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Charter schools best serve the poor, survey finds

November 12, 2008|Mitchell Landsberg | Landsberg is a Times staff writer.

The burgeoning charter school movement in California has largely made its mark as an alternative to low-performing inner-city schools. An analysis being issued today suggests that, at their best, charters are doing that job well, outperforming most traditional public schools that serve children in poverty.

Using the Academic Performance Index as a measuring tool, the California Charter Schools Assn. found that 12 of the top 15 public schools in California that cater primarily to poor children are charters.

"These results show that charter schools are opening doors of opportunity for California's most underserved students, and effectively advancing them on the path to academic success," said Peter Thorp, interim head of the association. He urged traditional public schools to study the charters to replicate their success.

The association, which is an advocate for charter schools, focused on schools where at least 70% of the children qualify for free or reduced price lunches. Of more than 3,000 public schools statewide that fit that description, the highest API score -- 967 -- was earned by American Indian Public Charter, a middle school in Oakland whose students are primarily Asian, black and Latino, and have a poverty rate of 98%. It was followed by its sibling, American Indian Public High School, with a score of 958.

The fifth-highest ranked school was another Oakland middle school run by the same organization, which began with a Native American theme. American Indian Public Charter II had an API of 917. The API, which ranges from 200 to a perfect score of 1,000, is a gauge of student performance.

Charter schools are public schools run independently of traditional school districts, typically by nonprofit organizations. Broad analyses of charter performance have tended to show that they slightly outperform traditional public schools, especially at the middle and high school level, although critics say that could be because their students tend to come from more academically motivated families.

Four Southern California elementary schools were in the top 15: Global Education Academy, Crescendo Charter Conservatory and Synergy Charter Academy, all in South L.A., ranked third, seventh and 12th in the state, respectively. Sixth Street Prep elementary in Victorville was No. 13.

Ben Chavis, who took over American Indian Public Charter in 2001, when it was struggling academically and in danger of losing its charter, said there was no mystery to his schools' success. It begins, he said, with at least 90 minutes a day of math and English, and a no-nonsense approach.

"These poor kids are doing well because we practice math and language arts," he said. "That's it. It's simple."

He insisted that it is easier to teach poor students than more affluent ones because they are more motivated to succeed. "It's the opposite of what everybody says," he said. "It's easier to do it with the poor kids and the minority kids because they have nothing, so they should be the highest."

Asked why most educational researchers say the opposite, he said: "They're liberal and lazy . . . and they see these kids as victims."

American Indian Public Charter ranks fifth among all middle schools in California, with the top four serving more affluent student bodies.

Only three schools on the list were non-charters. Among them was Solano Avenue Elementary, a Los Angeles Unified school near Dodger Stadium with a score of 905, ranking it ninth in the state.

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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