I’ve written extensively about the underappreciated social and academic benefits of integrated student bodies, so I’m thrilled to see influential charter school advocates embracing the cause. That said, there are some troubling questions about whether the most politically popular charter school model — the “No Excuses” model popularized by KIPP and embraced by Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network — is palatable to middle-class and affluent parents.
Consider the experience of Rhode Island, whose state legislature, in 2008, passed a law allowing mayors of neighboring towns and cities to form partnerships to issue school charters. The resulting schools must be regional, accepting students by lottery from both urban and suburban districts. The explicit goal of the legislation is to create racially and socioeconomically diverse schools.
In March I visited Blackstone Valley Prep in Cumberland, the first of these “Mayoral Academies.” I was impressed. Not only is Blackstone Valley one of the most diverse schools of any type I have ever seen, but the children seemed joyful and energetic despite the strict routines, which include uniforms, silence in the hallways, chanting multiplication tables, and regimented bathroom breaks.
I wanted to get a fuller picture of how middle class families were experiencing an integrated No Excuses charter, so I reached out to parents whose children have attended the school. Kerryn Azavedo, a graphic designer in Lincoln, Rhode Island, pulled her son out of Blackstone Valley after his kindergarten year, dismayed by what she calls the school’s overly strict discipline policies and lack of after-school activities. She complained that Blackstone Valley’s extended school day, from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., left her son exhausted and with little opportunity to participate in organized extracurriculars. (Extended learning days were originally intended to provide enrichment for poor children whose parents are unable to provide after-school supervision or activities.)
When Azavedo brought her concerns to the Blackstone Valley administration, “I never felt welcome,” she said in a phone interview. “They say, ‘This may not really be for you, somebody else might really need your spot, you’d be okay wherever you went.’” Azavedo didn’t like the fact that the school lacks an independent parent-teacher organization; instead, administrators organize parental involvement. And she was surprised to learn her son had sat for standardized tests five times during the school year, and unhappy that the school did not notify parents of each individual testing date.
Though initially attracted to the idea of an integrated charter school, Azavedo is now actively organizing against the opening of new Rhode Island Mayoral Academies throughout the state. “If it’s not good enough for mine, dammit, it’s not good enough for yours,” she said. “I can do something about it because I’m an in-tune parent. I bought it for a year, but I caught on.”
According to Blackstone Valley, five middle-class and affluent families pulled their children out of the school after the 2009-2010 academic year, an attrition rate similar to that of less-advantaged families. The school also noted that there are a number of extra-curricular activities available for Blackstone Valley fifth-graders, including basketball, Guitar Club, Shakespeare Club and Step Club.
Patricia Cunningham is a middle-class parent who is very happy with the school, not least because she is pleased that her son is meeting children from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Her first-grader has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and anxiety but has thrived in Blackstone Valley’s structured environment.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more for him,” Cunningham said. “I know that parents are hearing some things about the charter school, like about the long day. They wonder, ‘When are the kids going to be kids?’” But my son comes out of there like a rocket. They work so hard during the day to keep these kids on task, but they do it in this amazing manner — whipping them into this wonderful pep rally kind of thing and then using that energy. He never vocalizes, ‘I don’t like school, I don’t want to go to school.’”
What seems clear is that the “No Excuses” model is not for everyone, and presents particular challenges to parents who are accustomed to the schedules and social routines of high-quality neighborhood public schools. It’s important to note, however, that although other charter school models are less trendy, they do exist. In Grannis’s op-ed, he mentions Community Roots, a diverse Brooklyn charter based on more traditional philosophies of educational progressivism and activity-based learning. The school is overwhelmingly popular with both middle-class and poor families in its neighborhood.
I think ideally, we’d see more progressive charter schools like Community Roots alongside more efforts, like the one in Rhode Island, to diversify the student populations within both neighborhood schools and choice schools, by drawing zoning boundaries with integration in mind.
Dana Goldstein is a Spencer fellow in education journalism at Columbia University and a contributing writer to the Nation and the Daily Beast. Follow her work at www.danagoldstein.net.