When Universities Run Schools ... Into the Ground

U. of South Florida relinquishes control of its failing charter school, in cautionary tale of what can go wrong if colleges lack a sustained commitment to their K-12 initiatives.
August 7, 2008

In the 1990s, a number of universities got into the business of running charter schools, with compelling plans to match the vast intellectual resources of their faculty with the educational and social service needs of impoverished communities.

A decade in, the University of South Florida has given up the ghost.

In an embarrassing admission of defeat, the university opted to transfer control of the failing USF Patel Charter School to the local school district last week, determining, as a university spokesman put it, that Hillsborough County's school district has greater resources to help high-need kids. Precipitating the last-minute decision (school starts August 18): After two years of C-level performance on Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test, USF’s elementary school earned an F this summer in the state’s school grading system.

In recent years, faculty members have virtually been absent from the operations of the school. Even student teachers couldn’t serve there, the spokesman said, because the charter’s teachers were too inexperienced to be their mentors.

“The board believes that the best thing for the kids – it’s embarrassing to the university – but the single best thing for the kids is not to close it precipitously, not to wait another year and then close it” (or have it closed down or involuntarily taken over if it earned a second F), as Michael Hoad, USF’s vice president for communications and marketing, explained. “But the single best thing for the kids is to transfer the school to the school district, and take up the superintendent’s offer to help.”

“If we were in a position where we knew we were going to get an F, we might do something differently. But it’s almost too late. We’ve gotten the first F. You can only get one more," Hoad said.

As for the original, dashed promise of the charter school – that it would be bolstered by faculty resources through their teaching, service and research?

“What was happening is that the College of Education, which is the biggest in Florida and one of the big ones in the Southeast, their intellectual energy was really going into the school district,” as opposed to the on-campus charter, Hoad explained. "In an unfortunate way, the university will do more with the school as a school district school."

In a Hillsborough County school board meeting Tuesday, the board moved to change the school's name to the USF Patel Partnership School. The district has brought in a retired principal to take the helm and teachers are re-interviewing for their jobs, with no guarantees. “At this point, we’re still working with the university to work out what role they will play, how we can work together and bring up the students’ performance especially," said Linda Cobbe, a school district spokeswoman.

In all of this, it’s difficult, the charter’s proponents say, not to see a school that's been abandoned, and by a university and its College of Education, no less.

“It’s shocking that a college of education could not muster up the resources to help a school right on its campus, and to allow those students, frankly, to fail. That’s what’s so bothersome to me, that they just abandoned them,” said Stephanie Jackson, who helped start the USF Patel Charter while at the university and who now works as managing director for the American Institutes for Research, in Washington. She added that while university administrators cite an inability to channel state appropriations to support the charter school, what was really needed was not more money but human capital in the form of USF faculty and student involvement.

The 220-student charter school was intended to serve a transient, low-income local community – known as Suitcase City – where, as a former principal, Yvonne McKitrick, put it, residents have “had very little handed to them on a platter, let’s put it that way.”

"They probably just threw their hands up with it," McKitrick said of USF. "It's very easy to say that the fault lies entirely with the university, but it doesn't. It's just a mixture of a lot of things."

"At best, with every inch of your being, believing that the school would really, really help those children, wanting to do it, it would be a difficult job. But instead of feeling that way, if you feel this is one more thing that I'm asking the faculty to do, and publish, and not thinking that that's really part of the job of the College of Education, I guess it just got to be too much."

Lynn Lavely is less sympathetic.

“You would think that when that school got an F-grade, that they would jump in there and send their best people over there to find out what’s wrong, what can we do to help, wouldn’t you?” asked Lavely, a professor emeritus of education who led the charter school’s 1998 launch. While the charter school initially enjoyed support from USF’s former president, Betty Castor, the current administration didn’t support or value it, Lavely said.

“For a university to say that a school district has more resources than a university is absolutely ludicrous.”

Trophies or Skeletons?

“In theory, large colleges of education have a large variety of resources that, if they are utilized, ought to be able to make a big and positive difference for youngsters. But that doesn’t mean that the university incentive structure encourages it, and that doesn’t mean that the people who write and speak about changing schools know how to implement change,” said Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. “Sometimes college faculty find that it’s far easier to write about and speak about what needs to get done than actually to do it.”

The USF case is arguably a cautionary tale. As colleges have moved more aggressively into the K-12 realm -- some with success -- important questions arise about institutionalizing a college's commitment to what can otherwise become, as key faculty and administrators turn over, an increasingly isolated enterprise.

“Universities and, especially, colleges of education have, over the last decade, had a variety of ways they’ve attempted to be directly involved in education. This includes not only standard research and service projects but running schools in some way,” through consulting relationships with districts, or their own charter or laboratory schools, said Sherman Dorn, an associate professor of education at USF. “And that’s always a stretch, especially at public universities. Colleges of education are often the cash cow and get far fewer resources per credit hour than other parts of the university.”

"It's certainly not the first time that there has been some tension -- OK, a college of education can't do everything."

Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College who is researching contractual relationships in education, added that the education schools are under increasing pressure to prove their relevance in the real world of K-12 education.

“The ed schools I think in some cases are being enticed into the business of running schools, either as charter schools or as contract schools [with local districts] to let them show that they have something to contribute. In some instances, this can be well thought-out and well-considered on the part of the ed schools, but in other cases the administration may jump in on this ahead of the faculty,” said Henig.

“When an administration is really intent, when an administration raises money and really highlights an issue, it can usually draw folks in its wake. But when the administration is indifferent or when it’s an inherited initiative that it didn’t initially buy into from the previous administration, or when it simply goes from fascination in one issue to something else because it’s looking for new areas to focus on, then unless real care has been taken in terms of institutionalizing the commitment, I think there’s a high likelihood of institutional drift.”

“This is hard stuff,” Henig said. “An administration that thinks it’s going to jump in and run a school that’s going to be a beacon, that it'll be able to run around and brag about to potential students and potential donors, is likely to find that it’s more likely to be, at least in the early stages and possibly over the long term, the kind of thing that it has to make excuses about. To say, ‘Well, we’re getting the toughest kids.' Or, 'The state accountability measures don’t take into account our high levels of special ed kids or our high levels of non-English speakers,' or whatever. So it becomes, rather than a trophy in the case, it becomes a potential skeleton in the closet.”

On the Other Hand...

One university that has been able to boast about its charter school is the University of California at San Diego, where the Preuss School, a charter middle and high school located on campus, has racked up national recognition (and rankings) and, for the class of 2008, a 96-percent acceptance rate to four-year colleges. (Of those students, 72 percent were accepted to UC campuses.) The school only accepts students whose family income qualifies them for the federal free or reduced lunch program, and whose parents or guardians didn’t graduate from a four-year university.

“I can tell you one of the big reasons behind the success of Preuss School was that this initiative to build the school came directly out of the faculty,” said Cecil Lytle, who, as then-provost of the university's Thurgood Marshall College, spearheaded the school’s opening in 1999.

In the Preuss School’s case, it was not a college of education initiative, as many similar efforts are, but came out of anthropology, economics, mathematics, and other fields, Lytle explained. “The binding issue was bringing the imprimatur of the university and the standards of the university to K-12,” he said. “I’m a professor of music. It has no impact on my scholarship. What bound the eight or nine of us together was we wanted to address the issue of student success.”

Lytle, who just retired, stepped down as chairman of the Preuss School's board this summer. Sandra Daley, the associate chancellor and chief diversity officer for the university, succeeded him.

“I chaired the board for 10 years,” Lytle said, “and I thought my number one job was to find my successor.”


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