Jun 6


Charters outperform urban public schools in reading

While the share of charter school students in the early grades reading a grade level isn't great, it's higher than in comparable districts in Buffalo, Lackawanna and Niagara Falls.

The reading skills of young students who attend charter schools in and around Buffalo are slightly better than those attending urban public schools, an Investigative Post analysis has found.

The results of 2023’s testing showed 30 percent of third through fifth grade students at the 19 charter schools tested in Erie and Niagara counties could read and write at or above grade level, according to the New York State Education Department

That compares with 25 percent of students in the same grades in Buffalo public schools.

“There’s more we want to achieve for our kids, clearly,” said Fatimah Barker, executive director of the New York Charter Schools Association. “Thirty percent is not something we’re celebrating. It’s good, but we know our kids can do more and we know there’s more to be done.”

While the charter schools outscored their urban counterparts in Buffalo, Niagara Falls (19 percent proficient), and Lackawanna (14 percent proficient), the charters lagged behind the region as a whole. Throughout Western New York, 39 percent of third through fifth graders in the 99 public school districts were reading and writing at grade level last spring. 

Eight charter schools had a lower ELA proficiency than Buffalo Public Schools’ average of 25 percent. One of them — Enterprise Charter School on Oak Street — has come under scrutiny by the state Board of Regents and the Buffalo school board for poor performance. 

Only 9 percent of students at Enterprise scored at grade level last spring.

Investigative Post’s analysis also found: 

  • Charter schools have a smaller percentage of students scoring at the lowest level on the English language arts exams, which ranks scores from Level 1, lacking basic skills to read, to Level 4, above proficient. Thirty-nine percent of charter students scored at Level 1 compared to 49 percent of Buffalo public schools students.
  • A smaller share of charter schools than Buffalo public schools are testing below the district’s average of 25 percent proficiency, with two city schools ranking even lower than the lowest-scoring charter school.
  • Charters don’t do as well as the top-scoring Buffalo public schools. Just one of 19 charter schools had more than 50 percent of its students reading and writing at grade level, and none scored as well as Buffalo’s four highest-scoring schools, all but one of which have competitive entrance exams.

Overall, the charter school scores follow a consistent pattern of struggling readers that can be found in classrooms throughout Western New York, regardless of urban, suburban, or rural settings.

The low scores in Western New York — and the state as a whole — prompted Gov. Kathy Hochul in April to call for major reading education reforms, encouraging all schools to use a phonics-based reading program that has a proven track record in New York City and other communities.

In addition to the curriculum, education advocates say factors leading to low reading scores in New York include poor attendance, school environment and poverty. At many charter schools, 90 percent or more of the students are considered economically disadvantaged, mirroring Buffalo public schools’ 84 percent.

Comparing scores

More than two decades ago, charter schools began as an alternative to struggling public schools. Funded largely by local districts, charter schools are led by their own administrative and teaching staffs and are monitored by the state.

Sixteen of Western New York’s 19 charter schools are in the City of Buffalo. Another has classroom buildings in both Buffalo and the Town of Tonawanda. Others are located in Lackawanna and Niagara Falls.

Combined, 24 percent of third through fifth grade public school students in Buffalo, Lackawanna and Niagara Falls are reading at grade level, compared with 30 percent at the charter schools.

Charter schools enroll some 12,000 students in grades K-12, with nearly 3,500 students in the third, fourth, and fifth grades. 

Of the 19 charter schools that serve third, fourth, and fifth grade students, only one had more than 50 percent of pupils reading at or above grade level — West Buffalo Charter. Fifty-two percent of students at the school on Lafayette Avenue near Niagara Street read at grade level. 

“The kids want to be here, the teachers want to be here, the parents want to be part of it,” said Andrea Todoro, who heads West Buffalo Charter. “I think that’s what helps us then leverage and get the scores that we do get.”

Good teaching, a commitment to inclusive culture and a supportive environment are big reasons for the school’s success, Todoro said.

