NYC Charters Retain Students Better Than Traditional Schools

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An Icahn charter school in the Bronx. A WNYC analysis found the network's schools had student attrition rates that were lower than those of their neighboring district schools.

New York City charter schools retain more of their students, on average, than traditional public schools, according to Department of Education data obtained and analyzed by WNYC.

Citywide, across all grades, 10.6 percent of charter school students transferred out in 2013-14, compared to 13 percent of traditional public school students. But there is wide variety among these schools and among the different networks. You can see all of our data here.

Among the larger charter networks — those with four or more schools — the Icahn, Kipp and Uncommon charter school networks had the lowest attrition rates in elementary school grades when compared to traditional schools in the same school district for the 2013-14 school year. This is a trend we spotted with Icahn and Kipp in our last analysis of the 2010-11 school year.

Charter Network Attrition in Grades K-4 in the 2013-14 School Year

Charter NetworkStudents Who Transferred OutExpected Transfers*Percent of District Attrition
Kipp 74 290 25.6
Uncommon Schools 172 543 31.7
Icahn 72 209 34.5
Achievement First 217 575 37.8
Ascend 164 385 42.6
Explore Schools 116 255 45.5
National Heritage Academies 150 328 45.7
Success Academy 609 1061 57.4
Democracy Prep 81 96 84.3

WNYC analysis of NYC DOE data. Includes networks with at least four schools in New York City at the time. 
* Number of students who would have transferred out if schools had their local district's attrition rate.

"We believe that low student attrition is one of the key attributes of a healthy school,” said Kipp's co-founder David Levin. The Kipp schools' average attrition was 5.6 percent for elementary school grades and 6.5 percent for middle school grades.

Kipp and Icahn had the lowest comparable rates for middle school grades, too, among the big networks.

Kipp had five schools in 2013-14. Its Washington Heights Middle School lost just one of its 103 students that year, resulting in an attrition rate of less than 1 percent. The network was once known for its "no excuses" brand of discipline, and it still suspends students, but it has put a heavy emphasis on student and family counseling.

Icahn had seven schools, all in the Bronx, serving elementary and middle school students. Its average attrition was 8 percent for elementary school grades and 5.4 percent for middle school grades. Superintendent Jeff Litt said only 10 students were suspended during the 2013-14 school year in all of his locations. That's less than 1 percent overall.

Litt said he’s proud of his schools’ ability to obtain high test scores while retaining most students. He credited a nurturing environment.

“We’re a very huggy, kissy organization,” he said. “There are some charter schools that are much more rigid. We’re not rigid. We’re very guidance oriented.”

Uncommon ran a total of 12 schools in 2013-14 but has since grown to 21in Brooklyn. "We're proud to see that Uncommon Schools has some of the lowest attrition rates among N.Y.C. public schools, reflecting the fact that our schools are places where students and parents choose to stay," said C.E.O. Brett Peiser.

Why Attrition Matters

Charters receive public money but they are privately managed and given a lot of freedom in exchange for meeting strict accountability standards on test scores and financial stability. But they did not have to release much data on student retention until a recent change in state law requiring more disclosure, and the teachers union wants sanctions for those who don't comply.

The state's reporting law for retention targets has yet to kick in for most charters. This is why WNYC conducted an independent analysis using New York City enrollment records from the 2013-14 school year, obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.

Charter expert Michael Petrilli, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said attrition paints a fuller picture than test scores alone.

“If you’re thinking about enrolling your kid in a school where a lot of parents are deciding after a year to bolt, sure that should be something that you ask about,” he said. But he cautioned that it's difficult to draw conclusions based on our limited data.

Nonetheless, our findings are similar to our first attrition analysis in 2012. In elementary school grades, which accounted for most charter school students in 2013-14, 10 percent of students transferred out, compared to 14 percent of students in district schools. In middle school high school grades, charter school attrition was very slightly higher than district attrition. Other studies have also confirmed charters lose a smaller share of kids compared to city district schools.

Attrition, Networks and Discipline

Many critics have speculated that charters push out students through a controversial “no excuses” style of discipline, favored by several networks such as Achievement First and Success, which can send kids to detention for minor offenses such as wearing the wrong colored sneaker or speaking out of turn.

A study by the Manhattan Institute, which favors charters, found no such link. However, the city’s charters do have suspension rates that are often two or three times more than district schools, according to a ChalkbeatNY analysis.

We took a close look at Success Academy, which has been in the news lately. The New York Times recently obtained a videotape of a Success teacher chastising a first grader, and also found a “got to go” list that a Brooklyn principal kept of difficult students. Success charter founder Eva Moskowitz described both instances as anomalies.

We found most of Success's 18 schools in the 2013-14 school year had attrition rates that were lower than those of their local districts. The two schools that were slightly higher are in Bedford Stuyvesant and Cobble Hill (where the first grade teacher was caught on camera). Bed Stuy 2’s attrition rate was 13.4 percent versus 12.4 percent for traditional public schools in District 14. The Cobble Hill school’s attrition rate was 12.5 percent versus 10.8 percent in the regular District 15 schools.

"Our low attrition rates reflect what parents appreciate about our schools,” said Success founder Moskowitz. “That our classrooms are as joyful as they are rigorous."

The highest attrition rates are often found at individual, standalone charter schools. This was something we also found in 2012. The Ethical Community Charter School, which had an attrition rate of 23.6 percent in 2013-14, closed last year. Innovate Manhattan, which had an attrition rate of 16 percent, has also closed.

Others, like Broome Street Academy and the John Lindsay Wildcat Academy, with attrition rates of 25.2 and 40.7 percent, respectively, were created specifically to serve homeless students, high school dropouts and other teenagers who have struggled in traditional public school settings.

Democracy Prep, which ran five schools in the Bronx and Harlem in 2013-14, had higher attrition than other networks when compared to the tradition public schools in their districts.

But unlike some charters, Democracy Prep replaces students who leave in all grade levels, which can lead to less stability as the schools take more new students. By contrast, Success Academy does not replace, or backfill, students who leave in upper grades.

We found a few small networks with high attrition rates, such as Great Oaks and Citizens of the World. But they are based in other cities and opened their first few schools in New York in 2013-14. They each told us they experienced different struggles in that first year of operation.

Methodology

We counted attrition as the number of students discharged from every school from July 2013 through June 2014, excluding students who enrolled for the fall and left over the summer or during the first week of September. We compared this to the sum of the students enrolled as of October 31, 2013 and the number of students who transferred before November (our adjusted enrollment number).

We used the same methodology to calculate average attrition rates for traditional public schools in each district.

We left out all data for grades five, eight and 12 because these are natural "graduating" years, and it would have been too difficult to distinguish kids who stopped attending their schools because they had completed their studies. This is why the embedded chart includes attrition rates for K-4, 6-7 and 9-11. We created comparable data for the city's district schools.

We wanted to compare networks to each other, but also wanted to account for a significant district-to-district variability in attrition rates. So we looked at each charter school's enrollment and determined how many children would be expected to leave that school if its attrition rate matched the attrition rate in the district schools where it is located. For each network, we added the actual attrition, and the expected attrition, and then calculated the percent actual vs. expected for a weighted rate.