What some NYC charter schools do better than any in the nation: a proud distinction for Uncommon, KIPP, and Achievement First

By Richard Whitmire (op-ed)

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Charter schools didn’t get their original launch in New York; that was Minnesota. The formula that allowed charters to expand nationally arose in California. The highest performing charters? Boston.

But as I discovered while researching a project on charter school alumni, something very important gets credited to New York: a winning formula to ensure that charter school graduates earn college degrees.

While collecting the data on the likelihood of charter school graduates to go on to get college diplomas, I came across something interesting: the networks most likely to produce graduates who earn college diplomas are in New York. They are Uncommon Schools, Achievement First and the KIPP New York region.

The differences are dramatic. At each of those networks, roughly 50% of their graduates earn bachelor’s degrees within six years (the common measuring point). That number may not sound impressive — until you consider that nationally, only 9% of children raised in low-income homes earn college degrees.

Outside of New York, only one of the charter networks I studied can make a similar claim, Houston’s YES Prep.

Contrast that to the three California networks that are part of the project. At two of the networks, only 25% end up with college degrees, and the third is far below that.

So why is New York at the top?

The answer requires a bit of history. It all started when three charter networks destined for “high performing” status settled in the New York area: KIPP in New York City, North Star (to become Uncommon Schools) in Newark and Achievement First in New Haven.

What brought them all together in New York City was former New York schools chancellor Joel Klein, who all but commanded them to come to his city — with the carrot of $1-a-year leases in city buildings. They came, they flourished, and the three charter networks became even closer than before, sharing lessons learned.

So when KIPP in the 2008-09 school year shifted gears from a goal of ensuring all its graduates got into college to ensuring they got through college, all three networks moved in the same direction — and became national pioneers.

KIPP, for example, introduced an array of new KIPP Through College initiatives, boosting its college success rate in its New York region between 2011 and today from 33% to 46%.

I visited KIPP College Prep in the South Bronx, a school that’s about half Hispanic, half African American — and nearly all low-income. What I found was a spare-no-detail campaign to get every student into just the right college with a perfect financial package. The top college counselor there struck me as equal, or superior, to any college counselor at an elite private school.

At Newark’s North Star Academy I found incredibly thoughtful innovations over simple stuff that most educators pay little attention to, such as boosting grade point averages. As it turns out, raising high school GPA, without relaxing standards, raises the college diploma-earning rate.

The fussy little details that goes into raising that GPA are the same fussy details that make for successful college students. Who knew?

At Achievement First’s high school in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood (a high school shared with Uncommon Schools; remember what I said about these networks sharing important stuff?), I found an incredibly smart college placement program.

These charter networks are pioneers in finding ways to help low-income students succeed in school, and their lessons learned are invaluable. Just as, it turns out, raising your high school GPA matters, the same goes for raising a student’s SAT score.

And where a given student goes to college means everything. The surprise finding: Small, prestigious liberal arts colleges in the Midwest, colleges traditionally lacking in academically well-prepared minority students, are eager to seek out charter school graduates, and willing to offer very generous scholarships.

The students who go to those colleges end up earning degrees at rates in the 90% range. Who saw that coming?

These three networks have lots of lessons they are willing to pass along to the traditional high schools in the city. Who knows? If the rumors of a detente in the city charter wars are true, maybe they’ll find willing partners.

Whitmire is author of “The Founders,” a book about the origins of the nation’s high performing charter networks.

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