Hupfeld Academy
Text scrolls along a digital marquee Tuesday outside of Stanley Hupfeld Academy in Oklahoma City. (Josh McBee)

Congratulations to Stanley Hupfeld Academy at Western Village for being named an exemplar school by The Partnership for 21st-Century Learning (P21), an organization dedicated to advancing curriculum that fosters student success in 21st-century work and life.

Hupfeld Academy was honored because it provides “an arts-integrated curriculum and full-time specialists in visual art, music, dance, physical education, technology and literacy arts on staff.” Hupfeld also just happens to be one of the state’s first charter schools.

Before and after NCLB

When founded in 2000, Hupfeld replaced the failing Western Village Elementary School. This was a time before No Child Left Behind, when unionized and nonunion educators supported charters as a means for promoting innovation. Locally, this was during the MAPS for Kids bipartisan, collaborative reform campaign. Like the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers’ then-president Ted Metscher, I joined MAPS in supporting Hupfeld and school choice. Oklahoma City has produced a number of excellent charters, but Hupfeld was the only one that met the challenge of the original, constructive vision of charters by serving a poor neighborhood.

Sixteen years later, it’s hard to imagine such a charter being established in Oklahoma City. Hupfeld didn’t engage in the mass exiting of veteran teachers (and their higher salaries) or drill-and-kill, bubble-in accountability. At “Great Expectations” conferences, we could hear the joyous singing and chanting of its faculty long before they entered the room. Because Hupfeld is co-sponsored by INTEGRIS Health, where school founder Stanley Hupfeld served as president and CEO, it was able to “become a community center, serving the health care needs of the students and their families, and providing adult education opportunities.”

If a charter and/or a hospital were now to attempt to do what Hupfeld did, I would encourage it to welcome the teachers’ union. Regardless, I would support any good faith effort to serve an entire high-poverty Oklahoma City neighborhood. Given Oklahoma’s low per-student spending as well as the current test-driven, competition-driven charter business models, it’s very unlikely that such a charter would accept the far tougher challenge of becoming a community school. Even in districts with less poverty, like New York City, where they spend 2.5 times more per student, it is hard to find charters that will risk offending their allies and funders to offer holistic instruction to high-challenge students.

Even average performance can be ‘exemplary’

According to OKCPS data, only 3.6 percent of Hupfeld’s students are on special-education individual-education plans (IEPs), and only 6.1 percent are English-language learners. But according to the Hupfeld web site, it serves many more special-education students than that, but it does so with only one special education FTE on staff. (The site also says, “Each school has its own unique characteristics for special education programs,” so perhaps it’s impossible to do an apples-to-apples comparison with that metric.)

Regardless, in contrast to most so-called “high-performing, high-poverty” charters, Hupfeld doesn’t have a reputation for “creaming” or pushing out harder-to-educate students. I suspect it does a better job with higher-challenge students because it has a one-to-one ratio of mentors to students. Even so, its 2015 Report Card grade was still only a C-.

‘A food fight between zealots’

Steven Zimmerman, the co-director of the New York City Coalition of Community Charter Schools, also expresses frustration about “complicated and co-mingled” histories of charter schools and the education reform movement. In a Sept. 30 article for WNYC, Zimmerman writes that the obsession with high-stakes testing and defeating traditional public schools has produced “… the pitched battle around charter schools … [which] has devolved into a food fight between zealots.”

Zimmerman urges charter schools “to return to their roots of being incubators and innovators for best school practices.” He believes that,

many in the charter school movement have lost their way, in no small part because of the relentless push by the education reform movement, particularly the accountability and outcomes-based reformers.

This competition “has fostered an equal and opposite counter-movement enjoined by teacher unions, progressive educators and those who see charters as a stalking horse for privatization of public resources.” Zimmerman hopes that the new Every Student Succeeds Act (the federal law that replaced NCLB) “will force us to reframe the education conversation, and allow charters to return to a role we always envisioned for ourselves.”

Zimmerman is correct: It’s a shame that charters now find themselves “in a forced marriage with the defenders of orthodox test-based accountability.” Charters frequently cite the Stanford CREDO study and celebrate the small minority of charters that outperform traditional public schools, but they ignore the most important finding from that same study:

… that less than one hundredth of one percent of the variation in test performance is explainable by charter school enrollment. With a very large sample size, nearly any effect will be statistically significant, but in practical terms these effects are so small as to be regarded, without hyperbole, as trivial.

Charters should return to their roots

Competition-driven reform has also made it inevitable that charters increased racial and economic segregation, as they undermined the teaching profession and meaningful instruction in high-poverty schools. I hope Oklahoma City charters will help turn the clock back to the constructive 1990s vision of choice and not misuse the Oklahoma charter conversion law, which allows charters to take over schools even without the consent of their teachers or patrons. It is a loaded gun that could be pointed at the heart of OKCPS.

But charters don’t have a gun pointed at them, forcing them to engage in hostile takeovers of neighborhood schools. Charters should return to their roots and focus on serving their students, not defeating their opponents. Oklahoma City should unite and oppose charter conversions that are against the will of their educators and families. At the same time, OKC should keep an open mind about charter proposals that grow organically from schools.

It’s probably unrealistic to believe that a Stanley Hupfeld Academy could be started in Oklahoma City today, but it would get a great deal of support if someone tried. Maybe it could even prompt a new era of constructive competition, meaning that more poor children could benefit from the types of engaging instruction that is common in low-poverty charters and magnet schools.