By Patti Ghezzi
My daughter is a first-grader at International Community School in DeKalb County, a start-up charter school that has been around for 12 years.
Parents often ask about my experience at ICS, and I’m happy to share. People also ask what I think about charter schools in general. Do charter schools work? Are they better than traditional public schools?
I can’t answer these broader questions in a satisfying way. Charter schools are, by definition and design, independent. Fiercely so, in many cases. I know of no school that is similar to ICS, which is defined as much by the families who choose our school as by our curriculum, which includes daily foreign language instruction.
Yet studies tend to lump all charter schools together and compare their average scores with the average scores of all traditional schools. The Chicago Sun-Times recently analyzed test scores in local charter and traditional schools and reported that kids in charter schools generally performed worse on standardized tests than kids in traditional public schools.
Studies using various methodologies have reported similar findings, while other studies have reported that charter schools do a better job, especially with subgroups such as African-Americans.
Unfortunately, these studies can’t answer the question of whether charter schools work any more definitively than I can. When you round up a hodge-podge of schools bound together only by their charter status, an average test score doesn’t tell you much. Even analyses that compare schools with similar demographics, such as the same percent of kids qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, can’t say whether charter schools work, because the inconvenient reality is that some charter schools work and some don’t, and the same is true for traditional schools.
ICS works for my child, who is energized by the diversity among the students and teachers. The school provides an alternative to the traditional public school my daughter attended for one year, a school I found too rigid and discipline-oriented. I was struck by how many parents appreciated the priority the principal placed on maintaining order. When I see children walking in a straight line, I’m not impressed.
Charter schools work best when they provide this escape hatch. By allowing charter schools, the district and state acknowledge that different people value different qualities in a school. Education is so nuanced, there has to be more than one right way to do it.
Some parents are surprised that I can’t cite the test scores at ICS. They see high overall scores as an indicator of academic excellence. I see test scores as an indicator of demographics.
Like all charter schools, ICS is held accountable through terms spelled out in our charter, which the county recently renewed for another five years. Those terms require ICS to meet certain test score targets, though I couldn’t tell you what those targets are.
Instead, I am focused on my child’s love of learning. I want her to love learning so much that she wants to keep at it. When we started at ICS, our then-principal Laurent Ditmann shared his belief that the most important thing we teach our kids is to form healthy relationships. No wonder my daughter loves ICS so much. Her heart is wide open, and she has bonded with her teachers and classmates. Her love of school fuels her love of learning, and her standardized test scores reflect that.
I would never expect all parents to want what I want in a school, and I would never expect all students to learn in the same way as my child. My friend is leaving ICS in favor of a traditional school, because she thinks her son will benefit from a more predictable environment. I’m sad to see this family go, but I’m happy they have the option.
Let’s stop wasting time measuring whether charter-school students on the whole perform better on standardized tests than students at traditional schools and instead focus on how many children are getting a quality public-school education because they have options, including charter and traditional schools.