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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.