Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Give a Reprieve to Emily Fisher Charter School

The case of Emily Fisher Charter School is an intriguing one. By all accounts, the school is definitely lagging behind almost all other New Jersey high schools in its test scores and graduation rate. Its founder, Dallas Dixon, seems to be one of the most sincere, dedicated, compassionate school leaders I have ever read about. There is no doubt whatsoever that he is completely committed to the school and to the lives of the children that attend the School’s two campuses. His compassionate leadership has fostered a climate of care and concern for the kids from among the faculty. From everything I have read they truly believe they are “fighting the good fight” and not just trying to protect their positions.
The public support for EFCS is also astounding. I regularly drive though Trenton and see signs of support in all quarters of the city, whether it be placards espousing support or notices for rallies and fundraisers to help sustain the School and its determination to stay open. The support would seem to come from both EFCS families and many others in the community.

The State has ordered the school shuttered, citing the poor test scores, slow pace of improvement, high absence rates among students, and low graduation rates. The empirical data is clearly stacked up against Emily Fisher. On that basis alone, the School should close.

But like I said this is an intriguing case, and it raises the issue of whether data alone should be the requisite for the life or death of charter schools. As is detailed in the papers, many of the students at Emily Fisher are classified as Special Education students. I know from experience as a teacher, and from listening to stories from my ex-wife, a wonderful Special Ed teacher in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District, that teaching these students is extremely demanding; these students need individualized instruction, flexibility with assessment design, and an overall level of care that is time consuming, expensive, and complex. It also requires a greater level of parental engagement than with most mainstream students. Their test scores tend to be lower as a group, and in fact these students oftentimes require modifications to the procedures and structures used by assessors.

Many of the students at EFCS also come from troubled backgrounds, forcing them to deal with a host of exigencies that would burden any student, regardless of their academic and intellectual strengths. If there were ever a cohort of students where success must be measured in ways other than test scores, this would be them. I have been moved by many of the stories I have read about students at EFCS. It would be hard for any reasonable person not to see that the School has had a positive effect on their attitudes and their outlook for the future. The School has had a profound effect on their personhood.

The case of Emily Fisher makes it clear that the Department of Education CANNOT simply rely on test scores as the basis for their judgment on Emily Fisher Charter School. I have no doubt that a viable action plan can be developed, one that includes greater communication between EFCS and “successful” charters, greater engagement from the business community and other stakeholders, a commitment to professional development, a strategy to combat absenteeism, and maybe the inclusion of a clinical supervisor to help guide the faculty. With a plan in place, I have no doubt that the students at Emily Fisher Charter School will show improvements in their academic outcomes commensurate with the strong personal growth that few people can deny has occurred. I urge Commissioner Cerf to reconsider; Emily Fisher can be an important case study of what happens when people are given a second chance.

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