Oct. 16, 2017

Charter schools and traditional public schools must work together to deliver on 21st century promise to students

By Ron Sofo

Oct. 16, 2017

Charter schools and traditional public schools must work together to deliver on 21st century promise to students

By Ron Sofo

City Charter High School Principal Ron Sofo poses for a photo outside the school’s building in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

Part of the series

The Charter Effect

Traditionally, the 20th anniversary is celebrated with china but we are marking the 20th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s charter school law with transparency and depth. While other local media outlets have reported on the sweeping change charter school choice has had on students and traditional school districts, our series will expand on that by teasing out the root of the tension between charters and other public schools: money and what appears to be differing standards of accountability.

This series will expose and explain the data and records behind the charter schools operating in Allegheny County.

In my 31 years in public education in Pennsylvania, I’ve witnessed public schools, within both traditional districts and charter systems, that made good on the promise to provide students with quality education. I have also seen schools that consistently fail on that mission and I am referring to both, public and charter schools.

I’ve served within both sides of the state’s public school system. For a decade, I was the superintendent of a public school district in Beaver County. Since August 2012, I have been the CEO/principal of a highly effective open-enrollment urban charter high school in Pittsburgh — the City Charter High School.

The mission of public education in the 21st century is to maximize the probability that all students upon graduation will be college- and career-ready. This ambitious goal requires a rethinking and redesign of our public school system and most schools within it if we truly desire this quality outcome for all students.

For charter schools, this means our 20-year-old charter school law needs to be improved.

The core tenets and the primary reason for the state’s charter school system is to provide parents and students with expanded quality choices. These quality choices are especially needed for students and their families that have been underserved by our traditional public school system. Public charter schools can be and, in many cases, are sources of innovation and effective new models of educating all students to high levels.

City Charter Principal Ron Sofo stands next to a wall listing the colleges that have accepted the school's graduating students. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

Pennsylvania's current charter school law clearly emphasizes that "at the heart of these tenets is the idea that Charter Schools will serve as laboratories of innovation on behalf of all Pennsylvania students”.

However, school districts don’t appear to apply the law in a way that aims to only authorize charters that are truly innovative and effective. The same can be said for a large portion of our local neighborhood public schools who continue to operate within a traditional model of public education.

The traditional model can be limiting. Examples of the limitations include: assigning new teachers to teach in the most struggling schools; Ds being considered a passing grade to earn a high school diploma; a lack of teacher continuity for students throughout the years; and a lack of disciplinary approaches that teach or reinforce collaboration and communication skills.

The new goal of public education parallels the challenge we gave ourselves in the early 1960s to place a human on the moon. Consider this metaphor:

Would we expect a traditional mode of transportation like the yellow school bus to take any person to the moon? Obviously, this would be absurd and a waste of resources. A school bus was never designed for this type of transportation task. The public needs to understand that our traditional models of public education will never produce the outcomes we say we desire for all students. Innovation, research and development at the school level is essential if we are to design a public education system and individual schools capable of this ambitious goal for our youth.

Charters schools, by law, are expected to be innovative. If they are not, the charter should not be issued and they can be closed for lack of effectiveness. It rarely happens to charter schools, but it seems even more unlikely for traditional neighborhood public schools.

City High, for example, stands out for how we organize our teacher-student relationships. Our core content teachers in math, social studies, English and science teach the same group of students for all four years. It is an innovation that has proven success.

Some charter schools, including City High, have also implemented teacher pay and promotion systems based on competencies rather than on time employed at a school or district, as it is with traditional union contracts. The system has produced exceptional results among the teachers we employ and how effective they are with our students.

The innovation is there, but thus far, sharing what works with traditional public schools is not there. And it’s supposed to be.

How charter schools are funded in Pennsylvania places a major challenge to the necessary redesign of K-12 public education, though. The sharing of effective innovations between public charters and our public school districts is severely hampered. From my experience, I believe this wall was built when the state Legislature passed the charter school law with little to no input from local school boards. The law expects each school district to pay 70 percent of its operating costs as student tuition for each student enrolled in a charter school.

"It is time for all of us to advocate for research-based innovations at the local level ... Our youth and our future deserve our best collective efforts."

Most districts perceive public charter schools as taking their money. It’s caused resentment that has negatively impacted the probability for collaborative sharing of best practices and models of education.

Many of my public school colleagues also lament that charter schools do not have to follow all the rules and regulations required of local neighborhood public schools. But I must ask: Where are the internal advocates in each individual school district to press for waivers and relief from those rules and regulations that they perceive to be limiting their ability to innovate and deliver effective, comprehensive 21st century models of education for all students?

The charter law, as written, is a tremendous unfunded mandate from Harrisburg that needs to be appropriately addressed. Proposed charter reform legislation contains a provision that would create a bipartisan funding commission to research and make recommendations to address this serious flaw in the law. But the proposed reforms have been stalled for years.

Any effective model of 21st century public education must bring all stakeholders to the table in a collaborative manner. Neither traditional schools nor charter schools have all the answers to prepare our students for entering an unpredictable economy.

It is time for all of us to advocate for research-based innovations at the local level. A new promise must be created among the best-thinking from K-16 educators, policy makers and boards of education, businesses, labor unions, social services agencies, parents, students and the neighborhoods in which they live. Our youth and our future deserve our best collective efforts.

Dr. Ron Sofo has served as CEO and Principal of City Charter High School since August 2012. Prior to this position, Sofo was the superintendent of the Freedom Area School District in Beaver County for a decade. He can be reached at sofo@cityhigh.org.