Nora Kern


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Charter Schools in Tennessee’s Achievement School District Show Top Growth on State Assessment

The Achievement School District (ASD) is a statewide school district that was conceptualized four years ago to move schools performing at the bottom five percent (“Priority schools”) in Tennessee to the top 25 percent within five years. The ASD relies heavily on public charter school autonomies and operators as a reform tool. And the original schools that joined the ASD are showing great progress towards this audacious reform goal: 2014-15 test results show that schools in their second and third years in the ASD earned the state’s highest possible growth rating (averaging a Level 5) on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAS).

Other great news from the ASD 2014-15 test results include:

ASD Results

Source: Achievement School District

The results show that the longer students stay in the ASD, the greater they improve. ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic notes, “As we move forward, we will continue to monitor progress, hold our school operators accountable for results, and expand what works.” At the start of the 2015-16 school year, 29 ASD public schools in Memphis and Nashville will be serving over 10,000 students zoned to Priority schools.

Public charter school supporters have the opportunity to visit Nashville, Tennessee next year for our National Charter School Conference. Please save the date—June 26-29, 2016.

Nora Kern is the Senior Manager for Research and Analysis at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


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The Aftermath Series: A Turnaround Model

In the midst of national and statewide education reform efforts, K-12 education is coming to the forefront as a national issue. Though reform is sometimes a frustratingly slow process, one thing is for certain: New Orleans is getting it right.

Resulting from the creation of the Recovery School District (RSD) and devastation of Hurricane Katrina, some of the worst-performing schools in New Orleans rebuilt as charter schools. This allowed for more authorizer oversight but gave principals and teachers autonomy in exchange for successful results—which ultimately led to the improvements in the New Orleans school system. Over the past decade, graduation rates have risen and the achievement gap soon nearly disappeared.

In a recent article written by National Alliance president and CEO, Nina Rees, New Orleans is acknowledged as a model for turnaround school districts, and three key lessons are outlined:

  1. School-level autonomy should be offered to all schools. Lawmakers should consider the bigger picture by focusing on repairing entire districts versus single schools. Like New Orleans, other districts can use charter schools as a reform tool by giving power to principals and teachers to construct school curricula and cultures that best fit their students’ needs.
  2. Engage and empower community leaders to help solve the problem. The “It takes a village” concept can also be applied to education reform. Schools need a way to connect with and enlist the help of existing resources through community groups and leaders that can provide services such as extracurricular activities and after-school care, so that schools can have a laser focus on the academic needs of their students.
  3. Fund the interventions. Like any institutional turnaround, schools reform is going to take funding—and a lot of it. In order for us to be serious about education reform, it is important that we invest in the best techniques, teachers, and training for our schools so that our children are well-equipped to be leaders of our nation.

New Orleans’ school system has become a model for success for all school districts. Increasing  school-level autonomy helped the district to rebuild itself into one of vast improvements. While school reform tactics are not one-size-fits-all, it is important that we begin with a model that has consistently proven results.

To read Nina’s full article and find out more about Louisiana’s success with the turnaround district, click here.

Recovery School District


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Politico Showcases DC’s Thriving Charter School Movement

When the National Alliance determined last fall that Washington, DC, has America’s strongest charter school movement, many people were shocked. For decades, education in the nation’s capital was a national disgrace, with high dropout rates, low achievement scores, and little hope. Yet charter schools helped to launch an education revolution in the District, and a recent Politico magazine profile of DC’s charter movement is showing how that revolution came about.

As it turns out, the secret sauce isn’t very secret at all. DC charters are thriving thanks to a combination of strong local leadership, excellent authorizing and oversight, and a plethora of school models, including schools run by high-performing national CMOs such as KIPP and local start-ups like the Thurgood Marshall Academy. As a result of the hard work put in by educators, policymakers, students, and parents, DC now has one of the  highest charter school enrollment rates in the nation (44 percent), rising achievement scores, higher graduation rates, and positive spillover effects for the broader public school system.

Of course, the news isn’t all positive. Politico showcases Thurgood Marshall Academy’s stunning success in helping students prepare for and succeed in college, yet the story also documents how the school struggled to get off the ground. School founders had a tough time finding adequate facilities and appropriate school leadership—issues that everyone in the charter school movement can relate to. And, as in most big cities in America, parental demand for charter schools in Washington, DC, outstrips the availability of seats. Both of these challenges point to the need for more funding for the federal Charter Schools Program, which is absolutely critical to launching new charter schools and replicating high-quality schools to serve more students.

