PEORIA -- Retired Caterpillar, Inc. CEO Glen Barton, the drive and the money behind the Quest Charter Academy in Peoria, spoke on May 14 to a Bradley University Learning in Retirement (OLLI) group about the school.
He had many facts and figures, which I assume are accurate. He makes a convincing case that Quest will turn low income, mostly African American students, into college-bound students who will become tomorrow's scientists, engineers, and technical workers.
Their test scores are improving, he said, showing scores that compared the Quest students favorably with other Peoria School District 150 students and Illinois students throughout the state. "We're closing the gap," he said.
"This is an economic development program," he said, of the school's 85 percent low income students. "We're trying to turn them into economic contributors and not a burden on society" headed for jail or public aid.
The school spends $10,000 per pupil, and pays 10 percent of its income to Concept Schools, which in turn pays the principal, the business manager and some of the superintendent's salary, he said, in response to a question.
Concept Schools is said to be part of the Gulen network of charter schools in the US, backed by Turkish nationals. See this article for a definitive look at charter schools in the US, with a few paragraphs on the Gulen network, which this blog has addressed previously.
(UPDATE -- Here's a website devoted to exposing the Gulen network.)
Local Quest advocates have denied the Turkey connection, but to no avail. It's documented in many news articles. The school takes students on trips to Turkey, and Barton admitted that one of the foreign languages studied at Quest is Turkish, though it's an on-line class.
Barton said Quest teachers work a minimum of nine hours a day or more, do in-home visits, work after school with school clubs, and in general work pretty hard. There's little turnover, he said. Of the"35 or 40 teachers", only five are not coming back next fall, he said.
Students spend 20 percent more time in school than other District 150 students, with a longer day and year. The school has 380 students in grades 5 through 9, and is expanding into the other high school grades to a maximum of 600 students. The students spend the extra time on reading and math, 90 minutes each day on both.
If Barton's test scores are accurate, the school may have found the formula to help these low income, majority-minority students succeed in school: lots of resources, low student-teacher ratio (likely one teacher for 11 students), motivated parents and teachers, and a peer group of similar pupils.
This sounds a little like the New England prep school my grandson attended. It changed his life for the better, dramatically.
The school takes applications from anyone, and selects students by lottery. Siblings are also taken first. The demographics fit those of District 150. The test scores are a little better.
Here's the drawback -- schools like this skim the cream off the neighborhood schools, and deprive the public school classes of their brightest and most motivated students. They also take resources away from the public schools that must teach every child that comes through the door.
What that means for the kids left behind in neighborhood schools, without their brightest peers to associate with, no one knows. The same criticism can be made of gifted schools, and Quest is this type of school, but self selected, without teacher recommendations or testing to enter.
It's both more democratic and more elitist, at the same time.
We hope someone will follow the progress of these students, to see whether this experiment works as planned.