Affiliated charters: A successful model on its way out?
Mike Szymanski | May 31, 2016
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LA Unified has so many different kinds of schools it’s hard to keep them all straight. With such varied terms as affiliated charter, independent charter, magnet school, pilot school, continuation school, option school and others, it can be a challenge to understand what they are, what they offer and how they differ.
This is the next part of an LA School Report series taking an in-depth look at the different categories of schools that exist within the massive LA Unified school district.
Today we examine affiliated charter schools.
(Read more on affiliated charters: Does ‘charter’ make you look smarter? Principal of LAUSD’s newest affiliated charter says yes and The elementary school-turned-affiliated charter that became so popular parents fake their addresses)
One of the most successful school models in LA Unified is also one of the most under-used, and it’s becoming even more scarce. Only one school in the last two years has even applied to become one.
The unique “affiliated charter” schools — coined and developed locally at the nation’s second-largest school district — achieve higher test scores than either the district’s prized magnets or independent charter schools. They also have lower absentee rates than the district average.
But only 53, or 4 percent, of LA Unified’s 1,274 schools use the affiliated charter model. The schools are located in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods — nearly half of the student population is white in affiliates—and exist in communities where parent involvement has pushed the school administrators into more creative and innovative methods of teaching.
“Some may see it as the best of both worlds,” said Jose Cole-Gutierrez, the executive director of the district’s Charter Schools Division that oversees all charter schools connected to the district. “They are semi-autonomous schools of the district very much connected to the district’s collective bargaining, district staff and more, but each school also has its own governance council.”
Affiliated charters can choose their own curriculum, opt to reduce class sizes or adjust classroom scheduling, offer more professional development and exercise more control over budgeting, hiring and school site decisions. But they adhere to all district collective bargaining agreements. And the district receives most of the state money that goes to an affiliated charter and funnels it to pay for teacher and administrator salaries, although there’s some spending freedom with the rest of the money. A school, for example, must teach basic standards and can buy its own textbooks that are different from what the district uses, but must figure out how to pay for them.
In the past year, affiliated charters have ranked significantly higher in the English and math scores than either magnet or independent charter schools. And their California Office to Reform Education’s (CORE) scores from the past year have averaged 79.8 while the district average is 60.
Yet this successful school model is on the decline in LA Unified because fewer school principals are choosing the model.
“Like pilot schools, this is part of the diversity of options in our district,” Cole-Gutierrez said. “This model allows for innovation and still keeps the school in the family, so to speak.” He notes, “The number of schools applying for affiliated charter status has dropped significantly, and that could be for a variety of reasons.”
One reason is that a majority of the full-time teachers at a school must support the move, and the principal has to initiate the process. Also, the block grant funding that used to flow to affiliated charters was dropped two years ago after the state switched to the Local Control Funding Formula. Finally, the affiliated model depends on a highly committed teacher population as well as an active parent community because the school’s governance board must be made up of equal numbers of both.
The idea for affiliated charter schools caught on when it was first introduced in 1993, especially in smaller schools that couldn’t depend on big chunks of money coming to the school because of a larger population.
Schools that have become affiliated charters are almost all located in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside and in predominantly whiter and wealthier neighborhoods. That’s partly because those schools lost their Title 1 money when the district raised the percentage of low-income students needed to qualify.
This unique school configuration, which is not even outlined in the California Education Code, now seems to be on its way out. Statewide, 26 percent of schools use the affiliated model, according to the California Charter School Association. Most of the affiliated charters are concentrated in the Northeast and Central Valley region of the state (44 percent) with a small portion in Southern California (12 percent). CCSA considers affiliated charters as “charter schools in name only” compared to independent, autonomous charter schools.
AFFILIATED CHARTERS BY THE NUMBERS
Of the 53 affiliated charter schools in LA Unified there are three high schools, five middle schools and the rest are elementary schools.
Of the nearly 650,000 LA Unified students, 41,555, or about 6 percent, attend affiliated charters.
That’s compared to 107,000 enrolled at 221 independent charters, which are publicly funded and independently operated public schools.
Affiliated charter students are not included in the district totals as charter school students, even though the school may have “charter” in its name. They are included among the “regular school” totals because the funding still comes through the district.
A total average of 58 percent of LA Unified’s affiliated charter students met or exceeded the standards in the 2015 Smarter Balanced English Language Arts test, compared to 55 percent of the magnet students, 44 percent for the state, 39 percent for independent charters and 33 percent for the district.
