The schools in the southern section of Sacramento City are generally among the district's worst. The neighborhood is one of the city's poorest and many of its students come from a burgeoning immigrant population that often does not speak English at home.
But something surprising is happening at Bowling Green Elementary, the district's only charter school. Set among car dealerships, strip malls, modest homes, and a crowded public housing complex, the school has in its nearly six years under a charter managed to improve from being among the district's lowest achieving schools to being one that performs at the district average.
Bowling Green was one of the first 100 charters allowed under a California law passed in 1992. The 750 students come from the surrounding neighborhood, 81 percent from households poor enough to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. While its district is made up nearly equally of Asians, blacks, Hispanics, and whites, Bowling Green is more heavily minority (33 percent black, 25 percent Asian, 24 percent Hispanic, and 17 percent white or other). Many of the school's parents are single; few are actively involved in their children's education, often because they do not speak English well.
To improve educational performance, the teachers first reduced class size from an unwieldy 33 to a more manageable 25, and purchased more and better books and other materials for classrooms and the meager library. They also sought more training and collaboration sessions to help improve children's reading levels. The charter also gave Dennis Mah, the school principal, the freedom to take care of infrastructure problems on the spot without having to wait for outside approval.
By giving schools control over their finances, charters facilitate change. Charter status, which Mah likens to "a hot knife through the butter of bureaucracy," gave the school direct control over the $3.3 million provided annually for its students. Discretion over how to spend state bilingual education funds gave them another $110,000. And federal Title I funds, granting money to school districts serving low-income families, generated another $300,000 that can be spent school-wide because of the school's large proportion of qualified children.
By scrimping in some areas—for example, by having teachers relinquish the one "free" preparation period enjoyed daily by their counterparts throughout the district—Bowling Green saved some $70,000 annually, which helped it reduce class sizes in kindergarten through sixth grade. The school saved additional money by paring down to a bare-bones clerical staff.
Although teachers lost their preparation period, Mah got them the help they wanted: the Title I funds were used to fund a full-time "reading coach" who works both with teachers on their classroom strategies and with struggling students. Over the past five years, the Title I funds have also helped stock one of the most impressive elementary libraries in the district, with 18,000 new books purchased since the charter's inception.
A small but telling example of the importance of marshaling the school's spending power lies in its use of the $28 that the state allocates to each student annually for reading materials. While other city schools are allowed to decide how only $7 of that is spent (with the central administration spending the rest on books that it distributes to the schools), Bowling Green's charter enables it to spend all $28. The result is what the school calls "self-select" libraries of 300 to 400 books in every classroom, full of volumes that are specifically targeted to the varied reading abilities of students and designed to capture their interest and imagination.
Bowling Green does not have the achievement data that would allow it to trace its progress over the nearly seven years of the charter. But even taking the available data with a healthy dose of skepticism, it does look in some ways like Bowling Green has been very successful. In 1990, its students were among the district's lowest achieving in reading and math across all grade levels. Since 1994, Bowling Green has climbed from the bottom to near the district average across most grades, although the district's performance remains well below national norms.
There are already signs that the public school system is learning from Bowling Green's achievements: the district governing board talks increasingly about moving toward "site-based management" that would give individual schools more discretion over their finances. It has also adopted a new literacy program that uses reading coaches like Bowling Green does.
But Mah predicts it will be hard for schools to follow Bowling Green's lead until they enjoy greater stability of leadership. And such stability may be hard to achieve in a district where 35 of the 60 elementary school principals have left in the last four years.
Bowling Green's charter is up for renewal for the second time this spring, and the school board is widely expected to support it. Mah looks forward to the next round of test scores, both to see whether the school has fared better against district and national norms and simply to "benchmark against itself." But the principal also admits to the fears that come with this newfound independence: "If things don't work, we have to say 'We did this to ourselves.' It's no longer the fault of someone five miles away."