Frontiers of Change: School Social Work in Charter and Takeover Schools.

Author:Crutchfield, Jandel
 
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Introduction

American children lag behind their international counterparts each year in educational attainment (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2009). Research by the Alliance for Excellent Education indicates that, as children fall farther behind, they are more likely to drop out of school. School dropouts cost the country a large amount of money. If all of the dropouts from the "class of 2009 had graduated, the nation's economy would have benefited from nearly $335 billion in additional income over the course of their lifetimes" (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2009, p. 1). In addition to these high monetary costs for the larger society, dropouts increase crime-related expenses and incidents (Page, Petteruti, Walsh, & Ziedenberg, 2007). These incidents destroy safety within communities while the expense of crime control puts a strain on an already burdened economy (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2007; Page et al., 2007). The costs are astounding, yet a prescriptive solution for comprehensive school reform that diminishes the achievement gap remains elusive.

As the primary mental health providers in schools, school social workers are immersed in the era of reform. As such, they are called upon by scholars to increase their knowledge about the achievement gap and educational reform landscape as well as to conduct interventions at the school and district level (Berzin & O'Connor, 2010; Phillipo & Stone, 2011). Given that school social workers increasingly practice in different school contexts, understanding of the larger field of education is needed to effectively conduct school and district level interventions. Phillipo and Stone (2011) have warned school social workers that a lack of knowledge of different school settings, specifics of district practices, and reform efforts may "leave their services vulnerable to being intentionally undermined by forces in the environment" (p. 77). According to Kelly and colleagues (2010), most social workers practice in traditional public school settings, but a growing number work in charter and state takeover schools, which are public schools that have chronically failed to meet the performance standards set by their state departments of education.

Background

Under No Child Left Behind (2002), states were given various options for improving low-performing schools: chartering, turnarounds that involve replacing an entire school staff, contracting with outside entities to run the school, state takeover of individual schools, or some other form of restructuring of the school's staffing and governance (Hassel, Hassel, Arkin, Kowal, & Steiner, 2006). State takeover schools are removed from the local control of a county/parish school board and operated by officials at the state department of education (Steiner, 2005). These schools remain public schools but are substantially restructured in terms of staffing and educational practices. One popular method of restructuring is to convert the school into a charter school.

Charter schools are popular market-based reforms that have surged since No Child Left Behind (2002). The first charter school was started in 1992 in Minnesota (Junge, 2012) and now charters are prevalent in forty-eight of fifty states. In 2015, Mississippi joined the movement, opening charters for the first time (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). Charter schools are unique in enrollment, staffing, and organization, which can influence the practice of school social workers (Crutchfield, 2015). The first and more popular type of charters is called a start-up charter in which a group of community members or school leaders decide to open a new school for a specific purpose (e.g., math or science). The second type is voluntary conversion whereby a school decides to change its purpose and become a charter with the same facilities and sometimes the same staff. The last and least popular type is called forced conversion, in which the state, enabled by NCLB, rearranges chronically low-performing schools into charter schools, hiring new staff but often keeping the same facilities. Because these schools have been identified as failing, they continue to have a stigma of failure attached to them.

Enrollment in these charter schools varies by type. Startup charters primarily enroll Caucasian students, whereas voluntary and forced conversion charters primarily enroll African American students. Historically, as one of the most disadvantaged populations, African American students often attend failing schools (Rothstein, 2013). Disadvantage depresses a student's performance. As a result, voluntary or forced conversion charter schools often enroll primarily African American students (Rothstein, 2013). Proponents of charter schools argue that they offer increased autonomy to use creative teaching and learning strategies including curriculum and standardized testing options (Hill & Murphy, 2011). They often are able to restrict enrollment based on certain student criteria, including but not limited to grade point average or residential zoning. Opponents of charter schools argue that they disengage local control and input and have little accountability to demonstrate results (Ravitch, 2013). Additionally, charters are not required to follow the same rules as public schools (Massat, Kelly, & Constable, 2016).

According to the National School and Staffing Survey (U.S. Department of Education, 2012), there were 1,150 full-time school social workers in charters in 2012. However, a search of library databases yielded no results for school social work and charter schools. Kelly and colleagues (2010, 2016) explored the state of school social work in the United States twice over the last ten years without mention of best practices in either charters or takeovers. Their survey research does not differentiate between practice settings that include charters and state takeovers, but instead examines differences between private and public settings. The most recent version of the survey evaluates the current practice settings and agenda for school social workers in schools across the nation. Even in 2015, however, charter schools were not included. Charter and takeover reforms have been implemented not only in the United States, but also increasingly in other countries, which has implications for international school social work practice as well. The state takeover model, in particular, has been implemented in Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, and Louisiana, but also in other countries such as Haiti, Chile, and Venezuela (Buras, 2012).

Louisiana Charters and Takeovers

The struggle to achieve educational equality manifests strongly within Louisiana's public school system. Louisiana has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country (Stetser & Stillwell, 2014). It continues to fall below the national average (79%). To respond to its problems of dropout and underachievement, Louisiana chose one of the five options afforded states by NCLB: state takeovers of individual schools. In Louisiana, the board of elementary and secondary education (BESE) created a state takeover district in 2003 that currently operates seventy-nine schools throughout the state (Recovery School District, 2009). In addition to these seventy-nine schools, twenty-nine others face state takeover if they fail to meet promises to improve (Recovery School District, 2009). Initially, the state assigns the schools an academically unacceptable status (AUS) when they fall below school performance score standard, a number based on the combination of school attendance and test scores (Cowen Institute, 2011). After three consecutive years of AUS, the state places these schools in the takeover district under the authority of the BESE; the schools must remain in this district for a minimum of five years (Cowen Institute, 2011). In addition to state takeover, Louisiana has adopted charters as a reform effort. It is important to note that the particular type of charter that is used as a turnaround model in Louisiana is the forced conversion charter. School social work is a thriving profession in Louisiana; school social workers are providing services to students not only in traditional public schools, but also in charters and takeovers.

The present study focuses on the differences in practice by type of school setting including traditional public schools, charters, and takeovers in Louisiana. Preparing school social workers for the challenges presented in these new settings is central to the longevity of the school social work profession.

Methodology

Our study examined characteristics of practice within these growing categories of charters and takeover schools as compared to traditional public schools...

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