In the math standards, 51 percent of the affiliated charter students met or exceeded standards compared to 44 percent of magnet students, 33 percent for the state, 28 percent for independent charters and 25 percent for the district.
Only 32 percent of the students at affiliated schools qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, compared with 83 percent at independent charters and 77 percent for the district overall. Some of the schools, like Canyon Charter in Santa Monica and Marquez Elementary Charter School in Pacific Palisades, have 3 and 6 percent socio-economically disadvantaged students, respectively.
The overall district’s demographics are 74 percent Latino, 8.4 percent African-American, 6 percent Asian and 9.8 percent white.
In the affiliated charter schools, 28 percent of students are Latino, 6.8 percent African-American, 9.5 percent Asian and 47.6 percent white. Statewide, as well as within the district, Asian and white students and those who are not from economically disadvantaged households scored significantly higher on the tests.
AFFILIATED CHARTERS BY LOCATION
Pick the wealthiest neighborhoods in the LA Unified borders, and you’ll likely find an affiliated charter school there. When broken up by neighborhoods, eight are in Woodland Hills, seven are in Northridge and five are in Sherman Oaks. A total of 43 are in the San Fernando Valley and nine are on the Westside, with one located near downtown.
That one affiliated charter school, in the Central district, is Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Science Center School, which ironically is named after the man credited with creating LA Unified’s magnet schools. Not a magnet, the Alexander Science Center does have the highest amount of socio-economically disadvantaged students of any affiliated charter (at 81 percent), and it has the lowest scores at 25 percent for English language arts and 13 percent for math. It has a CORE score of 45.
Most affiliated charter schools are in wealthier neighborhoods in part because the principals and teachers want to expand their curriculum to something more than what the district teaches, and their students are much different than those in the rest of the district.
“We don’t have as many English learners, and some of the district lessons don’t apply as much to our population,” said Joe Martinez, the principal of Carpenter Community Charter in Studio City, which has a 76 percent white population and 4 percent English language learners, with only 4 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch. He has a school where people have faked their addresses so they can get in as a resident to the 92-year-old school that is surrounded by $1 million homes and within walking distance of the homes of George Clooney and Miley Cyrus. “We have found that being an affiliated charter has allowed us to try different and unique things, and it seems to be working.”
At more than 950 students, Carpenter is the largest affiliated charter elementary school and one of the oldest in the Valley. Parents and the principal applied for its charter in 2010. It was approved for renewal last year for another five years. The parents and teachers on their Governance Council explored other options before re-applying but chose to stick with the affiliated model.
“We have not found any drawbacks so far,” Martinez said. “When our five years ran out, we started looking at pilot and magnet school options, independent charter or even returning to the district. We looked at the next step for Carpenter and determined the affiliated model was the best one by far for us.”
Tamar Galatzan, the former school board member for District 3, helped Carpenter with its application at that time. She actively promoted the idea with dozens of other high-performing schools with Academic Performance Index scores exceeding the state’s target score of 800. (Carpenter had 943 at its peak; the tests were discontinued in 2013.) Most of the affiliated charters, 32 of them, are in District 3 and the next highest is 19 in Steve Zimmer’s District 4. Galatzan, who lost last year to Scott Schmerelson, encouraged small elementary schools to go the affiliated charter route and take advantage of block grant funding that was available at the time.
“A lot of these schools came together at the same time to apply and they had a strong record of performance and wanted to continue to be creative and continue to grow,” Cole-Gutierrez said. “The schools and their community wanted to continue to provide an innovative curriculum different from the rest of the district.”
WHY ISN’T EVERY SCHOOL AN AFFILIATED CHARTER?
Former LA Unified school board member David Tokofsky said he coined the phrase “affiliated” charter. Most other school districts call such a hybrid a “dependent” charter.
“No one wanted to be called a dependent school, so in some executive session at some point I suggested calling them ‘affiliated’ and it stuck,” Tokofsky recalled. Why wouldn’t every school want to become affiliated? Tokofsky said, “Not all schools are aggrieved. Not all schools need or want to change.”
Schools have to commit to the affiliated charter model, more than half of the teachers have to approve the idea, and the application process can take months if not years. Often, parents who are lawyers and grant writers volunteer their time to fill out the necessary paperwork to become an affiliated charter, which is another reason why fewer school communities in underprivileged neighborhoods with parents working multiple jobs seek to convert to the affiliated charter model.
