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The Case for Charter Schools at RTCs

February 18, 2016

When the term “public charter school” is discussed in the education arena, some might think of college preparatory courses, a focus on STEM, or dual-language programs.  However, there is a lesser discussed model for public charter schools—those located at a residential treatment centers (RTCs).  Generally, RTCs help provide students with a temporary home, counseling, treatment and recovery programs, and of course, a public education. 

One such RTC is Trinity Charter School’s Pegasus campus in Lockhart, home to approximately 175 boys ranging in age from 10 to 17 years old.  The majority of students come to this campus by way of Child Protective Services or a Juvenile Probation Department.  Each boy resides at Pegasus for a period of time ranging from about a year to 18 months in order to complete each of the four phases of treatment. 

Pegasus emphasizes three areas as part of its recovery program: therapy, behavioral interactions, and education.  With respect to education, students attend third through 12th grades at Trinity Charter School but are not your average students.  Each arrives with his own unique challenges and at times, an incomplete educational history.  School staff at Trinity reach out to past schools to piece together each student’s educational background and develop an achievement plan to work towards grade-level student performance.  Classroom sizes are smaller and student to teacher ratios allow for more individualized attention.  Since Trinity is located on the Pegasus campus, teachers and school staff are able to accommodate student needs including a block schedule to meet the competing demands for treatment and counseling sessions. 

This is one of the many reasons that public charter schools exist—to meet the needs of students.  Charter schools provide flexibilities other public school models simply do not.  Students experiencing various levels of abusive relationships resulting in assignment to an RTC, do not lend themselves to a traditional seven hour school day in a classroom.  We must also recognize that the accountability and performance measures for students in an RTC must be different from the standard since these students are not leading the “standard” lives.

In order to continue to meet the educational needs of students who are going through traumatic life events, we must support public policy that takes such challenges into account when measuring the performance for these schools.  Policy measures such as SB 306, passed by the 83rd legislature, allows for certain accountability exemptions for students receiving treatment in a residential facility.  It also recognizes that we cannot expect the type of student arriving at RTCs like Pegasus to perform at grade-level on state assessment tests.  These test results are not necessarily a reflection of the quality of education offered by a charter school like Trinity on a RTC campus, but are certainly impacted by these students’ life challenges. 

Further, the standards under Texas’ new Performance Framework (an additional system of standards for charter schools measuring the performance of a charter school, which are separate and apart from state accountability standards) must take into account the uniqueness of charter schools located within an RTC and truly measure according to the mission of the school.  The Performance Framework must make sense for these schools and students, otherwise it is not an accurate representation of the school’s performance and we run the risk of closing schools that are actually performing well when considering the student population.

Finally, we also need to identify a permanent change to address the consequences of HB 2610, in which the 84th legislature changed a day of instruction to minutes of instruction.  Unintended consequences of this legislation has called into question the funding of charter schools that do not provide a full day of instruction.  As previously mentioned, students at Trinity divide their time between the classroom and treatment by the RTC.  Treatment is exactly what is needed for this specific student population to overcome their challenges and move forward in a healthy manner with their lives.  While going through treatment, however, as much as possible this population also needs access to and should participate in an educational program.  Most recently, the Texas Education Agency offered a temporary fix for the 2016-2017 school year but we need to find a lasting solution during the next Legislative Session, particularly since public charter schools do not receive any facilities funding from the state.  Any reduction in funding for RTC charter schools would further reduce the current funding allotments for these students, running significant risk of having a negative impact on their educational program.

There is substantial impact of public policy to these schools and students.  Charter schools at RTCs like Trinity provide more than an education to the students they serve, they offer an opportunity to get back on track in life in order to be successful moving forward.  We need to support their efforts, and not stifle the progress they foster with their students.

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