Charter and traditional schools find a common purpose in TexasByRichard Whitmire (op-ed)
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Charter-school operators and traditional school districts have long behaved like enemies. But an intriguing truce has emerged in an unlikely place: Texas. In the Lone Star State’s three biggest cities, charters and traditional district schools have discovered that collaborating to help their high-school graduates earn college degrees is a win-win.
Knowledge is Power Program, a national charter network founded in Houston more than two decades ago, helped eight charter operators in San Antonio, Dallas and Houston join forces with local public school districts. Together they formed a new organization, United for College Success. The group’s goal is to improve college graduation rates among alumni. In addition to sharing best practices, United for College Success has begun pressuring local colleges and universities to do more for their students, many of whom are the first in their families to pursue higher education.
This isn’t the only promising collaboration between charters and local districts. In 2015 KIPP San Antonio struck a deal with the San Antonio Independent School District, where the student population is 91% Hispanic and 6% African-American. More than 90% of kids in the San Antonio ISD are eligible to receive free and reduced lunch. By 2020, with KIPP’s help, the district hopes to boost the percentage of its students going to college to 80% from the current 50%. Both KIPP and the San Antonio district want to see half of the city’s graduates heading off to four-year colleges and 10% going to the top tier of schools ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Two years ago, 20% of San Antonio’s college-bound graduates were headed to four-year colleges. Only 3% were enrolled in selective schools.
Like most urban districts, San Antonio’s had never paid much attention to the college success of its graduates. Educators long viewed that as being up to students, parents and colleges—not high schools. But Mr. Martinez and his colleagues, to their credit, chose to take on the challenge, tapping into lessons learned from the now decade-old KIPP Through College Program aimed at matching low-income minority students with the schools where they are most likely to succeed. The KIPP team follows each student until college graduation, making sure that everything from financial aid to course credits stays on track.
In New York and Houston, the percentage of KIPP graduates earning bachelor’s degrees within six years has risen steadily thanks to the Through College Program. In both cities, roughly half of the program’s graduates now earn their degrees in six years, up from about a third in 2011. Nationally only 9% of students from low-income families earn bachelor’s degrees in that time frame.
The San Antonio partnership, funded by a grant from Texas energy giant Valero, has already borne fruit. At Thomas Jefferson High, the pilot school where a KIPP adviser spent most of her time, 53% of 2017 graduates were accepted into four-year colleges, compared with only 26% in 2016. “We’re seeing a marked increase in the number of students who not only are graduating and going to college, but are being accepted to Tier One universities,” said San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez. KIPP has benefited as well from the chance to run their college-success playbook at scale, the kind you find only in big traditional districts.
There’s a reason why collaborations built around college success have proven popular with both traditional districts and charters. Unlike the annual enrollment competition, in which districts lose students and dollars to charters, only high-school graduates are involved. There are no losers, no lost dollars and no closed schools. In fact, traditional districts stand to gain.
Charters are public schools, and their operations are funded by taxpayer dollars. But in most places charter founders need to raise outside funding to launch their schools. For years, traditional school districts watched resentfully as philanthropists and foundations poured hundreds of millions of dollars into new charters. The imbalance prompted teachers unions to wage national revenge campaigns, accusing “billionaires” of “privatizing” public education.
Yet the sometimes hostile dynamic between charters and traditional districts shifts when the topic changes to fostering college success. In San Antonio, for example, Valero stepped up with a $3 million gift to KIPP’s college program, $700,000 of which was set aside for launching the collaboration with the San Antonio district. Early next month, Valero is expected to make an announcement of fresh funding for new, KIPP-trained college counselors for the district.
Much of what the college counselors do involves relatively simple data crunching. They look to see which universities in the San Antonio area have amassed a positive record helping low-income and minority students earn bachelor’s degrees within six years. St. Mary’s University, for example, has a far higher graduation rate for Hispanics than does the University of Texas, San Antonio. KIPP tracks college success data like that for hundreds of colleges, a repository of crucial information that San Antonio district counselors can now access.
Recently, the Houston Independent School District’s college-success program, Emerge, joined the United for College Success coalition with the charters. Among the questions they are exploring together: Is there a way to share the time-consuming task of checking in on students at their college campuses?
The participation of a large district such as Houston gives the coalition heft when pushing universities for changes to help first-generation college-goers. Collaborating with charter schools doesn’t bother Emerge founder Rick Cruz, a former fifth-grade Teach for America teacher. At the end of the day, he says, these are all our kids.
If only that attitude could spread nationally.