Four years ago, the school board changed the Title 1 qualifications for schools to get extra funding for underprivileged children. It created a big dent in many school budgets, and schools in wealthier neighborhoods had to seek other ways to replace the steep loss of funding. Millikan Middle Affiliated Charter School in Sherman Oaks recorded a loss of $600,000 in one year.
Affiliated charter schools also received about $400 to $500 per student as a block grant when they were approved. But that state funding source changed and the block grants stopped two years ago. Many principals no longer saw the advantage of becoming an affiliated charter.
“When I submitted the application, the comments I would get from the district is ‘Why are you doing this, the funding is not there anymore?’ and I said we wanted to have more control over our curriculum,” said James Lee, the principal of Sylmar High School, which is the only school to apply to become an affiliated charter in the past two years. No other schools are even in the process of applying to become one. “We cared more about having the autonomy and didn’t do it just because of the money.”
Sylmar’s application was approved by the school board on May 10, and it will become an official affiliated charter school in July. Lee sees it making a big difference in the community’s perception of the school, especially in light of this month’s widely publicized schoolyard brawl.
“Just having the name ‘charter’ to the school will help us,” Lee said. “Even before the approval I’ve been getting estimates on changing the sign in the front of the school to add the word charter to it. I think it will bring a whole new attitude to the school to have that on the sign.”
Lee doesn’t understand why more principals don’t look at the affiliated charter model.
“I think the loss of the block grant funding has made it less palatable to become an affiliated charter,” Lee said. “But we have worked with what we have for a long time. Becoming an affiliated charter is a form of us branding ourselves in terms of being independent and able to design our educational curriculum and services to meet the needs of parents and our kids.”
For Sylmar, it has been a laborious four-year journey. It’s a far cry from when the principal came to the school in 2012 when it was considered an under-performing school. Already twice, the district had turned down the application for the school to restructure itself, and at one point before he came to the school, its affiliated charter request was denied.
“We had to be ready for the change, and this is the right time,” said Lee, who is following a Small Community Learning model that the teachers have adopted.
Affiliated charter schools must renew their application every five years, just like charter schools. Cole-Gutierrez cannot recall an affiliated charter ever failing to be renewed. The schools also have the option to convert back to a traditional school, but that only happened once. Only two schools, El Camino Real Charter High School and Pacific Palisades Charter High School, ever converted to an independent charter from affiliated.
When Sylmar High first discussed becoming an affiliated charter with the teachers, many were afraid it would affect their retirement or status with the district, but that’s not the case, as all UTLA agreements remain in place. At Sylmar, the initial vote was close, about 60 percent, but then the teachers did some investigating on their own.
“I gave them names of schools that were affiliated charters, like the other high schools, Chatsworth, Cleveland and Taft, and a couple them talked to teachers at the school and they didn’t even know they were affiliated charters,” Lee said. “Everything was essentially the same.”
In fact, the schools could use their discretionary money to pay the teachers more for extra work, some of the principals said.
But the common thought is that families also have to raise more money per student at affiliated charters to help the school, and that is another reason why they are in wealthier neighborhoods. At Carpenter, according to their Governance minutes, the school has raised $350,000 so far with an average gift of $948 per family. More than 20 families gave more than $3,000. A big fundraiser at the CBS Studios lot nearby every year, where they auction items from many of the celebrity families, and an annual golf tournament also raise money.
“I think there is more commitment to fundraising at an affiliated charter school, it comes with the territory,” Martinez said. “Of course, we never would or could require any family to contribute.”
Cole-Gutierrez said that all schools raise money to support their school programs, whether it’s for a full-time PE coach, more books for the library or supplemental art classes. “You cannot depend on family donations to be an affiliated charter, but the schools that are affiliated tend to have more engaged communities from the outset,” Cole-Gutierrez said.
Although it’s rarely chosen as a model, the schools that have gone affiliated don’t seem to want to change.
“When we first voted, 100 percent of the staff wanted to go affiliated charter,” said Martinez about his Carpenter teachers. In fact, two of them left to form their own independent charter schools after seeing the success. Now the faculty is learning to teach the students Singapore math and are trying innovative writing programs and even a daily relaxation exercise created by Goldie Hawn.
“I think the affiliate model has allowed to unify all the groups on campus and have greater transparency,” Martinez said. “It allows us to teach our children well.”
Coming next: profiles of Carpenter Community Charter School and the new Sylmar Charter High School.