Charter schools stack up well

ByNina Rees (op-ed)

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When I looked at The Washington Post’s latest rankings of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools,” my heart leapt. My daughter’s school, Washington International School, ranked first in the Washington, D.C. area. My husband and I chose the school because of its International Baccalaureate, or IB, program, its international community and its focus on foreign languages. The fact that it ranked high on the list confirmed that we had made the right choice.

I also know that my daughter will be fine regardless of where she goes to school. I have been involved in education policy for more than 20 years. My husband is a professional writer. We value education and are fortunate that we can provide our daughter with any support she might need.

Many families – and many students – aren’t in the same position. Their choices may be limited by income or geography. Parents may not have graduated from high school. They may be stringing together multiple jobs to make ends meet, with little time to stay on top of what’s happening at school. This is why it’s critically important that families, especially families in underserved communities, have great public school options available to them.

The latest U.S. News & World Report ranking of the best high schools in America is particularly strong on this point. U.S. News ranked schools on the basis of academic quality, as reflected in test scores. But rather than simply take into account raw data, U.S. News also looked at which schools are serving all students, across socioeconomic backgrounds. This year, for the first time, schools also had to meet a minimum graduation rate requirement.

Given the emphasis on serving all students at high levels of quality, it’s no surprise that charter schools are disproportionately represented on the list. Charter schools are public schools that are given greater autonomy and freedom in exchange for raising student achievement. They tend to cater to a largely minority and disadvantaged student population, particularly in inner cities. Though they only account for about 7 percent of public schools in the United States, they make up one-third of the top 100 schools in both the U.S. News and Washington Post lists. About 1.5 million students have graduated from charter high schools over the past 25 years.

While most public high schools run along a pretty standard curriculum, charter schools give students access to a wider variety of school models. The top-ranking BASIS charter schools in Arizona focus heavily on preparing students to meet global standards of educational excellence.

At KIPP Academy Charter School in the Bronx, where 100 percent of students are from minority backgrounds, the KIPP ethos of college prep, including qualities like grit and persistence, helps students transcend challenging environmental factors that may hold back their peers in less rigorous schools.

At Colorado’s Peak to Peak Charter School, instruction focuses on thought processes rather than just getting answers right. Students are grouped by ability level, sometimes accelerating learning by two years compared to state standards.

The proof of charter school success, ultimately, is in high school graduation and college preparation. A recent peer-reviewed study by Mathematica Policy Research found that students attending Florida charter high schools are more likely to attend college, graduate from college and have higher earnings in the years just after college.

Building on their success in getting students to college, charter high schools are now responding to the next big challenge, which is making sure that students can persist in college. For a student whose family has no college-going experience, or who has very few neighborhood peers attending college, the transition to higher education can be difficult. It can be a big shock to go from a structured and supportive high school environment to a big, chaotic college campus.

Charter networks including KIPP, IDEA and others are implementing new programs to help students manage this transition and succeed at the college level, and a growing network of colleges and universities such as Franklin and Marshall and Davidson College are also actively recruiting students from charter schools. Charter schools’ flexibility to adapt to students’ and graduates’ changing needs is another key differentiator.

The best high schools in America are preparing students not just for college, but for life. Charter schools are helping thousands of low-income students have a shot at the American dream by giving them a customized, first-rate education.