“A lot of it comes down to being consistent … with what we’re teaching, how we’re teaching, how we’re supporting our students,” she said.

A committed focus on evidence-based reading, which includes phonics, has helped students at West Buffalo Charter achieve higher abilities, Todoro said.

“This new push toward science of reading, we’ve been doing that for years already,” Todoro said. “It’s just consistency, stability, and really solid teachers.”

Donate to support our nonprofit newsroom

Among Buffalo’s public schools, a majority of students read at or above grade levels at only City Honors, North Park Community School, and the two Olmsteds. 

North Park is a neighborhood school off Parkside in North Buffalo. Olmsted and City Honors offer gifted-and-talented programs that students test into.

Olmsted No. 64 — a school that serves up to the fourth grade — led the district at 75 percent proficiency.

Olmsted No. 156 and City Honors, which both begin at fifth grade, followed with 73 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

North Park School — a pre-K through fourth grade school — rounded out the top performers at 63 percent proficiency. 

Unlike many charter schools in the city, Buffalo’s top performing public elementary classrooms have fewer economically disadvantaged students than most city schools.

This points to a growing gap in education and equality, according to Sam Radford, program director at the Community Action Organization of Western New York. It’s one of the reasons why many families that come from low-income backgrounds are choosing charter schools, he said.

Sam Radford, program director at the Community Action Organization of Western New York. Photo by Garrett Looker.

Radford said Buffalo public schools appear to be in “transitional phases” to repair educational inequities. However, he said, “an individual parent doesn’t have three to five years to make that transition.”

“You don’t get those three to five years back when it comes to your child,” Radford said. “That individual parent has to make the decision right now what works best for my child. That’s why you have to have a charter school option.”

Beyond West Buffalo, the next best charter schools in literacy proficiency were Academy of Science II in Schiller Park, Elmwood Village Days Park, Academy of Science, near City Hall, and Lackawanna’s Global Concepts. 

Scores range from 39 percent to 50 percent reading at grade level.

Charters still struggle

Still, many students in charter schools struggle with literacy: 39 percent of all third, fourth, and fifth graders scored at the lowest level, Level 1. That compares to 49 percent at Buffalo public schools, 52 percent at Niagara Falls, 58 percent at Lackawanna and 31 percent throughout Western New York. 

Eight of the 19 charters fell below 25 percent ELA proficiency, with the five lowest being Buffalo Creek Academy, Buffalo United, Charter School of Inquiry, Reach Academy, and Enterprise. 

At Enterprise Charter, where only 9 percent of students in grades three, four, and five could read and write at grade level, 70 percent of students scored at the lowest level. Officials at Enterprise, located in downtown Buffalo, did not respond to an interview request.

Get our newsletters delivered to your inbox
* indicates required

Newsletters *

Students at 24 of 41 Buffalo public schools tested fell below the 25 percent level. Two city schools had worse literacy proficiency scores than Enterprise: Bilingual Center on Elk Street and the Community School No. 53 on the city’s East Side, where 8 and 7 percent of students tested at grade level, respectively.

The state Board of Regents in April recommended that Enterprise not receive a full five-year renewal because of concerns over its academic performance. The Buffalo school board last week renewed the school’s charter for three more years. 

The action came after the school board sought to close Enterprise and Westminster for poor educational performance in 2021, a decision that was reversed after the two charters took legal action.

The charter schools have been working on a corrective action plan since. This year, both charter schools had met necessary academic and administrative goals to remain open.

The state in April also wanted a shorter renewal for Westminster, where 23 percent of third through fifth grade students achieved proficiency in literacy last spring. The charter was extended for four years.

Regardless of the struggles, Radford said the alternative education model is necessary to give students in marginalized communities a chance at learning how to read and write— and securing a better future.

“Charters are meeting the needs of parents more effectively,” Radford said.

Investigative Post

Get our newsletters delivered to your inbox * indicates required

Newsletters *