Diverse Charter Schools

Source: EducationNext, Winter 2013

Fueled by a confluence of interests among urban parents, progressive educators, and school reform refugees, a small but growing handful of diverse charter schools like Capital City has sprouted up in big cities over the past decade: others are High Tech High in San Diego; E. L. Haynes in Washington, D.C.; Larchmont Charter School and Citizens of the World Prep in Los Angeles; Summit in Northern California; the five-school Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) network; Community Roots, Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, and Upper West Success Academy in New York City; and Bricolage Academy, planned for New Orleans (see sidebar, page 33).

Here and there, a few school-reform advocates began to realize that diverse charter schools might be a way to engage middle-class parents, and that focusing exclusively on high-poverty minority communities was an understandable but flawed strategy.

A newly created charter school with a focus on diversity has the flexibility and responsiveness that comes with charter status. Its parents know what they are getting into from the start. There’s no “gentrification gap” during which a neighborhood school is losing its poverty funding but doesn’t yet have enrichment grants (and, typically, parent contributions) to make up the difference (see “The Elephant in the Classroom,” features, Winter 2013). They’re schools that educators can imagine spending an entire career at, or even sending their own kids to. And, at the best moments, being in a public school classroom of kids with diverse backgrounds and skill levels is delightful and unnerving, a busy kitchen humming during the dinner rush, a blur of individual activities brought together only momentarily before splitting apart again.

The strategies that diverse charters adopt to promote and protect diversity vary. Some, like Larchmont, implement lottery priority systems designed to give at-risk students a better chance of acceptance even if they apply in smaller numbers. Larchmont’s at-risk priority increased the percentage of poor kids from a low of 29 percent up to 42 percent. Schools now using various kinds of weighted priority systems include Brooklyn Prospect, DSST, Upper West Success, and Community Roots.

Other schools, including Capital City and Summit Prep, maintain diversity through aggressive recruitment efforts: school visits, knocking on doors, distributing flyers. The 2009 Obama visit to Capital City led to a spike in applications (1,500 for 100 spots in 2011), but still there was no weighted lottery. Even after the surge of interest following its 2010 Waiting for Superman appearance, Summit Prep continues to operate without lottery priorities.

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