Tuesday, March 06, 2007

School Choice is Hard Work

I recently got an assignment to Elmendorf AFB, AK in Anchorage. Of course I have already wasted hours researching school choices. Here is what I have come up with so far.

Public School Choices:

There are three elementary schools serving the base: Aurora, Orion and Mt Spurr

Demographically all the schools are about the same. Test scores don't vary much, with Mt Spurr and Aurora having a slight edge, mainly in math. This could be caused by demographics on base. Officers who are college educated live in certain housing areas which are in the Mt Spurr and Aurora areas.

I worry about average growth in scale scores. The same set of students tested in 3rd grade in 2005 and 4th grade in 2006 had a negative 39.4 growth in math at Aurora. I attribute this to their use of "Everyday Math". All three schools had pretty poor scale score growth in for all grade cohorts for reading, writing and math.

You can see their disaggregated numbers here: Aurora, Mt. Spurr, and Orion.

The most positive things about the schools are that they are all within walking distance of the base housing, and because they are on base, we can be assured that they will be responsive to parents and provide a safe environment.

Charter School Options:

There are actually two possible charter school options that we have identified.

Eagle Academy Charter School, which is a really structured school that uses "direct teaching". They use Saxon math which is a big plus, and the Core Knowledge for Social Studies. In ELA they use the Spalding Curriculum. I don't know a lot about the Spalding Curriculum, but from what I can gather they use a scripted curriculum and seem to have similar techniques as Direct Instruction.

I do like that the school uses ability grouping and that students will be instructed in math and reading based on what level they are on, not what grade they are in.

The school is 10 minutes north of base, which isn't to far but does present some problems. There are no buses for charter schools, so we would have to provide our own transportation. This is a big problem since my hours are pretty much set in stone. It would also be somewhat of a logistical nightmare for my fiance Shannon, since she will be a nurse, and probably end up working downtown at one of the two hospitals.

Demographically, Eagle Academy is overwhelmingly white. Their scale score growth is moderately greater than the base schools. The number of students scoring advanced on the reading, writing and math tests are way above the district and state average. I am a little cautious about interpreting this, because the charter school is an upscale suburb and they have only been open since 2005, and the available scores were for that first year. You can see their numbers here. I am also value the diversity that is found in on base public schools.

The other charter school I am looking at is Aquarian Charter school. According to its website it is a "stress-free environment filled with joy, music, theatre, and art to enhance the educational program and boost achievement." I know, it sounds like the typical constructivist pedagogy that public schools try and push, but I decided to check it out anyway. In scale score growth between students, it was the only school I saw that had positive gains for all subjects and all grade cohorts. Now there gains were all tiny, and in absolute scores their proficiency level was about the same as the three base schools.

It also suffers from some of the same transportation issues as Eagle Academy, but it is at least in the same general direction as the hospitals.

Except for possibly Eagle Charter, I really have a tough time seeing the advantages of the charter schools. I also wonder if the small advantage that the schools can provide over the base schools counters the benefits of having a local school in which to easily pop over to, plus local schools will allow my kids to walk home and finish their homework. This will give us a lot less stress in the evenings, and allow us to take advantage of the great skiing and snowboarding that the Anchorage area has to offer.

I suppose my biggest gripe over my experience with charter schools, is how much trouble it is to easily find out how they perform academically. I think the two charter schools are probably great options for some of the students in the really low performing schools (yes Anchorage has ghettos). For the parents who live on Elmendorf AFB, it doesn't seem to make much sense.