Big charter change seen in 2 D.C. schools

Jay Mathews
Columnist August 27

Two D.C. charter schools you’ve probably never heard of have just been declared vital for our nation’s educational future. The reasons for focusing on these two schools are intriguing and mostly overlooked in the national debate about charters.

A remarkable new book identifies the Capital City Public Charter School and the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, both in Northwest Washington, as among the nation’s best charters in creating diverse student bodies.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

Many people think diversity means schools with lots of minority kids. That’s wrong, says the book “A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education.” It has evidence showing the kind of diversity that helps raise achievement has a balance of several ethnicities, as well as a mix of affluent and low-income kids.

Century Foundation scholar Richard D. Kahlenberg, co-author of the book with researcher and former D.C. charter school teacher Halley Potter, is the nation’s leading advocate of improving schools by giving them a good mix of poor and affluent kids. He has been critical of charter schools, but in this book he says they could be an avenue to better learning if their enrollments are well mixed and their teachers have a voice in making school decisions.

Kahlenberg also wrote a 2007 biography of teacher union leader Albert Shanker. He promotes Shanker’s original vision of charters as “laboratories for student success that bring together children from different backgrounds and tap into the expertise of highly talented teachers.”

The authors provide one list of charters that have done well mixing students racially and socioeconomically and another list of those that give teachers a voice in governance. The two D.C. schools are on the former list. There are no Washington-area charters recognized for empowering teachers. The nearest is the City Neighbors charter network in Baltimore.

Balancing student enrollment by race and income is tricky in big cities, the book admits. It often requires that the school be near middle-class neighborhoods, which might conflict with many urban charter educators’ desire to fill their schools with minority kids in poverty-stricken areas that need them the most.

When Capital City began, in 2000, the book says, “it was housed in a space above a CVS Pharmacy on a street corner in Columbia Heights, one of the more racially and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods in the city.” Still, some wealthy parents backed out because they thought the vacant lots on the other three corners of that intersection would breed crime.

Nonetheless, the Capital City teachers built a program that today has reading proficiency rates of 61 percent, compared with 50 percent for all District schools. Its math proficiency rate of 51 percent is slightly below the D.C. rate of 53. Its enrollment for pre-kindergarten to 12th grade is 984 students, of which 49 percent are Hispanic, 37 percent are black, 9 percent are white and less than 3 percent are Asian. Seventy percent are low-income.

E.L. Haynes also started in relatively diverse neighborhoods and recruited students of different cultural and economic backgrounds. Good teaching encouraged many parents to enroll their children. Both its math and reading proficiency rates are about 60 percent. Its pre-kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment is 1,200, a student body that is 52 percent black, 28 percent Hispanic, 12 percent white and 8 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. Sixty-six percent are low-income.

The authors offer studies showing that racial and socioeconomic balance produce better learning conditions. Charters could achieve a mix, the book argues, if jurisdictions allowed them to weight the selection lotteries, giving underrepresented students — such as those in wealthy Zip codes — more chances to be picked.

Would that be fair to poor studentswho have less opportunity for good schooling? The argument is just starting, but it’s worth having. Wise and energetic advocates such as Kahlenberg and Potter can take the charter movement in new and useful directions.

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