What top-rated charter schools have in common: fewer poor kids

By: - October 5, 2018 5:51 am
cafeteria lunch line

As of June 30, 75% of students enrolled in CCSD qualified for free or reduced-price meals, according to the district. That represents a 6.3% increase since pre-pandemic. (Photo credit: CCSD)

When the Nevada Department of Education released its performance ratings last month, “school choice” advocates were quick to boast that charter schools outperformed traditional public school districts, but demographic data at the individual school level paints a more complicated picture.

Thirty percent of traditional public schools (meaning schools within Clark County School District, Washoe County School District and the small rural districts) received four or five stars in their state evaluation. More than 50 percent of schools sponsored by the State Public Charter Authority did. Put another way: A quarter of the five-star schools in Nevada are charters.

Charter schools are open-enrollment, tuition-free schools that receive public funding but are managed privately, often by national academic management companies. The vast majority of charters fall outside the umbrella of traditional public school districts and are instead overseen by the state charter authority.

Nevada legislators have fought tooth and nail over the issue of school choice — a phrase that incorporates charter schools as well as school vouchers or scholarships for private schools. Proponents of traditional public school districts argue school choice is essentially privatization that hurts public schools by affecting their enrollment and the per-pupil funding associated with it. Proponents of charter schools say they perform better despite having less taxpayer dollars at their disposal.

Data points like the ones previously mentioned give credibility to charter supporters. But what’s often missing from the praise is the context that the student bodies within charter schools are not reflective of the community at large.

An analysis of demographic data by the Current finds that students enrolled at top-rated state-sponsored charter schools are far more likely to come from financially secure families than students enrolled within traditional public school districts. Overall, the student bodies at top-rated charter schools are also disproportionately whiter and more Asian (and disproportionately less black and Hispanic) than both the traditional public school district overall and the individual public schools located nearest them.

While the same can be said of top-rated schools within Clark County School District, the demographic gaps between the district’s top-rated schools and its overall student population are significantly smaller.

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Advocates of traditional public school districts have long argued that charter schools succeed by avoiding those students who are most challenging to educate.

Because it is based on federal income levels, eligibility for free and reduced lunch is an indicator of financial stability. Children from families struggling to meet basic life needs face educational barriers that have nothing to do with class sizes, teacher autonomy or curriculum. At the lower grade levels, they may have difficulty focusing because they are hungry or not eating nutritiously enough. At higher grade levels, they may be missing class because they are watching a flu-stricken younger sibling for parents who don’t have paid sick leave. Some schools are now offering wrap-around services for students and their families to help address some of those barriers.

Similarly, students with learning disabilities and students not fluent in English also require additional resources.

The numbers

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Twenty charter schools received five-star ratings from the Department of Education. Of the 14,394 students enrolled in them, only 8 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch.

The majority of the state’s charter schools are located in Southern Nevada. Within the Clark County School District, 67 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Statewide, 58 percent do.

Six of 20 top-rated charter schools reported having zero eligible students or no data on free and reduced lunch eligibility. Charter schools are not required to have a free and reduced lunch program. While this could suggest some underreporting of low-income students, it also could suggest charters are catering to more affluent families.

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If you remove the six schools with no data on free and reduced lunch eligibility, the percentage of eligible students at the remaining top-rated charter schools goes up to 13 percent. Of the schools that submitted data on free and reduced lunch eligibility, the percentages of eligible students ranged from 1.6 percent at Doral Academy (West Pebble) to 29 percent at Nevada State High School (Summerlin). Only three schools reported percentages in the 20s.

Forty-six schools within CCSD received a five-star rating. This group includes traditional public schools, charter schools that are overseen by the district, and magnet schools with application and acceptance processes. Of the 44,594 students who attend these top-rated schools, 35 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunch. No school reported zero eligible students. The percentages ranged from 6.9 percent at Vassiliadis Elementary School to 100 percent at several schools, including at Herron Elementary School and Indian Springs Middle School.

