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Charter And Private Schools Attract More Columbus Students

In the 1950s and 60s about 3,000 new students entered Columbus Public Schools every year. Now, 3,000 students are asking for their transcripts. And many of them are taking them and school education dollars to publicly funded, privately run charter schools.

This week, WOSU 820 is looking at why Columbus Public Schools has lost half its students over the past three decades.

Although the school system has not experienced an exodus like it did in the years surrounding desegregation and suburban move-outs, enrollment has maintained a downward trend.

It's just before the start of the school day at Innis Elementary School and children are finishing up breakfast.

During the 20 years after World War Two, Columbus Public Schools were jam-packed with students. The pupil-teacher ratio was often 45 to 1. To ease over crowding, the district built scores of new schools. But the glory days were gone by the 1970s. And the district has lost students since. There are various reasons why parents choose school systems other than Columbus Public.

Sally Oldham is vice president of the Columbus Education Association and a retired elementary teacher. Oldham partly blames poor scores on new state-mandated tests. "They are not making the progress on those state tests. And so our schools are labeled as being failures. And I think that has a key part in why our parents are leaving our schools." Says Oldham.

I'm Tom Borgerding. The state-mandated tests are part of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" Act which was signed into law in 2002. The law requires students to reach a certain benchmark. If they don't test at the required level, the school is placed under academic probation so to speak - sometimes even labeled as 'failing.' Oldham says statistics show poorer children tend to score lower than middle-class, suburban students. "In kindergarten our kids are at least two to three years behind. It's very hard to make that up, make those kinds of gains before we have those state-mandated tests. And with No Child Left Behind a lot of our children are being left behind." Says Oldham.

Columbus Public Schools met fewer of the "No Child Left Behind" standards last year than the year before. The "No Child Left Behind" Act gives parents the option to choose another school if their son or daughter is set to attend a failing school. The state offers tuition vouchers for private schools. Shirley Rogers' son was set to go to Mayberry Elementary School which was placed under academic emergency. She said when her son was not selected by a lottery to go to a different public school, Rogers looked into vouchers. Now he attends Harvest Preparatory, a private Christian school. "Since every child has to attend school, it's mandatory, then I think that Columbus, the public schools should provide superior or, you know, even average schooling. But as we know, they're not doing that. They're not meeting the standards, the state standards that are required for the students. And for a child to be forced into that type of environment is not fair at all." Says Rogers.

Harvest Prep has had its problems as well. Shortly after the interview with Rogers, the Ohio Department of Education found more than a third of Harvest Prep's teachers were not licensed. The school says it is making changes to meet state regulations. Rogers says the issue is immaterial. She says her son has made great strides in school and has no plans to remove him. Critics of charter schools and vouchers say the programs take away needed money form the public schools. But charter school lobbyist Dan McCarthy says the programs are necessary to improve public schools. "What you're seeing is the families and the kids that are taking advantage of school choice are kids that are, in some respects, have been locked into underperforming school systems. And so, at the end of the day, would I like to see more money for public schools, abdolutely, but until we get to that point, you know I think you have to give kids a choice to go to the school that they want to go to." Says McCarthy.

But, public school supporters say they've been dealt a losing hand. President of the Columbus Education Association, Rhonda Johnson, says as long as "No Child Left Behind" is around, every school at one time or another will be labeled as "needing improvement." She says that's because every single child will not test at the required level every time. "I don't believe that students in many of those private schools and the charter schools are getting the education they would get even if that particular person had left their kids in Mayberry, her kid would have been successful. We can't guarantee that where she has taken that voucher." Says Johnson. (Sound of Pledge of Allegiance)

Safe haven, sanctuary, that's how some people define a school. But Columbus Public Schools has had its share of violence. In 2005, a female student was assaulted in an auditorium at Mifflin High School. The assault was video taped by another student. Recently East High School on Arcadia, as a precaution, was placed on lockdown after a weekend shooting killed one of its former students and wounded several others. A few years ago several football games were moved to Saturday mornings in an attempt to curb violence. And 30 Columbus police officers monitored so-called "high risk" basketball games during the 2003 season.

School district surveys have shown that fear of violence and classroom unruliness are major reasons why parents pull their children from Columbus city schools. "Every day they come home I have to hear about what fight took place, or what teacher said this, and how they handled it and the police came." Says Shirley Rogers.

Shirley Rogers has two children in Columbus Public Schools and a third at a private Christian charter school. Rogers uses vouchers to pay for the tuition. "I believe that when it's safe the children can be more productive, they can learn they don't have to worry about their safety." Adds Rogers.

Cora Miller is a retired middle school teacher. And she agrees there is an issue of violence in schools. "Some parents may feel that, you know, I don't want my child to go there. I don't know whether it's safe. Maybe it's because of the neighborhood. You will have the other parents that feel like this is a safe place for them." Says Miller.

But Johnson says the district is doing more today to help students who may have a predisposition to violence than it ever did in the past. "Yes, we probably have more violent students now. But remember, we used to just push kids out. We didn't try to keep kids in school. We expelled more, or we discouraged them from coming to school. So we're educating more, we're keeping more kids in school. When you have issues in the neighborhoods they do spill into the schools. And that's everywhere; that's not just in Columbus." Says Johnson.

Johnson adds the school system isn't just sitting back and watching. She says Columbus Public Schools is trying to prevent and reduce violence and behavioral problems. The district has begun a new system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Support, or P-B-I-S. It encourages good attitudes and conduct as well as interaction between students and educators. "They're going to look at how they're particular building is managed. They're working on school-wide plans, this year. And people have been in training all year on this particular plan. It's researched based; you can find a lots of information about the PBIS model on the Internet. And we think that that's going to make a difference in the climate in the schools." Says Johnson.

We wanted to ask Superintendent Gene Harris about violence in the schools. But repeated requests for an extended interview for this series went unanswered.

Tomorrow, on the final part of Fewer Students, Higher Stakes, we'll take a look at the future of Columbus Public Schools. For Mandie Trimble, I'm Tom Borgerding, WOSU News