Give (the Right) Charter Schools a Chance

As the school year comes to a close I’m seeing a plenteous number of posts about graduation statistics, poignant personal stories of teachers and students, and awe-inspiring tales of impact. No single school system’s achievements have consistently slapped me in the face like those of KIPP Delta’s.

KIPP Student

I had the privilege of serving at KIPP Delta College Preparatory School as a teacher and a principal. So, full disclosure, I’m already biased. But don’t take my word for it.

Here are just a few of the successes the KIPP Team and Family have had this year:

  • Ladies from KIPP Delta were selected along with students from just three others school nationally to participate via Skype in a conversation with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton as part of the “Girls: A No Ceilings Conversation” series.

  • The school has partnered with the University of Arkansas Fayetteville to provide full scholarships for up to six students annually as well as ongoing academic and work-study support to increase college completion rates. This is just one of many college partnerships KIPP has established nationally.

  • U.S. News and World Report ranks KIPP Delta Collegiate, the high school, #2 in the state of Arkansas in 2014. This is the fourth time in as many years the school has been named one of the top five in the state. Read the full listing here.

  • The high school graduating class of 2014 earned $2.3 million in scholarships.

These results come through a combination of innovation, grit, and grind. Parents, students, teachers, and other stakeholders all have crucial roles. Every ounce of achievement is earned. And all kids are capable of reaching these results and more.

So what works at KIPP and similar schools? In a word, it’s “culture.” Culture overcomes the deficits that generational poverty, historic under-education, and a general lack of resources create. The culture is one of high expectations and no excuses. And it works for some of this country’s most disadvantaged kids.

The Five Pillars
The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a national network of public charter schools, has summarized the components of the culture they try to build at each of their schools in the Five Pillars. In a sense, though, the Five Pillars and the results that follow are simply the components of success that any well-run organization or school possesses.

1. High Expectations
Each school has clearly defined standards for academic achievement and results with a “no excuses” attitude because of a student’s background or history.

2. Choice & Commitment
Every student and parent of the KIPP Team & Family is there by choice; no one is zoned in or part of district such that they are required to attend.

3. More Time
An extended school day, week, and year means more time in the classroom because “there are no shortcuts.” If students are going to achieve they need to invest lots of time in learning and practice.

4. Power to Lead
The people closest to the students should be empowered to make decisions for their students. School leaders have control over their budget, staffing, and other critical factors related to student success.

5. Focus on Results
A constant focus on measurable standards reinforces the idea that students are expected to compete and achieve at a national level.

Risks & Costs of Charter Schools
It’s not all triumph and victory, though. The high ideals displayed in effective charter schools come at a price. There’s a very high teacher turnover rate because these enthusiastic men and women never stop working. They soon burn out unless they have a passion for education combined with a humane work environment. The constant focus on results means that testing can take an inordinate proportion of attention throughout the school year. And when students or parents can simply withdraw one day for any reason at all, there’s a constant struggle to recruit and retain students year after year.  And not all charters are the same.  There are some bad ones that don’t work for kids and end up causing more harm than good.  No advocate of public education reform should overlook these and other considerations about charters.

Give the Right Charters a Chance
But KIPP shows that there are some good charter schools, too.  And it is just one of many examples of what’s working in public education. There are many other individual charter schools and other networks of schools that are making an indelible impact. There countless examples nationwide that prove what is possible when adults put the needs of kids first and combine that focus with relentless effort and a compelling vision of the future.

Many are skeptical of charter schools.  They think they will adversely affect existing public schools, reinforce segregation, or have other deleterious effects.  Each community is different, and what works in one area may not work in another.  But with results like the ones above, how can we not give our kids a chance at the broad array of opportunities that a good education affords?  How can we not give parents and communities the option to choose among varying educational options?  Yes, there are risks involved in charter schools.  But let’s give the right charter schools a chance.

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