A United Front: Districts And Charters Collaborate For College Success

ByRichard Barth (op-ed)
Pictured are educators gathered from across the country for professional development and collaboration at KIPP School Leadership Programs Summer Institute

Read the full article at Forbes >

As the leader of KIPP, a national charter network of 224 public charter schools educating nearly 100,000 students nationwide, I have the good fortune to spend my year traveling the country visiting the 20 states in which we work. When I meet individuals for the first time, I am often asked, “how come it seems that public charter schools and public school districts are often in conflict with one another?” From those who have studied our work more closely, I even get the question “wasn’t the original idea of charter schools that they would develop innovations that would improve the broader public-school system?”

The discussions that follow are often reduced to two perspectives. Many charter school supporters believe that large school districts are too bureaucratic to embrace new ideas. Charter school skeptics often express the view that charter school educators are only concerned with their own students and have little interest in having any impact on the broader system.

Neither of these perspectives are productive or accurate. From working with thousands of educators across the KIPP network, I know they care about all children, not just their own students. I also know they are beyond excited to share their learning with other educators, and to learn from educators working outside the walls of our schools. I’ve also met with hundreds of educators from large public-school districts who want to collaborate and learn from others, and who want to share their own expertise with others.

While conflict creates headlines, there are countless examples of district and charter educators working together to the benefit of all students and families.

  • In Indianapolis, charters and district educators are coming together to solve a problem that all schools face—recruiting and retaining great teachers. Teach Indy is a teacher recruitment campaign created by both Indianapolis Public Schools and local charter schools that highlights the voices of district and charter school teachers alike. Together, they’re committed to moving Indianapolis closer to excellence in all schools, for all children.
  • A number of cities have adopted one common enrollment system, empowering parents to choose among all public schools in the city. In the old system, the most motivated parents would have an advantage in finding a school for their child. Today in Newark and Denver, all parents have access to a common online system to enroll their child in school, listing their top choices from public district and charter schools alike.
  • Achievement First, a charter school network founded in New Haven, CT, created the Navigator program, which shares its elementary school math curriculum with school districts in Philadelphia and New York. Coaches from Achievement First work directly with these district principals and assistant principals on both implementing curriculum and training teachers with the goal of attaining breakthrough results in math. The Achievement First coaches share a variety of instructional practices that work in their schools, including techniques for providing teachers with valuable feedback, designing high impact teacher training, and using student data to promote student learning.

At KIPP, we celebrate the collaboration unfolding in communities across the country. We believe that leadership carries with it a responsibility to both share our best practices and continue to improve our own practices by learning from other school systems.

One recent example of this collaboration occurred just two weeks ago in San Antonio, Texas, at KIPP’s College Counseling Institute. The Institute brought together leaders and counselors from KIPP along with three large public-school districts, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Newark Public Schools, and the New York City Department of Education, and the Aspire Public Schools charter network, to share strategies aimed at supporting students from low-income communities on a path to a college degree. This collaboration is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, and it marks the beginning of a year of intensive collaboration between KIPP and these district and public charter schools.

During this gathering, our KIPP Through College counselors emphasized key steps to ensure students “match” to the right college. A student has “matched” when they end up at a college where they are likely to thrive academically and socially and graduate on time. We know that our students are creative, powerful individuals; by partnering with them and their families to equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the college application process, we support them in pursuing their dreams. The key steps encourage students and families to:

  • Know their numbers, specifically their GPA and test scores, and to support them in raising those numbers to match their dream college.
  • Explore their passion, purpose & plan, helping them think through why they’re motivated to make it to and through college, and what steps they need to take to succeed.
  • Get an early start by looking ahead to college throughout their high school experience and preparing in their junior year for the application process.
  • Build and apply to a smart wish list of colleges based on their academic profile — a portfolio of likely, target, and reach colleges.
  • Prepare for the cost of college so they can access all funding resources available and avoid graduating with too much debt.
  • Make the best choice among offers of admissions based on the historic graduation rate, the financial package, and the fit of the college where they’re most likely to thrive and graduate.

Make a strong transition from high school to college, preparing over the summer to ensure a strong start.

These key steps to strengthen students’ college matches served as the foundation for discussions at the College Counseling Institute. The teachers, school leaders, and college counselors in attendance also grappled openly with another issue, one I’ve addressed in part in a separate column for Forbes: How do we support students whose passion doesn’t connect to a field of study in college? How can we be there for students who enter the workforce after high school, and continue to higher education later on? In this part of the gathering, we discussed the ways in which racism and classism regularly cloud the opinion of those who say that college just isn’t “for” a given child. Those with a laser focus on getting their own child into college may be quick to suggest that it’s just “not the right fit” for another young person from a different economic background. At the same time, we wanted to address that the “college is a must for every high school senior” mindset can be counterproductive. We know that students who want to go straight into the workforce or the military should be supported, too. Preparing students for successful transitions into a strong first job should be honored, as our quest is to equip young people to lead choice-filled lives.

Our College Counseling Institute in San Antonio is just the first step in what is a year-long collaboration. Each of these partner districts has committed to increase the percentage of students who apply and gain acceptance to colleges with higher graduation rates. In the fall, college counselors at the partner districts will begin working with high school seniors on matching and applying to the colleges that meet or exceed their academic profile. In the spring, counselors will help students and families select the college that will best meet their aspirations, and help high school juniors get an early start on the college match process. Throughout the year, leaders within the partner districts will come together to share ideas and problem-solve.

Over the course of the year, I hope to share additional updates about how this work is progressing, and what we are all learning, including all of us at KIPP. This may not be the headline-grabbing story that is all about conflict – but most educators aren’t all that excited about conflict. We are excited about making a difference in the lives of children.