When charter schools do well, they often have a lot to brag about. The best-performing charters boast of well-behaved students who earn top grades, high scores on standardized tests, and astonishing college-acceptance rates compared to neighboring district schools. Charter school critics, however, attribute many of these gains to the practice of cherry-picking students.
When a charter can choose only top-performing students through selective admission or else cull under-performing students through arbitrary zero-tolerance behavior policies, they can better control the students that ultimately matriculate. This claim has been discussed at length, but remains a hot topic among charter school communities around the country.
At George Gervin Academy in San Antonio, Texas, the conversation has never been about competing with the city’s best schools by selecting the students most likely to succeed—in fact, quite the opposite.
The academy actively seeks out the city’s most challenging students, the ones who might otherwise fall through the cracks. A full 100 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, a metric commonly used to mark students from lower-income backgrounds. Minority enrollment is pegged at 96 percent.
If George Gervin Academy cherry-picks students, it is to select the ones who need the most support.
The Impact of Serving At-Risk
Opened in 1995 as a dropout recovery high school and one of the first generation of charters in Texas, the George Gervin Academy is actually six campuses in one—with five campuses in San Antonio and one in Phoenix. There are traditional elementary and middle school students spread across the charter district’s five campuses, as well as an alternative credit recovery. The alternative programs offer special services for pregnant students and actively reach out to the juvenile justice system to recruit students. All told, the schools serve about 1,500 students from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
Serving so many at-risk students has certainly had an impact on the Academy’s evaluation scores.
Just two years ago, the school met state accountability standards, but the school leadership was not happy with the performance of certain population sub-groups. According to Jesse Villanueva, the Principal and Director of Schools at the Academy, “the mobility of students and teacher retention were the major problems.” Mainly because the new teachers wanted the traditional school experience and salary, 35 to 40 percent of teachers were leaving the district each year.
With this rate of turnover, Villanueva says, “Academic scores were up and down, not stable, because one year you had a good teacher, the next year you had a poor teacher.” And, he adds, “It takes a special person to take on the responsibilities of working with an at-risk population. When students come from low-income families with one person working, it made it hard to get parents involved.”
(Next page: How the charter district began to thrive)