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Lorain Schools officials visit Texas charter schools

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LORAIN — Lorain Schools administrators visited San Antonio charter schools — IDEA Public Schools — two weeks ago, raising the concern of the school board president over what the motives were and the cost of the trip.

Lorain Schools CEO David Hardy said the trip was meant as a way to learn from schools that have had success, not by the fact it was a charter school.

“The intent is not to become them,” he said. “It is to learn lessons from people that get results. I think quickly people realized that — they’re like ‘Oh, so that’s how you can do X, Y, and Z’ versus that only can happen at a charter school. So it was good to negate the fear of us becoming charter, which has always been my stance that we’re not, but to learn from schools that get results for kids.”

Lorain School Board President Tony Dimacchia said Hardy’s actions in taking the trip to a charter school spoke louder than his sentiments against turning Lorain Schools into charter schools.

“The fact that somebody is paying for these people (to) go down and view charter schools should tell you want they want to do in Lorain,” he said.

Hardy denied that visiting a charter was a sign of things to come for the district, standing firm on his previous assertions that his goal was not to turn Lorain Schools’ buildings into charter schools.

“Whether they’re public, charter, private, parochial, whatever, we want to know and learn from institutions that are getting results for kids, getting kids to high levels of graduation rates, higher rigor of instruction, higher quality of parent engagement — all the things that we know are challenges we face — and learn from them,” Hardy said.

Administrators, two teachers and two community members made up the 20-person delegation that visited three IDEA Public Schools buildings in San Antonio Oct. 22-23.

IDEA is a charter school network started in 1998 by Teach for America corps members Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama in Donna, Texas. Since then, the charter school system has expanded to serve students in San Antonio, Austin, Rio Grande Valley and El Paso, Texas, as well as southern Louisiana, according to its website.

There are 22 IDEA Public Schools in San Antonio, according to its website. Hardy declined to immediately identify which three buildings administrators visited, saying only that the trip focused on grades six through 12.

According to Hardy, Lorain Schools staff who attended included General Johnnie Wilson Middle School turnaround principal Kejuana Jefferson and his dean of academics, Courtney Donohoe; Longfellow Middle School turnaround principal Rae Bastock and her dean of academics, Andrew Hoffman; Southview Middle School turnaround principal Brittiany Sanford and her dean of academics, Melissa Cheers; Executive Director of Secondary Academies (Lorain High School) Daniel Garvey and four of his school leaders; along with two teachers and four district leaders.

The trip was paid for by a two-year, $100,000 grant from The Nord Family Foundation. CEO David Hardy has yet to release how much the entire trip cost or specifics regarding the grant. Records requests from The Chronicle-Telegram regarding the trip and grant specifics have not been fulfilled by the district.

Tony Richardson, head of the district’s Academic Distress Commission and program officer for The Nord Family Foundation, said the nonprofit supports schools in Northeast Ohio and other states, including charter schools. The grant allows Lorain Schools to visit “innovative, high-performing schools across the country.”

“Our goal is to share learning so that our questions become questions from our community: If a majority of students can succeed there, why can’t a majority do it here?” Richardson wrote in an email.

When asked about his involvement with the foundation and Academic Distress Commission, Richardson wrote, “The Nord Family Foundation and Lorain City Schools’ partnership predates my role on the Lorain Academic Distress Commission and at the Foundation, respectively. I had no particular role in identifying the IDEA school visit or trip participants. For more information — please contact Lorain City Schools CEO, Mr. David Hardy.”

Hardy chose IDEA Public Schools, he said, in part because a colleague from a fellowship worked for the district. As part of the spring 2015 cohort of the Pahara-NextGen fellowship, Hardy met Pablo Mejia, vice president of program innovation for IDEA.

“I heard about his results, and I just started Googling,” he said. “I’ve always kept in my mind that I would follow up and hear more about it.”

He also said that traveling to Texas aimed to prompt attendees to focus on the trip, although he plans to visit local districts, as well as possibly schools in Chicago or Detroit with similar demographics. Specific schools and dates for those trips have not been chosen.

“Part of it is to see something different, and a different place just kind of sets up the atmosphere a little bit differently,” he said. “But we also intend to see schools locally here but also be very intentional in what those schools are. Because I think the other side of this is we could go to Solon or Avon, but the demographics are not the same, so we wanted to be able to kind of mirror that a little bit.”

IDEA boasts a 100 percent graduation rate and 100 percent college acceptance rate 12 years in a row, Hardy said. The district also serves a high percentage of minority and low-income students.

The charter’s website and Texas Department of Education support the claims, but some research has brought them into question.

Prompted by discussions about handing an Austin Public Schools elementary school over to the charter network, Edward Fuller, a Pennsylvania State University professor of educational leadership, looked at some of the charter’s claims.

In a 2011 study, “Are IDEA Schools a Good Idea for Austin?,” he found that IDEA loses many of its lower-

performing students and had lower enrollment numbers for low-income, special education, English as a second language, or those requiring individualized education plans or other accommodations than its city public school counterparts.

When questioned about the study’s findings, Hardy said IDEA faces the same challenges a public school does, including students moving in and out of the district — whether by choice or not — and that IDEA must accept whatever students apply, as space allows. The network requires students to apply and holds a lottery if it receives more applications than it has available spots.

Without specifics on which buildings the group visited, Lorain Educators Association president Jay Pickering declined to comment at length, saying he would like to compare demographics and school size of buildings visited to that of Lorain Schools.

Dimacchia said the school board has requested documentation from the trip, but he doesn’t expect to see it soon given the track record the board has with the district.

“I want to see the invoices, I want to see the purchase order, I want to see who paid for it, I want to see all the expenditure. You know how much of that I’ll get — none of it. They’ll pull some nonsense that ‘this is paid for by private funds.’ No … those private funds came to a public education system, and if those funds flow through a public education system, those are now public funds. So if Nord Family produced those funds to the school district for this trip, that’s public. So now every one of those documents are now public access, and they should be readily available.”

Contact Carissa Woytach at (440) 329-7245 or cwoytach@chroniclet.com.


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