Charter school leaders say state 'report card' system is unfair

A student practices welding at PALM Charter High School (WPDE file photo)

They're two words that make students shudder: "report card."

Right now, though, it's school leaders who are getting graded.

South Carolina school report cards were released a few days ago, ranking schools on a variety of factors from academics to safety, based on student, parent and educator surveys, as well as performance.

The scores were calculated into overall ratings ranging from "unsatisfactory" to "excellent."

RELATED: SC Dept. of Education releases school report cards

After breaking down the scores for every individual school in the Grand Strand and Pee Dee, it became apparent that charter schools often scored on the lower end of the spectrum compared to their public peers.

That included three of the four elementary charter schools in Horry County, as well as the lone charter high school.

School leaders were frustrated with the way their schools were being compared.

Palmetto Academy for Learning Motorsports (PALM) Charter School Principal Avery Moore says his school is often docked for lower academic performance, even though his school is designed for those at risk of dropping out.

"We do get those students who don't want to sit at a desk and they don't want to do math and science," Moore explained. "We let them know that's extremely important so we kind of use the motor sports aspect to hook them in to do well academically."

His school's charter was granted specifically for helping the at-risk teens, according to statements made when the charter was granted.

The school's graduation rate has more than doubled since 2015, climbing to nearly 60 percent last year, yet the latest report card still rated it as "unsatisfactory."

The vocation-focused school suffered tremendously in the college readiness categories.

"If there's anything that we would like, we would like there to be some type of unique category that a state could recognize us for so that people could have a better understanding of some of our scores," Moore said, explaining that he would prefer a second report card that looked over the students' performance across their four years of high school, in addition to the schools' year-to-year performance.

RELATED: Horry County Schools Report Card: 63 percent ranked Excellent, Good

Across town, Palmetto Academy of Learning and Success (Palmetto Academy) performed well in many of the categories and earned the highest overall rating of the charter elementary schools in Horry County.

Students at the school mostly outperformed their counterparts in the public school district in academic related categories, yet it received a zero in the technology-based learning categories.

For 1:1 learning, an online education system, the school earned a zero.

South Carolina Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown, however, said schools are not awarded “points” for 1:1 technology nor are they docked “points” as your story seems to suggest.

"That information is simply there for parents and the business community to understand the school’s use of technology," he said.

Executive Director Courtney Fancher said her school was chartered specifically to provide students with a traditional pen-and-paper education system.

"For us, when we look at that report card, that's a double star for us because we've met our standard of zero percent," Fancher explained.

She said Palmetto Academy also normally loses points for their library, because the school puts most resources inside the classrooms themselves.

Older, less frequently used books go to a secondary space the school calls its library, which is mostly used for other purposes like board meetings.

Just like Moore, Fancher wished the state would provide context about the charter schools in their ratings.

"How is the charter school doing in meeting the goals that they were chartered for? That's information that has to be reported (to the state) but doesn't get reported anywhere else," she said.

She said her school was surpassing the goals she had set.

Brown said charter schools across the state ranged from poor to excellent, and the government would be providing additional aid to under-performing schools.

He said leaders were always looking to improve the scoring system, including a potential shift away from academic-heavy ratings for elementary schools in future years, similar to the adjustment high schools experienced this year.

When asked about the concerns brought by Moore and Fancher, Brown said the state was focused on rating schools equally to provide accurate comparisons.

He also said the state preferred ratings based on state educators' goals, which would include utilizing technology-based systems like 1:1 learning.

RELATED: Some disappointed with Pee Dee school report cards

Representatives for the Academy of Hope and Bridgewater Academy didn't return phone calls for comment. The two schools were among the lowest performing elementary schools in Horry County.

Students at The Academy of Hope scored significantly below district public schools in math and ELA testing. Zero students met or exceeded expectations in science, but it's difficult to explain why without context from administrators.

The school was rated as average in progress and "good" in quality.

Bridgewater Academy students also scored below their public school counterparts in state testing.

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