The 74 marks National Charter Schools Week (May 1-7) with a series of articles about America’s charter leaders, students and policies. See the full series.
At the beginning of 2016, Rainshadow Charter High School in Reno, Nevada, was on its last legs. The Washoe County school board had granted Rainshadow just a one-year charter extension to demonstrate progress after Rainshadow had earned only one star on Nevada’s state ranking system and graduated just over a third of its students. What’s more, while on probation this year, district auditors discovered that the charter high school would run a $100,000 deficit by year’s end.
Washoe County school district staff immediately recommended closing the school to prevent bankruptcy and to give students a chance to transfer in time for the spring semester.
If Rainshadow were shut down on the spot, it would have been seen as a victory for strict charter accountability in a state where charter school performance lags behind traditional public schools. However, when the school board met in January, it declined to shutter Rainshadow, and the school’s staff is now confident the board will renew its contract later this spring for the 2016-2017 school year. Someone merely following the news coverage could suspect that the school board lost its nerve. But it would, in fact, be a happy ending to the story, of a conscientious charter authorizer working with an unorthodox charter school to avoid the unintended consequences of charter school accountability.
Opponents of charter schools often accuse them of taking in motivated students and weeding out troublemakers. No one can accuse Rainshadow of that. Its mission is to serve the hardest cases, to be a “place where the most reluctant students will find reasons to become engaged in learning.”
Rainshadow earns the lowest possible rank on Nevada’s state ranking system in large part because of its low graduation rate. But 75% of students who transfer to Rainshadow in grades 10-12 enter credit deficient. Per federal requirements, Nevada calculates its graduation rate by the percentage of students who finish high school in four years. This makes perfect sense for monitoring a public school, but much less sense for a charter school such as Rainshadow where students often require a fifth year to graduate, yet are considered “dropouts” by the state.
Nevada law requires that the state shut down any charter school that earns the lowest possible ranking on the state system for three years in a row. This law, and laws like it in other states, would all but doom charter high schools like Rainshadow that serve and prioritize the most at-risk students.
Rainshadow principal Toby Wiedenmayer notes that some of the students who transfer to her school “might not be able to complete their education for a standard high school diploma, but if we are able to help them navigate beyond high school to be productive members of society by directing them to vocational programming or other adult educational programs, then we feel that we have supported them.”
You wouldn’t want to hear such a rationalization of non-graduation from a traditional public high school principal. But Rainshadow doesn’t serve traditional public school students.
Oliver X, the editor and publisher of Reno Tahoe Tonight, attended the school-wide assembly when the Rainshadow students were told that their school might be shut down, and wrote a stirring profile of the kids he met: “They are the sad, who’ve seen too much too soon; whose souls never made a sound in middle school. Who were shunned and teased in high school. They are the cutters, whose little brothers found them in the bathroom just in time. … They are the abused, the molested, the hungry and shy. They are the angry, the menacing and the dispossessed. They are the fearful who have known frightening things. They are the children who rise at 5, to take three buses to a school of their choosing; far from their home districts, for an education where class sizes are small enough that the teacher knows their name, talents, and fears.”
Oliver interviewed several of the students to let them speak for themselves to the community. One student, Yasmin, related, “When I first started regular high school, I knew I wasn’t going to like it. I am dyslexic and have trouble in my classes. I also started getting bullied at regular school. It got so bad that I decided to switch schools. Once I switched schools to Rainshadow, I immediately felt welcomed.” Her English teacher, Emily Reese, “inspired me to try my hardest in school and graduate, when I lost sight of my success.”
Another student, Jack, reflected that “Personally, I went from a 0.0 GPA at my old school (which was also a charter school), to the highest grades I have ever had. I didn’t think I would graduate, but now I’m positive I will. While this school is definitely not for everyone, there is absolutely a demographic of kids that need the supportive environment of Rainshadow.”
