When Mansoor Kapasi first began taking his students to chess tournaments, the other parents wondered if they were part of a gang.
He said his students — now well known within the Austin chess-playing community — provide a “huge contrast” to the mostly privileged crowds at chess tournaments. They are primarily economically disadvantaged and minority. Many have limited English proficiency. And all have either dropped out of high school or come close.
Kapasi teaches at Austin Can! Academy, a charter high school on the city’s east side with 380 students that has a focus on those at high risk for dropping out.
Now, because of the way the state calculates high school completion and dropout rates, schools like Austin Can! could face closure. Supporters say such schools are unintentionally penalized for serving a challenging student population. A bill in the state Legislature aims to fix the formula for assessing completion and dropout rates, but some academics question whether that will just make it easier for school districts to jettison their problem children, allowing at-risk students to fall through the cracks.
Recovery charter schools in Texas serve about 18,000 students who have performed poorly at traditional public schools, according to state data from the 2009-10 school year. Many have skipped too many classes or used too many drugs to graduate on time. Others have gotten pregnant or have emotional problems or learning disabilities. Recovery charters offer a second chance.
Kimberly Smith dropped out of McCallum High School in Austin during the first semester of her freshman year. She said she was experiencing anxiety attacks and depression. “I felt trapped inside,” she said, adding, “I was pretty much in bed just sleeping all day long, just basically crying.”
Now a sophomore at Austin Can!, Smith, 17, says the flexible schedule allows her to take fewer class hours so she can attend psychotherapy sessions.
A break from the regular eight-hour class day is essential for other students who have to work or watch children, or have behavioral problems, said Josie Duckett, vice president for public and government affairs at the Texas Charter Schools Association. Charter schools can provide more attention-intensive learning environments.
“A lot of times kids don’t have this support system at home, and this is the first time adults are caring for them and believing in them,” Duckett said.
Under Texas Education Agency accountability standards, alternative schools like dropout recovery charters have to meet two requirements in addition to financial and TAKS-based criteria: At least 60 percent of students must graduate or receive a GED in four years or continue to their fifth year; and they can have a dropout rate no higher than 20 percent, based on the number of students enrolled in one year who make it through the next September.
Those standards can wreck the accountability ratings of schools like Austin Can! because students often go to them after failing to graduate in four years from their previous schools, and the four-year clock does not reset once they enter a new school. Because the schools serve students who have already dropped out of traditional schools, they often get hit hard by the dropout measurement as well.
“Once a student comes to our schools, we can’t deny them — it doesn’t matter if they had horrific attendance, if they are 20 and have one credit,” said Toni Templeton, of the state charter association. “If we have them for one day, if they don’t stay with us and return the following fall, they are a dropout.”
A charter school that receives an “unacceptable” rating for two years or more can have its accreditation revoked. The state can also prohibit charter holders from opening new schools. Thirteen charter campuses are in danger of closing because of high dropout or low completion rates.
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, has filed legislation that adjusts the way the state measures dropout and completion rates for charters that serve at-risk students. It would allow the schools to receive credit for students who graduate within six years and exempt students 17 and older from counting as dropouts. There is a similar proposal in the House.
Despite its limited scope, the six-year completion measure, if enacted, would make Texas a national leader in dropout recovery programs, according to Lili Allen, program director of the postsecondary division at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit that has researched dropout policies across the country.
“It would continue to hold them to a high standard but would make it an appropriate standard for those who support a majority population who are off track or who have dropped out all together,” Allen said.
By focusing on rules surrounding the revocation of charters, Van de Putte’s legislation avoids making changes to the state accountability system, which could be perceived as lowering standards, said Sarah Gomez, a spokeswoman for the senator. Such changes, she said, would most likely encounter opposition from the Texas Education Agency and other members of the Legislature who believe the current system already provides enough relief for schools who deal with high-risk students.
Still, some education experts argue that Van de Putte’s proposal gives special treatment to charter schools. Conclusions about dropout rates at charter schools and traditional districts are mixed — largely due to the difficulty of accessing student-level data that accurately identifies former dropouts who have re-enrolled in schools. But Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor at the University of Texas College of Education who studies how incentive systems affect student achievement, said his research had found a higher dropout rate for all charters — not just those that focus on dropout recovery — when compared with their peer districts. He said he strongly opposes what he viewed as a weakening of accountability standards for those schools.
“The thing is that districts deal with dropouts too, and so you would think that charter schools would be able to stack up against traditional districts when it comes to dropout rates,” he said. “If they are going to compete against public schools for public dollars, then they should meet the same standards.”
He also worries that the measure could make it easier for dropout recovery charters to become “holding bins” for traditional school districts to dump their problem students. “You off-load the kids into these charters, and then they disappear into oblivion,” he said.
For Smith, at least, that hasn’t been the case. She wakes up at 4:45 every morning to take the train from her Georgetown home to classes at Austin Can!, which she said was the only school that would enroll her.
“I have no idea where I would be without this school,” she said. “It’s been a very big help to me.”
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