Click here to read about the tremendous turnaround in Washington, DC, and share the lessons of how charter schools can bring new hope to a city and its students.

Thurgood Marshall Academy


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The Aftermath Series: New Orleans Changes the Narrative

What happens to a city nearly leveled by a natural disaster? What would happen if this destruction resulted in thousands of deaths, poverty-stricken families displaced in massive evacuations, and schools and businesses were shut down? This scenario could quickly become dire. New Orleans, however, used these circumstances as grounds for reinvention of their broken city.

The state of Louisiana created the Recovery School District (RSD) to explore ways to strengthen the city’s educational options about two years before Hurricane Katrina struck. In the wake of the storm, decades old buildings lay in pieces. The destruction of the city’s school buildings and infrastructure required the state government to act—and fast.

The disaster created room to reinvent a deeply troubled school system. The ability to rebuild was an invitation to be innovative and to start fresh. And instead of going back to the district-run business as usually, New Orleans decided to give schools autonomy to make school-level decisions to best serve their students’ needs. The city chose to convert failing schools into public charter schools as part of the RSD, with resource organizations working to support the ideal of strong, high-quality schools. These reforms resulted in a city whose schools are now almost all public charter schools.

Despite the unique circumstances New Orleans faced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the overall lesson is that New Orleans’ success story can be replicated. Any district can leverage public charter school autonomy to empower school-level decisions, coupled with accountability for those choices. However, the strength and persistence of New Orleans’ citizens to rebuild their historic city translated into the school system as well.

Recovery School District


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New Orleans Reforms Boost Student Performance

Families have many options as 93 percent of public school students attend charter schools

The National Alliance received the news yesterday from Education Next that researchers with the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University determined that the education reforms initiated since Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans have increased student achievement.  Read the news release below.

Before Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans in 2005, it was the second-lowest-ranked district in the second-lowest-ranked state in the country, as measured by student performance on state and national tests. After the hurricane, the city essentially erased its school district and started over. Within the span of one year, all public-school employees were fired, the teacher contract expired and was not replaced, and the state took control of almost all public schools. Eventually the state turned all the schools under its authority over to charter management organizations (CMOs), dramatically reshaping the teacher workforce and providing the first direct test of an alternative to the U.S.’s century-old system of school governance.

But are New Orleans’ schools living up to the expectation that once schools are freed from district and union contract rules and allowed to innovate, schools will work better and students will learn more? In three new articles published in Education Next, researchers with the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA-New Orleans) at Tulane University, directed by professor of economics, Douglas Harris, investigate how schools and student performance have responded to the policy shifts.

In “Good News for New Orleans,” Harris summarizes research conducted with ERA analyst Matthew Larsen that uses two complementary strategies to determine how the reforms affected student performance on state tests. The analysis first compares the test scores of students who returned to New Orleans after the hurricane to their own performance before the storm. The analysis then also compares the performance of different cohorts of students before and after the reforms – for example, students in 3rd grade in 2005 and students in 3rd grade in 2012. In both cases, the changes in performance in New Orleans are compared to those in a comparison group of other districts in Louisiana that were affected by the hurricane.

Before the reforms, students in New Orleans performed well below the Louisiana average, at about the 30th percentile statewide. The comparison group also trailed the state average, although to a lesser extent. After the reforms, the performance of New Orleans’s students shot upward by 0.2 to 0.4 standard deviations by 2012, enough to improve a typical student’s performance by 8 to 15 percentile points. In contrast, the comparison group from other districts largely continued its prior trajectory. Over the same time period, state reports indicate that the high school graduation rate in New Orleans rose by 10 percentage points and the share of high school graduates entering college rose by 14 percentage points.

The article also describes how the reforms changed New Orleans schools and, in particular, their teacher workforce. The percentages of teachers with regular certification and with 20 or more years of experience both dropped by about 20 points. The teacher turnover rate also nearly doubled, apparently because schools had greater autonomy over personnel and because of the increase in educators from alternative preparation programs such as Teach for America.

In “Many Options in New Orleans Choice System,” ERA-New Orleans researchers consider to what degree the city’s system of school choice, where 93 percent of public school students attend charter schools, provides a variety of distinct options for families. The schools are overseen by three different agencies and managed by more than 30 school operators and CMOs. To determine if schools differ substantially from one another, the researchers use a statistical method known as cluster analysis to group the schools based on similar characteristics, including whether they have a college-prep mission; a curricular theme; selective admissions; and comparable school hours, grade span, sports, extracurriculars, and support staff levels. They find considerable differentiation among the schools. Their analysis reveals that school characteristics vary even within governing agencies and CMOs.

