SACRAMENTO — John C. Fremont Charter School is caught in two sides of California’s education world – aloof from most state regulations as a charter, yet judged along with other public schools in Gov. Gray Davis’ ranking and rewards system.
It’s doing well in both. The Merced school with mostly poor and minority students had its charter renewed last year and its students made the biggest gains among charter schools in Davis’ rankings this year.
But not all California’s experimental charter schools did as well º more than a third of them did not qualify for Davis’ $677 million in rewards to be doled out in January to schools that improved their test-based rankings.
Some actually lost ground, particularly for their minority and poor students, according to a computer-assisted analysis by the Associated Press of the state’s Academic Performance Index rankings for 80 charter schools.
Fremont principal Greg Spicer is cautiously pleased about qualifying for the rewards.
“We’re hoping that we’re on the right track,” said Spicer.
All public schools, including charters, are being judged this year by the state not on how high or low their APIs are, but on whether they improved their scores between 1999 and 2000.
Like regular public schools, charter schools have a huge range of APIs. Also like regular schools, charters’ APIs generally reflect the students they serve. Schools with mostly middle-class, suburban students have high scores, while those with poor, minority and non-English-speaking students have lower ones.
However, when it comes to the all-important improvement, the charter schools that increased their scores the most tended to start with relatively low scores and serve mostly minority and poor students. Many of the ones that slid backward the furthest had high scores and mostly white, middle-class kids.
Charter schools – created by a 1992 law – are public schools given freedom from most education code requirements. In exchange, they are supposed to “improve pupil learning,” particularly for “pupils who are identified as academically low-achieving.”
The Academic Performance Index, or API, was created in 1999 by Davis and the Legislature to rank the state’s public schools. It is a score, ranging from a low of 200 to a high of 1000, that is currently based entirely on the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting exam.
Schools were given their first APIs based on their spring 1999 test scores. They were also given an improvement goal that was 5 percent of the difference between their API and Davis’ long-term goal of 800.
Schools qualified for the rewards if they met their overall goal, also improved scores for subgroups within the school and tested sufficient students.
The money will go to the schools themselves and to the teachers and other staff. The highest reward of $25,000 goes to teachers in low-performing schools that improved test scores the most.
When the 2000 APIs were released last month, 67 percent of 6,209 public schools qualified for the rewards.
Fifty-one of the 80 charter schools that had both 1999 and 2000 APIs, or 64 percent, qualified.
Dave Patterson of the California Network of Educational Charters, a statewide group for charter supporters, said there are other charter schools that do not yet have 2000 APIs that have met Davis’ growth targets.
“Charter schools are not underperforming, as far as we can tell,” says Patterson.
Fremont, which jumped 89 points from 501 to 590, was at the top of the charter improvement list. Among regular public schools, the largest growth was 189 points.
The gains are particularly sweet because Fremont is one of nine charter schools among the 860 public schools in Davis’ three-year improvement program aimed at schools with scores in the bottom half of the state.
In that program, schools spend one year devising an improvement plan and two years trying to meet their goals. Those that fail face a list of sanctions as severe as closure of the school.
Principal Spicer says being a charter school has helped Fremont — in its sixth year as a charter — in its improvement plan. The 620-student school in the Merced City Elementary District is 67 percent minority, while 77 percent of its students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches and 28 percent are not fluent in English.
“It helped us to focus,” he said. “It’s freed us up in how we use our money.”
As a charter, Fremont was more quickly able to work out a partnership with Apple Computers to lease new computers needed for the school’s accelerated reading program, he said.
Fremont also was able to require its parents to work 40 hours in the school and makes its students sign a contract to do their homework. It was able to give students art lessons two hours a week and allow teachers to use that time to work together on lesson plans, he said.
Also posting a big gain — 80 points, from 574 to 654 — was Accelerated School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a 265-student school that has been a charter since 1994.
Accelerated’s students are 43 percent black and 56 percent Hispanic, 94 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches and 36 percent are learning English.
Co-director Kevin Sved said the school allows teachers to be creative, gives them extra resources for supplies, requires parents to volunteer and provides after-school and summer programs.
“We’re really looking at children holistically. It’s really a testament that you don’t have to teach to the test to have good testing results,” he said.
Twelve of the 29 charter schools that did not meet their growth targets had their APIs actually drop between 1999 and 2000. However, seven of the 12 started with APIs in the 700s, close to Davis’ goal of 800.
The largest fall was 27 points by Nevada City School of the Arts, which had started at 798. That school is one of 49 schools chosen last week as California’s nominees for National Blue Ribbon Schools.
The school has 216 students, 96 percent of them white and none qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunches or English learners.
Principal Judi McKeehan says test results can vary in such a small school where the student body changes each year.
“I still think our achievement is right up there,” she said.
The school, chartered by the Twin Ridges Elementary School District in Nevada County, incorporates art into other lessons.
On the Net: Read about charter schools at
Read about Davis’ school-improvement program at
The Accelerated School is at http://www.accelerated.org
Nevada City School of the Arts is at