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Students learn about 9/11

Freshman students Cruz Sanchez, right, and Chloe Stark, left, draw in September 2016 as part of a lesson on 9/11 at North Valley Academy in Gooding.

TWIN FALLS — Magic Valley charter school leaders have mixed responses to a new report that delves into Idaho’s public charter schools.

“Charter School Performance in Idaho 2019,” by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, looks at demographics and academic outcomes among charter schools and how they compare with traditional school districts.

The authors presented study results last week to the state’s House and Senate education committees, Idaho Education News reported, and have done similar reports for many other U.S. states.

Idaho’s public charter schools are similar in many categories to traditional schools, the report says, but charter schools tend to have a lower poverty rate among students, fewer students in minority groups or who have special needs, and 41 percent have significantly better academic progress in reading and math than their traditional counterparts. But the study raised concerns about academic performance among students enrolled in online public charter schools.

Results in the report were “kind of refreshing,” said Jeff Klamm, principal at North Valley Academy in Gooding.

The report notes many instances where student performance is similar between charter schools and traditional schools, Klamm said. That’s mind blowing, he said, considering charter schools receive less state funding, and can’t go to voters for a levy or bond.

It’s tough and not necessarily fair to compare charter schools with traditional schools — or even charter schools with one another, said Gary Moon, administrator at Xavier Charter School in Twin Falls. And Christine Ivie, superintendent of Heritage Academy in Jerome, said in an email to the Times-News she has concerns about the report, including that an Associated Press story that implies online charter schools and some “low performing” charter schools are dragging down Idaho’s overall charter school performance.

Public charter schools — which don’t charge tuition and are open to all students — provide options for families and have the flexibility to offer innovative programs. Once prospective students turn in applications, openings at each school are filled through a lottery system.

South-central Idaho is home to four public charter schools: Xavier Charter School, Heritage Academy, North Valley Academy and Syringa Mountain School in Hailey.

An Idaho law was enacted in 1998 allowed public charter schools. Since then, more than 50 have opened across the Gem State.

“Throughout the years, there have been controversies over charter schools,” the report states. “Supporters praise the autonomy that charter schools enjoy in adapting school designs to meet the needs of students, especially those in communities with historically low school quality. Opponents complain that charter schools take students and resources from district schools and further strain existing public schools’ ability to improve.”

Tamara Baysinger, executive director of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, wasn’t available to comment on the report.

Researchers looked at data — with help from Idaho’s Office of the State Board of Education — from the 2014-17 school years. The study looks primarily at academic growth among students — particularly, over one-year time periods. Gains and losses in academic performance are measured using days of learning.

In total, 41 percent of Idaho charter schools had significantly better student performance in reading than traditional public schools, the report states. The same percentage is true for math. That’s a higher than the national average — 25 percent in reading and 29 percent in math.

But on the flip side, 41 percent of charter schools “do not differ significantly from the traditional public school option” in reading and 39 percent in math. And 17 percent of charter schools have reading performance “significantly weaker” than traditional public schools and 20 percent do in math.

As for demographics, Idaho’s charter schools had a 19 percent rate of students living in poverty — lower than 27 percent in traditional public schools — during the 2016-17 school year.

Overall, the student body at charter schools is made up of 1 percent English language learners (compared with 5 percent in traditional public schools), 9 percent special education (compared with 11 percent), 81 percent white students (compared with 76 percent), 1 percent black students (same as traditional schools), 9 percent Hispanic students (compared with 16 percent) and 4 percent American Indian students (compared with 1 percent).

It’s so hard to compare charter schools with traditional schools, Moon said, since charter schools have a narrower scope of focus. Xavier focuses on its classical model of education and fine arts, and doesn’t offer programs like woodshop or agriculture education.

“Traditional public schools are trying to meet a lot of needs at one time,” Moon said.

The report notes charter schools tend to perform a little better on standardized tests, Moon said, but added it’s hard to make comparisons. It’s also unfair to compare test scores even among charter schools, he said, since some campuses are designed specifically to reach at-risk students.

Xavier, which opened in 2007, has about 700 students in kindergarten through 12th grades. As of October, Xavier had 361 children on a waiting list.

Xavier offers school busing within Twin Falls to get as broad of demographics as possible, Moon said. It also has a lot of students from neighboring communities.

At Xavier, 28 percent of students receive free or reduced-price school lunches — lower than the Twin Falls School District’s campuses, which range from about 30-90 percent.

But Moon said he thinks the number of students at Xavier who could qualify for subsidized lunches is actually higher than 28 percent. “I honestly believe it would be higher than that if everyone filled out the form.”

Xavier has 8.6 percent of its student body in special education and 14.5 percent of its students are in minority groups (of those, 11 percent are Hispanic).

Under a new accountability system, the Idaho State Department of Education released a few lists this fall of schools in different categories, recognizing some for measures of success and flagging others as needing help.

This is the first time the state has used the new accountability system to gauge how public schools are doing. It’s a requirement for states to have an accountability system under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.

Xavier was a goal maker in English/language arts and math, and North Valley Academy was for graduation rate.

Of seven local schools labeled as “Comprehensive Support and Improvement Underperforming (CSI Up),” Heritage Academy was included. The school has a large percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged, offers free breakfast and lunch for all students, and school busing.

Heritage Academy was also named an “additional targeted support and improvement” school for economically disadvantaged, Hispanic and white students. Syringa Mountain School received the same designation for economically disadvantaged students.

At North Valley Academy, Klamm said he was pleased the report highlighted the successes of rural charter schools.

“As a rural charter school, it feels like you’re not always achieving success,” he said. But during winter benchmark testing at North Valley Academy, he said, students grew in their academic performance in reading and math.

North Valley Academy, which opened in 2008, has more than 230 students in kindergarten through 12th grades.

As for demographics, “I think for the most part, we’re pretty similar” to traditional schools, Klamm said, but thinks North Valley probably doesn’t have quite as many Hispanic students as neighboring schools.

More than 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, but that number doesn’t tell the full story, he said. A lot of parents who may qualify based on income don’t fill out paperwork “because they don’t want that label.”

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