In “The New Orleans OneApp,” the research team takes a careful look at the city’s unique centralized enrollment system, which enables families to apply for a seat in 89 percent of the city’s public schools by ranking their preferred schools on a single application known as the OneApp. A strategy-proof computer algorithm then assigns students to schools. They conclude that, in many ways, the OneApp is more efficient, fair, and transparent than the decentralized choice system that preceded it. But the system is also more complex, leading some families to misunderstand and distrust it. The OneApp continues to evolve as its administrators learn more about school-choosing families and families learn more about this novel system.

The articles, all of which, will appear in the fall 2015 issue of Education Next.

Nora Kern


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From Vision to Reality: How CSP Funds Enabled Harding Fine Arts Academy to Open

Harding Fine Arts Academy (HFAA) is a college preparatory high school in Oklahoma City that focuses on the integration of arts and academics. HFAA opened in 2005 with a 9th grade class, and grew by a grade level each subsequent year. The school opened with $25,000 raised from the community and founders. Once the school opened its doors, a grant from the state legislature and per-pupil funding kicked in. “It’s disconcerting to start out with no buffer,” Principal Barry Schmelzenbach said about HFAA’s initial shoestring budget.

HFAA received a $174,000 startup grant in 2007 through the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP). Mr. Schmelzenbach remarked that, “by the time we reached our third year—where we had freshman, sophomores and juniors—our student population had grown dramatically. Being able to access those federal funds made a major impact on our ability to meet the needs of our students.”

Mr. Schmelzenbach further commented that, “as a charter school, we receive no facilities funding. All of our allocations for anything that we do, whether that’s hiring a teacher or for building a new library, all of that comes directly out of our per-pupil funding. The federal CSP grant that we received enabled us to do everything from build and grow our programs, to being able to purchase appropriately sized furniture for our students. We began with desks that were really meant for middle school students.”

The impact of the CSP funding was profound. As Mr. Schmelzenbach stated, “without the CSP funding, we would be years behind where we are right now. In the ten years we’ve operated, we have been able to provide an opportunity for students where we are now ranked as one of the top ten high schools in the state. We would not have been able to reach that level this quickly without the CSP funding.”

To learn more about Harding Fine Arts Academy, click here. You can help advocate for charter schools access CSP funding by taking action here.


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The Aftermath Series: The Power of KIPP

Towana Pierre-Floyd, KIPP New OrleansTowana Pierre-Floyd beat the odds. A former student of New Orleans public schools, she excelled in a subpar academic environment and gained access to opportunities many students could only dream of. Knowing that her educational experience was much different from the experiences of her family members and peers, Towana has made it her mission to provide an exceptional education for all students. KIPP is helping her achieve that mission.

KIPP, or the Knowledge is Power Program, is a nationally recognized network of public charter schools serving primarily low-income or underserved communities in 20 states. Today, KIPP operates 10 schools in New Orleans, contributing to the educational rebirth the city has undergone since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina ten years ago.

Towana is now the assistant principal and instructional coach at KIPP Renaissance High School. She believes in the school’s strategy for success: blending academics with character education. KIPP works tirelessly to instill in its students the character traits that lead to lifelong success. Some of these traits – grit (or resilience), self-control, optimism, and zest – are “codes” that the students and staff at KIPP Renaissance “live and breathe by.”

Students are also challenged and motivated by the KIPP Renaissance college prep program, which counsels students through the college selection and application process. All of the students at KIPP Renaissance are eligible to receive free lunch, and 97 percent of the school’s population is African American. It is, therefore, important to Towana and KIPP’s counselors to find schools that have a “high-minority graduation rate and supports so that minority graduation is consistently happening.” It’s not just about getting to college, but graduating from college, and the KIPP Renaissance team continues to counsel KIPP graduates throughout their college experience.

Towana and her fellow staff members believe that KIPP’s power is rooted in its commitment to character development. KIPP Renaissance works hard to make sure that students grow up to be both well-educated and great people. The school wants its students, nearly all of whom are from areas of high poverty, to break the mold, be advocates of change, and make the world a better place. Or, as Towana, puts it: “Our job is not just to make them smart and wealthy; our job is to ideally make them even better than the generations before them.”

To learn more about KIPP’s impact on New Orleans, click here.