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Because students typically attend the school the district assigned them based off their address, variety among free and reduced lunch eligibility is expected. Vassiliadis Elementary School, for example, is located in affluent West Summerlin while Herron Elementary School is located in North Las Vegas and Indian Springs Middle School is rural.

Students are not assigned to charter schools. Their families must apply for enrollment. Some charters prioritize students who live in close physical proximity but many don’t.

When compared to the traditional public schools located nearest them, the top-ranked charter schools still reported lower levels of eligibility for free and reduced lunch. The majority of charter schools are located in neighborhoods that already house well-rated schools.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, lower-rated charter schools report higher percentages of low-income students than top-rated charter schools, but still lower than nearby traditional public schools. For example, six state-sponsored charter elementary schools received two-star ratings: Freedom Classical Academy, Founders Academy of Las Vegas, North Valley, Quest Academy Bridger, Quest Academy Northwest and Somerset North Las Vegas Academy. Of these six, five reported data on free and reduced lunch eligibility; 27 percent were eligible.

The nearby traditional public schools were 86 percent free and reduced lunch eligible. These schools received the same (two-star) or higher (three-star) performance ratings from the state. These schools: Duncan, Hayden, Hollingsworth, Parson, Scott, Tobler and Wolfe elementary schools.

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The promise

In Nevada, Pinecrest Academy has a network of four schools — Cadence, Horizon, Inspirada and St. Rose. All received five-star ratings. According to the most recent official data released by the Department of Education, their free and reduced lunch eligibility ranges from 3.15 percent to 18 percent.

Pinecrest says those numbers, which were reported for 2017-2018 academic school year, were artificially low.

When it comes to determining eligibility for free and reduced lunch, CCSD is able to use a process called “direct certification” that replaces traditional applications and instead cross references existing social service programs like SNAP. Pinecrest Academy was not able to directly certify students until this academic year, says Lora Flitton, who manages the free lunch program for the schools. That means parents had to go through extra steps — and often didn’t, leading to underreporting.

Other charter schools have conceded to the authority in previous meetings that their administrators didn’t follow up with parents to encourage them to submit their FRL applications. Supporters of charter schools point out that the percentages of free and reduced lunch eligible and English language learners have been trending upwards overall, albeit not as quickly as some within the education ecosphere would like.

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Pinecrest says its current free and reduced lunch eligible percentages are higher, ranging from 11 percent at Inspirada to 31 percent at Cadence. In the case of Pinecrest Inspirada, that would put it within range of nearby CCSD elementary schools Wallin and Lamping, which report 10 and 18 percent eligibility, respectively. Meanwhile, Pinecrest Cadence is still significantly lower than its nearby CCSD schools, which include two schools where 100 percent of students are eligible.

“Of course we want to mirror and incentivize students with diverse background to apply to Pinecrest,” said Executive Director Carrie Buck, “and we are making strides to do this by implementing a weighted lottery for FRL students to further increase this number.”

In 2014, Pinecrest reported having zero students eligible for free and reduced lunch. They’ve made progress, says Buck, and continue to do so.

“I don’t know what more we can do. We go door-to-door. We go to churches. Went to swap meets. … We’ve given bus tokens to those who have transportation challenges. Whatever we can do. We’ve gotten creative.”

Buck believes some of the problem comes from parents assuming Pinecrest and other charter schools are private institutions that charge tuition or have academic testing requirements. Dubbing themselves “academies” instead of “schools” and requiring uniforms confuse parents who’ve never been exposed to the idea of charter schools.

How much of the enrollment disparity can be explained by inadequate data and fixed by better systems is debatable. As reporting procedures are worked out, and as charter schools begin to move into lower-income neighborhoods, the demographics may change naturally. This year’s results are the first in which networks of schools — like Pinecrest, Coral, Doral or Somerset — were broken down by their specific campuses instead of being treated as one large entity.

“It’s all a slow transition,” adds Buck.

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and two mutts.

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