Do Charter Schools Impact Systemic Education Problems?

Recent, Colorlines ran a piece on Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy, a charter school that boasts three years of 100% college acceptance rates among its senior classes.  Urban Prep’s student population is exclusively black and male, and unsurprisingly it’s making big news for its successes with a generally at-risk demographic.  At the same time, a lot of students who enter as freshmen don’t make it to the senior class, and there have been accusations of “creaming,” or encouraging students with behavioral problems and learning disabilities to leave.

Whether or not those accusations are true, I do think this is an important problem to consider for proponents of charter schools.  There’s no doubt that charter schools can be great for some students.  My experience at a charter high school for academically gifted students in a large Southern city absolutely turned my life path around.  The school was brand new when I started as a freshman, and by that time I was burnt out on public schools that didn’t engage my intellectual curiosity.  After two years where half my teachers had PhDs, students were encouraged to pursue foreign languages and geeky extracurricular pursuits, and humanities classes encouraged critical thinking, I had gone from a C/D to an A student with several leadership roles.  I have that school to thank.

At the same time, I don’t support my alma mater financially because of what it quickly became.  After a couple of successful years with students like me who took a gamble on a new school and started it off with a geeky freshman and sophomore class, parents started taking note.  High test scores encouraged more and more upper class white parents in the suburbs to apply.  Many of those parents could afford private school, but didn’t want to pay if they didn’t have to.  The great teachers remain, but I’m turned off by the focus on a million-dollar building campaign at a school that used to be housed in a quirky cotton mill that we restored with our own hands, surrounded by a long-standing public housing project that was soon bulldozed for townhouses our teachers couldn’t afford.  It’s one of the best high schools in the country, and it’s done nothing to alleviate the systemic educational problems in the city and county.

Like my school, Urban Prep and others that focus on impressive test results or college attendance rates may be doing something great for individual students but not much to change the overall climate.  Unlike my school, Urban Prep is focused on an at-risk population, and even if many of the students are “creamed,” I don’t doubt that those who graduate are thankful for the opportunity they have.  But despite that, we need educational solutions that look at the huge systemic problems we’re facing.  We need schools that don’t, like my high school, require middle school courses for admittance that most students of color in poor neighborhoods have no access to.  We need high schools that lead projects to improve elementary education in the community, and to look at other problems–from police violence to environmental issues to immigration to the challenges single parents in the neighborhood face.

If you know of programs that are addressing these issues, I’d love to hear about them.  And if you did go to charter schools, I’m curious about your experience.

About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on April 20, 2012, in education and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. A couple of thoughts on this topic.
    1) Anything that get white kids out of private Christian schools in the south is a good thing as it gets them exposed to a broader range of ideas.
    2) One of the tough issues for school funding in communities that don’t have a political majority that is willing to fund schools fully is that alternative funding is needed. I think that is what is happening where you grew up. I don’t like this but I don’t see what other options exist for people who live there.
    3) I went to a high school like yours that my public school ran for Juniors and Seniors for about a half dozen years in the 1970’s. I don’t think I would have graduated without the freedom I had to study what I wanted. It went away when the property disappeared and the focus shifted to AP classes and lots of testing.
    4) I have 3 kids in HIgh school, 1 tested into an IB program, 1 in a regular program but did advanced science and math; and 1 who barely survived to get her diploma. They were in three different schools with very different populations. It was clear even in Montgomery County MD that kids from minority groups and lower incomes did worse and had less of what was needed to succeed in high school when they came. Fixing this requires more than what can happen in a classroom and has to focus on changing the attitudes of parents regarding education and give single parents support needed to help their kids after school.
    5) Weeding out is common at all schools. What the charter school for at-risk boys may do is give kids who can cut it an opportunity that they would not have otherwise. If it puts them at or close to the level of non-at-risk kids then they can succeed at college and beyond and the school will have made some strides.
    6) The school still fails many kids and the reason for this has to be determined early. I understand failure and what makes sense for that child if the program selected by the parent does not fit.
    7) Fixing the overall climate in schools in very very tough. It is a long progress. Small steps may seem inadequate but I think we recognize the problem of poor achievers than I saw when I was in high school in the 1970’s. This does not mean that we have a solution it just means we know we have a problem.
    8) My only concern about charter schools is there is no real evidence that they are better than regular schools. they should not get slack because they are the Politically popular solution if they don’t work better.

  2. The idea of Charter Schools has been recently popping up in Baltimore City with positive results because they center around “at risk youth.” Within the last ten years there has been a significant difference in the attitudes of kids attending schools such as the KIPP academy and the SEED Schools.

    As of right now, students are granted admission into these schools by lottery. No test scores are involved, which presents an equal level of entering.

    Being a product of Baltimore City Public Schools before this transformation, I can honestly say that there were serious limitations to the the black population such as graduation, and just simply investing into their futures.

    You seem to be doing very well with yourself on an academic level. This post just sounds like whining.

  3. The idea of charter schools has been a recent implement in Baltimore City. Like the Chicago Urban Prep school its target is “at risk youth,” and providing an educational experience that young black folk can relate to. I can honestly say with charter schools such as the KIPP academy, and SEED schools in Baltimore City you can see a night and day difference in the quality of education the youth receives.

    Being a product of Baltimore City Public schools before charter schools I have observed systematic limitations instilled in its curriculum that prevents young people of color from being academically successful from placing kids with behavior problems that DO NOT belong in special ed (because most of them in there are usually young black males), and basing success off culturally inaccurate and racist standardized testing.

    Most charter schools in Baltimore City base their admissions off random lottery, which gives a level playing field for admissions.

    This post makes me think that charter schools were okay for you, however not okay for “at risk youth.”

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