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“Challenge Index” High School Rankings Show Charter Schools as a Growing Force

The Washington Post recently released its annual Challenge Index rankings, and public charter schools hold 36 places among the top 100 schools ranked—an all-time high. This year’s Challenge Index results show that charter schools are quickly becoming a strong force in high-quality education. Charter schools make up half of the top ten places, including #1, BASIS Oro Valley (Oro Valley, AZ); #2, BASIS Chandler (Chandler, AZ); #5, Accelerated Elementary and Secondary (Tucson, AZ); #6, BASIS Tucson North (Tucson, AZ); and #10, Signature (Evansville, IN).

Public charter schools have consistently grown among the top 100 high schools of the Challenge Index. Over the past four years, charter schools have consisted of:

  • 2014-2015: 36 of the top 100
  • 2013-2014: 31 of the top 100
  • 2012-2013: 28 of the top 100
  • 2011-2012: 25 of the top 100

Although charter high schools only make up about six percent of the nation’s public high schools, charter high schools account for more than one-third of the top 100 Challenge Index rankings proving their ability to provide a recognizable and rigorous academic experience for their students.

The Challenge Index is calculated by dividing the number of college-level tests of the previous year (2014-2015) by the number of graduates in the same year. The Index also mentions the percentage of students who qualify for subsidized lunch and the percentage of high school graduates that passed at least one college-level test during the course of their high school career. Washington Post Education Columnist Jay Matthews further explains the details of the Challenge Index. To find out more, read here.

Washington Post Challenge Index charter schools


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The Aftermath Series: The New Orleans Recipe for Charter School Success

Prior to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was home to one of the worst education systems in the country. The city’s school system ranked second to last in the state and more than half of its students were attending failing schools. Most students scored below grade level on statewide standardized tests.

Finally fed up with failure, state officials launched a serious reform effort with the creation of the Recovery School District (RSD) in 2003. The RSD would take the city’s most chronically failing schools and put them under state control in order to better monitor practices and student performance. After Katrina, officials kicked their efforts into high gear. The RSD soon converted the majority of its schools into charter schools, combining autonomy and accountability to raise student achievement, reduce drop-out rates, and send more kids to college.

This educational renaissance took place in dire conditions. Deep-seated racial inequalities had spilled over into the education system. Corruption consumed the educational bureaucracy. Post-Katrina, some students showed signs of post-traumatic stress.

While there is still much more work to do, the rapid improvement of New Orleans’ schools in such conditions has been nothing short of wondrous. With nearly all of its schools operating as charter schools, New Orleans has taken a novel approach to reform – combining school-level autonomy with citywide policies in certain areas to raise academic achievement and ensure educational equity. Principals are empowered to make most key decisions about how their students are taught and the culture that prevails in the school, including choosing the staff that’s best suited to their school. This has allowed a wide variety of educational models to flourish. At the same time, the city centralized the application and enrollment process to give students from every neighborhood access to the best schools. Discipline policies are also centralized to make sure no student is marginalized for behavioral issues.

This level of success doesn’t go unnoticed, and cities and states across America are taking a close look to see what ingredients from the New Orleans turnaround can be incorporated into their own school systems. To read more about New Orleans, the city’s perseverance, and how the community made history by way of education reform, click here.


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The Aftermath Series: New Orleans Turns to Charter Schools

A decade ago, New Orleans and surrounding areas were devastated by Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest storms in American history. Tens of thousands of families were displaced and homes, schools, and businesses had to be rebuilt from scratch.

Determined to make their city even stronger than before, the citizens of New Orleans made education reform a top priority. Following years of poor performance in the city’s public schools, local leaders took bold action to make nearly every school in the city a charter school.

Over the past ten years, New Orleans’ school system has become a model for cities around the country looking to improve their school systems. Charter schooling ignited a burst of innovation and commitment to quality that has produced remarkable results for New Orleans students. Prior to Katrina, 54 percent of students graduated high school; today the graduation rate is 73 percent. The achievement gap in reading and math between students in New Orleans and in the rest of the state has nearly disappeared, shrinking from 23 points to just 6 points. And passing rates among low-income and African-American students in New Orleans have more than doubled since 2003.

New Orleans has shown that school-level flexibility and accountability, community-driven input, and an unflagging commitment to quality can radically improve schools and give all students equal access to a high-quality education.

As we approach the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the National Alliance is launching this series of blog posts to celebrate the way the citizens of New Orleans came together to rebuild their city and dramatically improve their children’s future. These are stories of bold choices, passionate dedication, and tremendous progress.

Ten years ago, the nation offered its help to the people of New Orleans as they struggled to get back on their feet. Today, New Orleans is demonstrating how effective educational reform can bring new hope and opportunity to communities across America.