But student sentiment alone couldn’t keep Rainshadow solvent. It had been struggling financially for years due in part to a Nevada state law that calculated funding based on attendance during the first 20 days of the school year, which gave charters like Rainshadow no benefit for students who transferred later. Last year, the state legislature adopted a new process, basing funding on average daily enrollment per quarter. Principal Wiedenmayer says, “In the long run, this should actually be a benefit to us.” But in the transition to the new formula, she explains that Rainshadow “lost the ‘hold harmless’ provision from the old law that let us take our highest count number from the previous two school years. So, since our numbers were low at count day this academic year we hit a pretty rough spot.”
The school board met to consider Rainshadow’s fate on January 12. Wiedenmayer recalls that “some of our students addressed the school board, and board members were crying because they realized what a hard decision this was. Our mission has always been to create empowered community members. Watching my students stand up in front of the school board I thought that even if the board decided to close us (which they had every right to do) we’d lived up to our mission.”
Rainshadow’s teachers agreed to forgo their pay in July and August to plug the deficit, and when the board met again on January 26 they voted unanimously to allow Rainshadow to operate through the remainder of this school year. “It was an optimistic decision from the board,” says Wiedenmayer, “and we were also given the opportunity to prove that we could keep going past this academic year by submitting a new charter application.”
The buzz around the Rainshadow situation drew the attention of local philanthropists Bob Lissner, president of Lifestyle Homes Foundation, and businesswoman Jessica Sferrazza who helped Wiedenmayer plot a sustainable path forward. They knew the high fixed cost of the school’s lease could prove a recurrent problem if enrollment dipped in any given year. So, Lissner put Wiedenmayer in touch with Mike Wurm, the head of the local Boys and Girls Club, who told her that his building was mostly vacant from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Relocating Rainshadow there would not only reduce its overhead, but also foster a mutually beneficial relationship between the school and the Boys and Girls Club, offering Rainshadow students extra services while engaging them in community service.
Although he was under no obligation to do so, Rainshadow’s landlord allowed them to break the lease. Local philanthropist Stacie Mathewson stepped forward to help Rainshadow with its lease termination costs, and she and Lissner agreed to help with the school’s payroll. “We were like a wildcard team in the football playoffs,” says Wiedenmayer. “Everything had to break just right, a number of people had to step up or make concessions, but it all worked.”
Wiedenmayer calculates that the move will save the school $200,000 annually.
In March, Wiedenmayer presented her case and the school’s charter to the school board. She told them, “Thank you, because you put pressure on us it forced us to clarify what we had to do and get the community buy-in to do it. This might not have happened if it weren’t for the intervention and opportunity.”
At this point, Wiedenmayer and her staff are confident that the school board will accept their application for charter renewal. But Rainshadow’s renewal is not a fait accompli. If it closes, Rainshadow would become a data point in a charter-advocacy infographic purporting to prove that Nevada’s charter sector is clamping down and getting stronger on accountability. But it would look quite different to Rainshadow’s 113 at-risk students if the accountability system sinks their lifeboat — and then calls it a success.
Charter school advocates often point to states where charters outperform public schools academically and tout them as models. They fret about states where charter schools lag behind publics and call for greater accountability. But a charter school that looks awful on paper might be exceeding all expectations with the students it serves, and therefore charter school accountability can be a double-edged sword that makes it harder for those schools to exist.
This is a dilemma that Washoe District charter school liaison Stacey Cooper takes very seriously. She points out that although Rainshadow has been “recognized as a one-star school, it’s equally recognized by our district for providing services to students that do not meet a traditional school structure.” She notes that “the current [accountability] framework provided by the state does not embrace alternative school structures successfully,” but says she’s optimistic about a state alternative currently being developed “for schools such as Rainshadow to demonstrate growth in other areas unique to their school’s cultures.”
This is a welcome and long overdue development in charter school policy, one that other states would do well to note. The students at Rainshadow are the square pegs that couldn’t fit into the public school system’s round holes, in need of an unorthodox alternative. Rainshadow, and schools like it, are also square pegs themselves in a charter school movement keen on demonstrating success and rooting out underperforming schools.
But, if charter school advocates aren’t conscientious, their efforts to strengthen the charter sector will make it as inhospitable to schools like Rainshadow as the public school system was to students like Yasmin and Jack, and to all of the kids who need, and deserve, something different.