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The San Diego Unified School District in 2004 became one of the first school systems in the country to confront one of the toughest challenges posed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act: what to do with persistently failing schools. Nine of the district’s 216 elementary and secondary schools had produced poor academic results for six consecutive years under NCLB. The law demands the “restructuring” of such schools—turning over their operations to the state of California, bringing in school-management companies, replacing their principals, or introducing other changes in their governance. Most of the nine schools made modest moves, including one school that reorganized itself into smaller “academies,” and another that changed its name but not much else.
But three of the failing schools, wanting to rebuild from the ground up, chose another strategy available under NCLB—reconstituting themselves as charter schools, publicly funded schools that run independently of school system regulations and union rules. King Elementary School reemerged as King-Chavez Academies under the management of one of San Diego’s existing charter schools, the nearby King-Chavez Academy of Excellence. The other two, Gompers Middle School and Keiller Middle School, which serve mostly poor Hispanic students in blighted communities in southern San Diego, converted to charter schools themselves.
Doing so has put them on the cutting edge of school reform. While the charter school movement has grown since 1992 to more than 4,000 schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia, most charter schools have been new schools created independently of public school systems. Only Gompers, Keiller, and a handful of other charters nationally have been created from existing public schools in response to NCLB’s reform demands after years of failure, hoping to use the autonomy of charter schooling to turn themselves around.
The story of the conversion of Gompers and Keiller to Gompers Charter Middle School and the Keiller Leadership Academy is at once encouraging and sobering. Parents and teachers in the new schools have rallied to the cause of reform, building a strong bottom-up constituency for change. And only a year and a half since the schools’ reemergence as charters, there are already signs of improvement at the troubled schools. The schools have used their new-found independence to transform their dysfunctional cultures; they are safer places now and learning has become a higher priority. And student achievement at the perennially lagging schools has begun to rise.
But Gompers and Keiller have had a great deal of help in their conversion to charter schools—from a school superintendent strongly supportive of charter schooling to an infusion of external expertise and funding—raising a question about whether the schools would be where they are today had they not received such support.
With thousands of failing public schools nationwide facing NCLB’s demands for reform, and with federal lawmakers beginning to explore ways to improve NCLB as the Congress moves toward reauthorizing the law, the transformation of Gompers and Keiller teaches important lessons about the reform of persistently failing public schools, and about NCLB’s seldom-used charter school restructuring strategy.
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