Murphey Mid­dle, into charter schools in 2004. They began their new lives as charters in 2005.

The conversions haven’t been as successful as some might have hoped. Jenkins-White has not made the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s “adequate yearly progress” benchmark since 2007, which ended a run of three out of four years of making AYP. Murphey has made AYP only twice since becoming a charter, in 2006 – its first year after converting – and in 2009.

Murphey Principal Veronica Bolton did not respond to repeated requests for comment last week left in telephone messages with staff and an e-mail to her school account.

Venus Cain, the vice chairwoman of the Richmond County school board, said she wasn’t as familiar with Murphey as with Jenkins-White because the board had just reviewed, and approved, the elementary school’s charter last summer.

“Murphey is making gains, but they’re still not where I’d like to see them and the community would like to see them,” Cain said, later adding, “I’m hoping Murphey gets a little more flexibility, that they’ll have the opportunity to change those things that have not worked for them and will be in a position to change to make them work.”

Murphey has seen mixed results on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, which largely determines whether a school makes AYP. Looking at the pupils who entered the school as sixth-graders in the 2008-09 school year and completed eighth grade in the 2010-11 school year, they largely maintained their reading and English/language arts skills, though the reading pass rate rose by 11 percentage points to 90 percent in 2011 after having dropped 1 percentage point from 2009 to 2010.

Math fluctuated widely, with sixth-graders scoring a 51 percent pass rate in 2009, jumping to 69 percent in 2010, then plummeting to 42 percent in 2011.

These results don’t represent a 100 percent accuracy because they don’t account for pupils who might have transferred in or out of the school during that period or who might have been held back a grade.

As for Jenkins-White, Cain had nothing but praise. So did Georgia Charter Schools Association officials, who helped the school through the process of renewing its charter in the spring and summer.

“I am proud of (Principal) Ms. (Janie) Norris and her enthusiasm. It’s awesome,” Cain said. “I want the staff to know I am proud of them, of the challenge they’re taking, I have all confidence they will make it.”

Nina Rubin, the director of the Georgia Parent Advocacy Network, commended Norris and the rest of the school’s staff for their commitment to helping their pupils succeed.

“We worked with the renewal of the (charter) petition for Jenkins-White,” Rubin said. “That’s a school that might not have been renewed, but it dug down and really confronted its own culture and determined it was going to turn things around.”

Seth Coleman, the spokesman for the Georgia Charter Schools Association, which created the parent network, said he was impressed with the cooperation between the Richmond County school board and Jenkins-White’s leadership.

“Sometimes if you’re a charter, you may have blinders on and feel your way is the right way … so we appreciate all openness from the board and Jenkins-White,” he said.

Jenkins-White also has had mixed results. Looking at the pupils who entered first grade in 2006-07, the reading pass rate dropped from 86 percent for first-graders that year to 84 percent for fifth-graders in 2011; English/language arts rose from 79 percent for first-graders in 2007 to 84 percent for fifth-graders in 2011; and math fell from 70 percent for first-graders in 2007 to 54 percent for fifth-graders in 2011.

The bottom fell out in 2009-10. The reading pass rate, which had peaked at 93 percent the year before for third-graders, sank to 57 percent for fourth-graders; English/language arts fell from 78 percent for third-graders in 2009 to 57 percent for fourth-graders in 2010; and math dropped from 49 percent for third-graders in 2009 to 38 percent for fourth-graders in 2010.

Those rates recovered in 2011.

Norris told The Augusta Chronicle in an earlier interview that the school’s culture is improving, even if the test scores aren’t quite showing it. Before, the principal said, pupils wouldn’t make eye contact or answer questions and didn’t realize the importance of learning.

The school had to work with these children coming from poverty and its disadvantages and change their perspectives before academic success could come, Assistant Principal Cheryl Fry said.

Jenkins-White’s charter status gives it freedom other Richmond County schools don’t have. For example, it is the only district elementary school that has full-time art, Spanish, music and physical education classes.

“It has given (Norris) an opportunity to be innovative and address the needs of her students,” Cain said. “It gets her more flex. This is my personal opinion: I find that when the state gets involved, they complicate matters and make things difficult. If they would just send us funding, tell us what they want to produce and let us do it the best way we know how, we have principals, teachers and students who know what to do.”


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