(Here's a story for today about Rochester Off-Campus Charter School and how they might be impacted by a federal government grant to improve schools. In the print edition, the story was cut into two parts because of our jump rule. However, it's probably easier to read it as one. EM)
A federal government approach to raising school performance has threatened Rochester Off-Campus Charter School, along with 33 other schools statewide, with closing or widespread restructuring by next school year.The state Department of Education named the schools in a federal grant application for about $34 million. The schools, identified as the lowest 5 percent of schools in the state based on test scores and graduation rates, will receive the funding help after developing aggressive plans to reform their programs.
It will be the biggest overhaul of some of the state's weakest schools in recent memory, with more schools going through major overhauls in a few months than they did during the previous eight years during No Child Left Behind, said Patricia King, director of school improvement at the Minnesota Department of Education.
But will Rochester Off-Campus Charter School close? Will half of the teachers and Director Jay Martini be given pink slips? That responsibility lies with independent evaluators who will be hired by the state Education Department.
During the next few weeks, those independent organizations will review each of the schools and decide the best course of action for each.
Rochester Off-Campus Charter School was launched in 1993 to serve students who are dealing with issues that have prevented them from success in a typical school. That includes students who are: at least one year behind in grade level, pregnant or already a parent, chemically dependent, a victim of physical or sexual abuse, homeless during the past six months, dealing with mental health issues, or those who have been expelled from school.
Taken another way, the students that other schools ask to leave are the ones Rochester Off-Campus welcomes with open arms.
Since students at Rochester Off-Campus have gaps in their educational career, their state test scores have typically lagged behind state averages. The school has also regularly missed federal Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks, which are set by those same state tests.
And since students are often a year or two behind the original timeline when they enroll at ROC, the school's graduation rate gets hit, too.
Martini said many students graduate, but just not with their original class, which isn't taken into account on the state graduation rate.
"If someone says, 'Well, all of your kids aren't graduating on time,' my response is: duh," Martini said.
He continued that the school understands that test scores need to improve, but said his students succeed in many other ways. Martini is encouraged that the federal grant allows evaluators to understand what the school does successfully.
"My kids overachieve in so many areas and in test scores they don't, so it's hard to label one as [underperforming]," Martini said.
The school boasts highly improved attendance rates, from a group of students that typically missed weeks of class per semester, as well as decreased rates of relapse for students dealing with substance abuse issues.
After the evaluators finish their work, a new department within the Education Department, called the Office of Turnaround Schools, will take the evaluators' reports and work with the host school districts to pick from one of four restructuring plans. Options include replacing the principal and half or more of the teachers, converting to charter-school status or closing the school.
King said the review will be holistic and not just based on test scores.
But many of the options don't sit well with the state's teachers, said Tom Dooher, president of the Education Minnesota teachers union, because they seem to blame the teachers. "Of the president's four choices, three of them are pretty draconian," he said.
Martini said he didn't want to seem "Pollyanna-ish" about the issue, but that he sees the program as an opportunity.
"I see this thing as a license to get better," Martini said. "Being identified [as underperforming] is shameful — I understand that and I don't want that for my parents and my kids — but aside from that, it directs resources and [starts] paying attention to a population that traditionally has been under-served and not been understood."
Martini said he is waiting for more direction from the Minnesota Department of Education, but
"If you're saying your kids are achieving, tell us how, my goodness. I have endless data that can support how wonderful my kids are doing here," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.